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Published April 16 2012

Barnesville approves initiative to put iPads in hands of every student

BARNESVILLE, Minn. – Scott Loeslie figures the future of education likely isn’t tied to print textbooks, pen-and-paper quizzes or other traditional school trappings. Instead, the Barnesville superintendent says, it’s in a touch screen and a near-endless realm of digital possibilities.

“If you happen to observe kids anywhere, they don’t do much without an electronic device in their hands,” he said. “Digital learning is in the process of creating a paradigm shift, and we’d like to be in the front of that change.”

To get there, the district is putting its money where its mouth is. The school board approved Monday a $595,000 initiative that will put iPads in the hands of every student in the district starting this fall.

That’s 900 iPad 2’s in all, along with 60 laptops, a full-time iPad resource teacher, and a handful of other technology upgrades. The devices will be used for everything from kindergarten reading to interactive textbooks to advanced math drills.

“If you can’t be excited about this, it’s hard to imagine what would excite you,” Loeslie said.

A growing number of districts in Minnesota and nationwide are adopting tablet computers – usually iPads – as a tool for innovation and potential textbook replacement. The devices are now in dozens of districts statewide.

Fargo Public Schools completed a limited iPad pilot project at North High School last year and won grant money in November for a kindergarten pilot.

Loeslie and Barnesville first began exploring the idea a year and a half ago. He and school board members visited Gibbon, Fairfax and Winthrop schools – one of the earliest districts in the state to adopt iPads – and came away intrigued.

“We were certainly impressed with just the possibilities of this idea,” Loeslie said.

Many who have acquired iPads have done so through outside grants and other external fundraising. Barnesville, which is debt-free and in strong financial shape after modest enrollment increases and an ongoing $950-per-pupil levy, plans to pay for the initiative itself.

“This is a huge investment, no doubt,” Loeslie said. “It’s a bold and a big idea.”

Other districts who’ve taken similar steps say the devices are a hit. Pelican Rapids acquired 195 iPads for its juniors and seniors last fall, and Superintendent Deb Wanek said they’ve inspired a technological sea change – teachers podcasting lessons, students doing homework on Wi-Fi-enabled busses and planning and assignments moving to Google documents.

“I think it’s just been really exciting to see these teachers take off and using some of these things,” she said.

To keep the iPads from becoming distractions rather than resources, Pelican Rapids imposes a filter on the Web browser and blocks students from installing their own applications.

But Wanek said the possibilities – from a wide universe of education apps and games to e-textbooks that let students annotate their own digital notes – outweigh the drawbacks.

“I think we still have a lot to learn, but it’s certainly been a fun trip so far,” she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502

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