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Willmar, Minn., Senior High has seen major changes due to iPads

WILLMAR — The social studies department at Willmar Senior High makes about 3,000 copies a month now. A year ago, that number was 20,000.

The primary reason for that 85 percent drop? iPads.

Willmar started the school year by issuing an Apple iPad tablet computer to every junior and senior in the school.

The district went from a half dozen iPads a couple years ago to more than 1,700 across the district this year.

The district is in its third year of working with iPads. Faculty learned to use the tablets first and looked at ways of using them in classes.

Then, the local business community got involved in December 2011 when former Principal Rob Anderson said he’d like to see all juniors and seniors have iPads by the following fall.

Other school officials were surprised by the statement, but the business community took it to heart and started raising money.

More than $300,000 were raised for the effort, and the school used its capital equipment fund to match it.

There were a few “hiccups” with the hardware at the beginning, when 600 iPads were turned on that first day of school, said social studies teacher Lyle Hovland, one of the leaders of the iPad initiative’s development.

There were some issues with the speed of the network in September, but they were fixed quickly, said Tyler Gehrking, another social studies teacher. Halfway through the school year, the school has noted about a dozen cracked screens and one lost iPad. The student’s family paid for a replacement.

There was never a problem in getting the teenage digital natives to use the new technology.

Senior High Principal Paul Schmitz said he’s seen many benefits for students and the school.

Assignments are given and turned in electronically, accounting for the dramatic decrease in paper use in the building. Tests are taken electronically, too. “We still need paper for some resources, but it’s always nice to see a reduction,” Hovland said.

The iPads have helped kids with special needs find new ways to communicate and participate in classes. Choir music is stored on iPads. Art students develop graphic projects or find ideas online.

The faculty formed committees to share ideas and apps that are useful for classes. Each teacher has his or her own strategies.

“We are allowing teachers to use the tools that work best for them in their discipline,” Schmitz said, adding that teachers are the ones who have made the transition work so well.

“Every department is on board with going forward,” he said.

The social studies department is ahead of some of the others, because it just completed its periodic curriculum review. Rather than spending more than $80,000 on books, the district spent about $16,000 to pay staff members to write digital textbooks for the department.

The Willmar teachers can tailor their books for their classes and to address state standards. The books can be updated as needed.

Writing the books has led to more collaboration between teachers and in departments, too, Schmitz said.

Curriculum reviews are done on a rotating schedule, with one or two departments reviewing curriculum and teaching materials each year. As the schedule moves along, other departments will be writing their own books.

The science and health/physical education departments are in the process of writing iBooks this year.

Schmitz said students can lose their iPad privileges if they misuse them or download inappropriate material. So far, there’s been little problem with that.

Having the iPads around has led to many conversations about distractibility and proper uses of social media, Schmitz said.

“Multitasking is overrated,” he added. “Kids need to learn how to focus on one thing at a time; it’s a life skill the kids need to learn.”

For many students and their families, the iPad from school is the first computer in their home.

Hovland said he’s heard of students showing younger siblings how to use the iPad while they do homework together.

The iPads contain everything students need to complete assignments, so they don’t need internet access outside school.

At an update for the Willmar School Board this winter, Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard said the anticipated savings have come quickly. “The high school has bought into this much faster than any of us expected,” he said. “It’s an amazing switch for how they teach and what they teach.”

Kjergaard also warned the board that the district will be on a digital path from now on and will need to plan for eventual replacement costs. “We can never go back.”

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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