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Helmut Schmidt, Published June 02 2012

High-tech high: Fargo aims to put e-device into each high school student’s hands

FARGO – If you wanted a look at one possible future for Fargo’s K-12 education, all you had to do was poke your nose into Emily Schneider’s junior English class at North High School as the school year wound down.

About 20 students pecked away on laptop computers, flipping through Web pages and studying for an end-of-year exam on John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Schneider said the computers and software foster more collaboration between her and her students.

“It’s enabled me to do a lot more creative things,” Schneider said. “I think it’s totally transformed the way I deliver material to my students. That’s really cool.”

If that’s so, then things should get much cooler, very, very soon.

Starting in 2013, the Fargo School District will begin to put some form of electronic learning device – be it a tablet or laptop computer, smartphone or other gadget – into the hands of each student at the three comprehensive high schools.

The sophomore class will be the first up to get the devices, said Jodell Teiken, the district’s director of instructional resources.

The change could come in the second half of the coming school year, or at the start of the 2013-14 school year, Teiken said.

It’s expected to cost $300,000 of the district’s

$1.4 million instructional technology budget to buy the devices, software and training, Teiken said.

At the same time, the School District will have juniors and seniors begin a Bring Your Own Device effort. BYOD will allow a wide range of smartphones, iPads, tablets and laptop computers to hook into each school’s Wi-Fi system, Teiken said.

It will be a challenge to get so many different devices to work on the same software and programs, but the aim is to give as many students as possible the richness of Web-based learning, without breaking the bank, she said.

Each school must have a plan by fall 2013 for when it gets devices to students, Teiken said. But generally, after the sophomores, each school’s juniors, seniors and then freshmen will receive the devices, she said.

The district has budgeted $500 or less for each device, Teiken said, which makes it a tight fit for higher-end electronics such as iPads if software must also be purchased.

She noted buying electronic devices can get tricky because “there’s so many new devices right on the horizon – within the next six months – due to be released.

“We’re all kind of feeling, like ‘Wow. Do we want to go buy a bunch of devices right this minute? Or, do we want to time that closer right to when we want to deploy them to students?’ ” Teiken said.

She said it’s still unknown what device the district will choose. Teachers and students are still testing available devices.

“We’re definitely looking at the tablet market and the PC (personal computer) markets, such as netbooks,” she said, adding that teachers and students say a keyboard is a must-have.

Compromises will probably have to be made. Rather than one device fits all, it will probably be one device fits most.

“We know we will never find a device that fits everything,” Teiken said. “We have to make sure it can do the majority of what students need it to do.”

There’s already a wide range of high-tech devices in use at North.

Some special education students are using iPod Touches for math learning games.

The software on the iPods reinforce lessons and engage the students, said Deb Mattson, a teacher for the intellectually disabled.

“It’s how you keep them interested,” she said. “And this is their world. I’ve not had one student that I had to teach how to turn one on or to use the apps.”

Lisa Pemelton teaches freshman math at North.

She and her students interact with a “smart board” that links with remote question-answering devices and a Wi-Fi enabled tablet.

During class, she can display lessons. And she and students share the use of the Mobiview tablet that displays work on the smart board.

“It’s totally awesome,” Pemelton said. “I like it because I get a lot of feedback right away.”

There are also online lessons through a program called MathXL and remedial exercises.

“Students today, the technology helps so much. It’s not a pen-and-paper world anymore,” Pemelton said.

Jerry Schneider, the instructional technology coach at North, said moving to one device throughout the school system for each student will make it easier to load software and customize learning. It would also remove the digital divide between wealthier and poorer families.

“I like the fact that if we’re going to roll out a device, let’s get one in everybody’s hands,” he said. “Let’s make it fair for everyone.”

If North juniors Cameron Carlson and Bethany Ill are any indication, the students are ready for the switch.

Carlson had electronic versions of his textbooks installed on his iPad at home this year.

Ill said she’d like to see “laptops for everybody. … It would be a lot easier.”

But she acknowledges that there can be drawbacks to instant access to the Internet.

It’s sometimes easier to study with a textbook in hand, she said. And smartphone users may find texts, Facebook and Twitter updates monopolizing their attention.

“Sometimes, technology is a lot more work,” Ill said.

Teiken hopes that getting modern electronic learning devices to the district’s high school students will help them access the information they need, when they need it, and at their own pace.

Having the devices won’t change the ultimate learning goals for students, but hopefully, help them to learn quicker and more thoroughly.

“The ability for students to communicate, collaborate, think critically about information – those kinds of things are the things technology can help them do,” Teiken said.


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583