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Teachers in pilot project explain how iPads used in classes in Willmar, Minn., classrooms

With his left hand, Willmar teacher Tyler Gehrking uses an iPad to control his on-screen presentation as he speaks Tuesday about how he has used the tablet computers in his classroom. A presentation was conducted for members of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce to learn how the iPad2, also shown at top, may be used as a tool for educating students in the Willmar Schools. (Tribune photo by Gary Miller)1 / 2
Willmar teacher Lyle Hovland talks Tuesday about the use of the iPad2 in the classroom. During a technology presentation to the local Chamber of Commerce, Hovland spoke about making sure the devices are useful to the students. (Tribune photo by Gary Miller)2 / 2

WILLMAR -- The Willmar business community could be a partner in helping the Willmar School District put iPad2 tablet computers in the hands of high school students next year.

Members of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce met with school officials this week at Willmar Senior High to learn more about how the tablets can be used and to talk about the school's needs.

High school teachers Lyle Hovland and Tyler Gehrking spent about an hour demonstrating the ways they have found to use applications in their classrooms. Their efforts have been part of a pilot project to introduce the technology to classrooms.

To get everyone in the mood to talk technology, the teachers handed an iPad2 to each person who attended the presentation Tuesday morning. It didn't take long for the 35-plus people in the auditorium to catch on and start tapping the screens to try out different programs.

Chamber member Dave Baker opened the meeting by talking about his interest in boosting technology capability in the school district. "I believe we've got an amazing core of business leaders to figure out how to get technology in their hands," he said.

The pilot project started about two years ago, when Hovland met with Principal Rob Anderson and Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard. He told them he had found a "new tool" he wanted to use in his classroom, an iPad.

Kjergaard OK'd a pilot project for three high school teachers that later expanded to six. He challenged them to prove that it would be useful in classrooms.

In its second year, the pilot has grown to include 39 teachers across the district who attend training sessions on their own time as part of a Professional Learning Community. The idea has been to start small to develop a plan in coordination with the district's information technology department. The district's budget also dictated a slow start.

The high school has two carts that can be used to provide an entire classroom with iPads, but students can't take them home. After the first of the year, each school building will have its own classroom cart.

The teachers in the pilot have been using different apps to judge usefulness and ease of use.

"We've got to consider our clientele," Hovland said. "Are we giving them something everyone can use?"

One of the goals has been to find ways the iPad can be useful to students without Internet access at home. Another goal has been to reach all learners. IPads have been found to help special education students learn and communicate.

Several students told the group about the ways iPads have helped them make class presentations and do homework.

Gehrking said he has been able to set up virtual classrooms so that he could communicate with students and parents.

"They could be cost-neutral," he said. "They could save money over time."

Both teachers provided examples of ways the district could cut costs -- replacing printed textbooks with digital texts, using an app and projector as a substitute for an interactive whiteboard, using an inexpensive app to replace graphing calculators and greatly reducing the amount of printing.

"What do you need from us?" was one of the first questions asked after the presentation.

"Today's meeting was to tease you," Baker said. "This, to me, is education reform. We need to keep growing this."

The teachers talked about a "jump start" to the effort to expand the use of technology at the school, possibly help in adding more iPad carts. "Putting it into a number makes me uncomfortable," Gehrking said.

Anderson wasn't as shy. He advocated for a more aggressive approach now that the pilot project has set the stage.

He said he would like to double or triple the number of classroom carts and get iPads into the hands of every junior and senior next fall. The next fall, he'd like to add the ninth and 10th grades to that.

Baker suggested the business community could spearhead fundraising efforts, "we just need to know how much." He suggested that business logos could be placed on sponsored iPads, and school officials nodded.

Anderson said the cost of iPads for 600 juniors and seniors would be about $360,000.

When someone asked how that could be done, Baker suggested collaboration between school and business.

"Go back to your offices, and talk about this stuff," he said.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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