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Tech leap has students eager for start at RCW

RCW students and their parents crowd a table with Apple iPad2's after the district outlined its policy and plans for the devices. Some 300 people were on hand at the Renville Community Center to hear the district's plans to issue iPad 2's to all students in grades 4-12. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

RENVILLE -- Renville County West got an idea of how students and parents are responding to its initiative to put Apple iPad2 tablet computers in the hands of every student in grades 4 through 12.

School can't start soon enough.

A standing room crowd of perhaps 300 parents and children filled the Renville Community Center one night last week to hear school officials discuss policy for the new initiative, as well as to give students a chance to test drive some of the new devices.

"We need to transform the way we think about teaching and the way we think about learning,'' said K-12 Principal Jeff Wilson as he introduced the new initiative. "In the digital world where we are now, we really need to focus attention on technology and connecting with kids.''

The "digital natives'' as he calls the students are largely well-versed on the new technology, and were visibly excited about it at the public meeting.

What parents and school officials need to learn is how to manage the responsibility that comes with putting $500 devices in each student's hands, and the access both good and bad to the digital world it offers them, Wilson said.

RCW is one of the first schools in the country to make this level of commitment to a digital-based educational program. Wilson emphasized that there is still a big learning curve in terms of how to manage this.

School officials expect that most students will be carrying their iPads home with them, and use them to do homework, as well as to access assignments and lessons.

Wilson made it clear that parents will be responsible for how children use their iPads at home, but there are safeguards in place. Apple's K9 search filter prevents access to inappropriate material on the Internet. Facebook is blocked too.

Each iPad2 has 16 gigabytes of capacity, and 14 of those gigabytes will be devoted to apps placed on them by and under the school's control.

School policy prohibits the downloading of non-school material on the devices. Wilson said the school also knows that some students and parents will likely download music and photos on them at home nonetheless.

When the student returns to school and "syncs'' the device into the school's system, all of the non-authorized downloads will be gone, he warned.

The district intends to move toward putting its entire curriculum online. Students will even be doing tests on the iPads, but sorry: No spell-check feature for spelling tests, Wilson told students.

Questions raised by parents covered the gamut, from what happens if an iPad is stolen to whether or not students are obligated to use them.

Wilson cautioned his audience that there are plenty of quirks to work out yet, and some already experienced. The 25 boxes holding $125,000 worth of the devices arrived on a Saturday when no one was at the school, but fortunately a school employee discovered and secured them.

The school has installed the wireless technology needed for the devices, but a planned training session with Apple representatives had to be delayed until just before school's start. The state shutdown also delayed the process of obtaining Department of Education approval for some of the curriculum to be offered through the devices.

Students have to wait until the second day of school to get their devices. On the first day, they will get the paperwork that both they and their parents must sign to take responsibility for the devices.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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