The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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September 15, 2010

At GFW, it's iPads for all

District is one of few in state to embrace tablets

WINTHROP — The technology that could revolutionize learning and teaching in Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop High School is completely new to Meghan Kammerlander.

“I’ve never even held an iPad before,” the GFW senior said.

Thanks to a combination of consolidation funds and capital revenue, the Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop School Board approved a $267,338 initiative in April that would give every high school student an Apple iPad to use during the school year.

The devices retail for between $500 and $800. They feature a touch screen and enough capability to run thousands of applications. GFW is the only public school district in this region, and among the few in the entire state, to approve such an initiative.

School leaders say it will vault the district onto the cutting edge of 21st century education. Students say it will make classroom learning more efficient and more personal.

“Everything is right on here,” Kammerlander said as she gestured to her iPad, no more than a half-inch thick and distributed to students with a protective case.

“We don’t need to carry notebooks and folders anymore.”

And, for the most part, she’s right.

After the initiative was approved in April, teachers spent several days during the summer receiving training on how to operate the iPad, how to use them in class, how to create wiki pages and how to use applications (often called “apps” by the tech-savvy).

When the iPads were distributed to students during a kickoff event recently, they were already loaded up with dozens of apps to enhance learning, including: an app that allows students to read free or purchased books and teachers to download and share a book for class, an app that allows students to create multiple folders and notebooks for taking class notes and several production apps for text files and presentations.

As the school year progresses, GFW High School Principal Jeff Bertrang said staff will continually evaluate other useful applications for the iPads and that their use will evolve as students and teachers begin to realize their potential.

“There are things we can do with this iPad that will break the traditional walls of the classroom,” he told students. “We want to transition from what school was, to what school can be.”

Jeff Jenson is one of the teachers assigned to help integrate the iPads into the classroom. Ideas are already rolling in, from using a science app to communicate images from a microscope to students’ iPads, to dictation and translation apps that will aid students in foreign language classes.

Jenson said the district will be constantly monitoring software updates for the machines (they are expecting another in November that will make them more compatible with printers) and considering additional uses.

“You have to have a commitment to doing it,” Jenson said. “We’ll be learning right along with students.”

Much of the funding for the initiative resulted from the consolidation of the McLeod West School District into the GFW, Buffalo Lake-Hector and Glencoe-Silver Lake school districts in 2008. Each district involved in accommodating former students of McLeod West received one-time “consolidation incentive funds” from the state that amounted to about $200 per pupil. In GFW, that money was paired with capital funds as well as some funds previously set aside for technology upgrades.

During the summer, school officials also developed an iPad usage policy for students that forbids game-playing and app downloading without administrative approval. Students are also responsible for keeping the battery charged and preventing theft.

And while GFW senior Kari Taralseth admitted she’s a little nervous about learning how to use her iPad — and making sure not to drop it — she also said it’s a point of pride that GFW is on the leading edge of technology use in the classroom.

“It’s exciting to be the only school we know about who’s doing this,” she said.

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