St. Paul students will soon have iPads, but classroom plan still unclear

St. Paul teachers attended an iPad class.
St. Paul teachers attended this "iPad Cafe" class on Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014, to get the feel for the new devices. Just how iPads will be used in class is still being determined, even though students will start getting the tablets in October.
Tim Post / MPR News

When the St. Paul school district begins giving students Apple iPads this fall, district officials hope that the devices will allow teachers to instruct in innovative ways.

St. Paul is the largest district in the state to put a one-to-one iPad program in place, joining districts in Sartell, Minnetonka, Farmington, Lakeville, Osseo and Virginia. Many more of the state's districts are using the devices on a limited basis in certain classes or grades.

In St. Paul, nearly 40,000 students will receive their own iPads over the next two years. Funding for the program comes from a $9 million-a-year school technology levy that taxpayers approved in 2012.

But some mobile learning experts say the district is moving too fast — before officials can determine which applications to download.

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Teachers also need to be trained on how to use iPads in the classroom. That's why one recent training session made students of dozens of St. Paul teachers at the district's Office of Personalized Learning.

Topics in this iPad class ranged from the basics, like how to turn on the device, to more advanced talk about which apps teachers should use.

"I found an app called Vocabulary City, and it looks great," said Elizabeth Curran, an English teacher at Murray Middle School.

Curran plans to use that app in her 6th grade readers and writers workshop.

But two months before the first batch of iPads go out to about half of St. Paul students the district doesn't have a clear plan on how they'll be used in class.

"It's not like day one here's all the curriculum it's already written, it exists," said Karen Randall, assistant director of the Office of Personalized Learning. "We need to explore it and make it work for our setting and our students."

The district will pay Apple $5 million to lease the iPads this school year, when about half of students get the devices. By next year all students will have iPads, and the district expects the annual bill to increase to $8 million.

Randall said some schools in the district have been experimenting with iPads in recent years, giving a sense of what role the devices will play.

However, the district is still determining which apps will be used in classes, how students will access those apps, and whether parents will need to put down a deposit on the iPads in case students lose or break the device.

District officials first announced the plan to give iPads to all students, from pre-K to high school seniors, less than three months ago.

It came the same day the district said it was scrapping a plan for a similar personalized learning system with computer company Dell. District officials said after months of development, they decided that system wasn't going to work.

Some supporters of mobile technology in schools worry when districts try to do too much too quickly.

Such efforts should fundamentally change how teaching and learning takes place, said Leslie Wilson, CEO of the Michigan-based One to One Institute, a group that helps schools implement tablet and laptop programs.

That means reshaping the curriculum and making sure teachers have lots of support and training.

"You want to be able to provide and learn what's necessary in this district to support this in a transformative way," Wilson said. "And we can't know all those details if we put 50,000 devices out there and say 'Go do.'"

Wilson said schools that rush into an iPad program without clear expectations run the risk of teachers setting the devices aside. She recommends districts roll out iPads or other devices school by school or grade by grade.

Andrea Howard has a district-provided iPad.
Andrea Howard, 17, is a senior at Becker High School, where every students gets their own iPad. Howard says districts considering handing out iPads to students should take it slow and go one step at a time to avoid problems. Becker has rolled out its iPad program slowly over several years.
Tim Post / MPR News

That's what the Becker school district is doing.

In 2011, students in grades 9 through 12 received an iPad. Last year it was the 8th graders' turn. This fall, 7th graders will get the devices. All Becker students will have their own iPad within a few years.

Ryan Cox, the district's director of instructional technology, said handing out iPads slowly has helped to deal with problems, from non-working apps to stressed Wi-Fi systems.

"If we went all in at one time, you don't have that opportunity to make some mistakes and learn and grow and then build from those, the same way as if you scaffold in," Cox said.

Even students in Becker see the advantages to that go slow approach.

"Don't try to tackle huge things all at once, one step at a time, and you'll get there," said Andrea Howard, an incoming senior who is on a team of students who try out apps for the district. "It's not something that's suddenly going to be there and everything is going to go great."

Randall, of the St. Paul district, said its iPad rollout is happening before all the details are in place. But she said school officials are working with a sense of urgency to distribute the devices to students.

"It's a now thing. It's part of the environment. It's part of what's going on in the culture around us. It's part of what's going on in other school districts," she said. "And when it came right down to it, it felt easier to jump right in and make it happen."