It was quiet on a recent morning in the ninth-grade English classroom at Minnetonka High School, where everyone had their head in a book.

That was until teacher Tessa Ikola made the same announcement her students would hear throughout the school day — and have been hearing for most of their school careers: “Pull out your iPads, please!”

There was a flurry of activity as the students dug in their backpacks and pulled out the school-issued devices. Soon, they were clustered in groups, poking away at an interactive vocabulary quiz while their scores flashed on a digital screen in the front of the classroom. Later, they followed along on their iPads as Ikola explained an essay assignment. And when it was time to work, there were no pencils or notebooks or the clatter of keyboards — just a sea of glowing screens.

Over the last decade, school districts across Minnesota have raced to make technology a central part of students’ lives in and outside the classroom. They’ve spent hundreds of thousands — or in some cases, millions — of dollars annually to equip each student and teacher with a tablet or laptop. Everything from classroom instruction to note taking has become something that can be done digitally; in many classes, textbooks and paper worksheets are largely a thing of the past.

Many administrators and teachers say the shift is necessary; without the right tools and training, they say students will be left behind in an increasingly digital world. They note that the technology boom has created new ways for students to collaborate on projects, allowed teachers and parents to more closely monitor progress, and put powerful devices in the hands of young people who may otherwise have lacked access to them. But with several years of experience with tech-heavy learning, there are still plenty of challenges — and debate over the impact of all those iPads and Chromebooks on academic success, equity and students’ focus.

The period in which Minnesota schools dove headfirst into “one-to-one” technology programs coincides with a time in which test scores have dropped or remained flat, and schools have struggled to narrow wide achievement gaps between racial and socioeconomic groups. As some districts have ramped up technology spending they’ve also faced budget deficits, swelling class sizes and staff cuts.

Meanwhile, early research into the effect of more screens in classrooms has been limited, and the results mixed, leaving educators and parents with mostly anecdotal evidence to determine how much the devices are helping students learn and grow.

Maijue Lochungvu, assistant director of St. Paul Public Schools’ Personalized Learning Department, said officials pay close attention to test scores and other measures to determine what’s working, but also listen closely to teachers’ experiences with technology.

“What excites me the most is when I’m in the building and teachers or principals are reaching out to me, sharing stories of success in the classroom,” she said.

One-to-one program growth

The Star Tribune surveyed Minnesota’s 25 largest school districts about their technology programs and found that most — 17 of those districts — operate “one-to-one” programs, in which students at many, or all, grade levels are issued their own device.

One-to-one programs typically start in the upper elementary or middle school grades. In St. Paul, however, preschoolers each have their own iPad, as does every kindergartner in Eden Prairie.

Most allow only middle and high school students to take their iPads and Chromebooks home, though a few start earlier. At Bloomington, Eastern Carver County and Eden Prairie schools, students as young as third grade tote their devices home to use after school.

The programs aren’t cheap. Last year, St. Paul Public Schools spent $6 million to lease its iPads, plus the cost of multiple staff members focused on tech support and training teachers on the devices. Osseo Area Schools spent close to $3.4 million on devices, staff and software. In St. Cloud, last year’s spending on devices and repairs alone amounted to $558,000.

Some districts that don’t operate one-to-one programs, including Anoka-Hennepin and Minneapolis, still have invested a significant amount of money to buy thousands of devices that are shared among students and kept at school. Anoka-Hennepin’s voter-approved technology levy provides $3 million each year for the devices and infrastructure, like Wi-Fi networks and classroom audio systems.

Concerns about a digital future

Back in Minnetonka, Ikola said she sees the investment as a good thing. Using iPads means she can check in at any time and see a student’s progress on a writing assignment, or help sort out questions. (That includes after hours: Ikola and other teachers say they frequently respond to students’ questions when they are at home in the evenings and on weekends.)

“Because of the technology, kids are asking me more advanced and sophisticated questions [in the classroom] because I’m able to field some of that lower-level stuff with the technology I’m using,” she said.

Heather Bakke, a special education teacher at Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop High School, said being plugged in means students have fewer excuses if their work isn’t complete. Lost a worksheet or forgot when it’s due? It’s there at the click of a button.

Bakke said a tablet or laptop can be particularly helpful for special education students who struggle with their speech or penmanship, or for those who find in-person communication daunting but collaborate well with others online.

“Being out here in greater Minnesota, it just gives them access to the wider world,” she said.

In the St. Francis school district, elementary computer technology teacher Ryan Fiereck said he sees a wide range of benefits to more technology. He said students who get started early with frequent use of devices will be more ready for the workforce and can dive more deeply into subjects they find interesting.

But he worries that districts like his, lacking the money to launch one-to-one programs, are leaving some students behind. Fiereck thinks more schools may shift to a “bring your own device” model, where students are encouraged to bring in whatever they have at home — a smartphone, tablet or laptop — and use it for classroom work.

“For me, the one issue with technology as a whole is that it’s one of the bigger divides we see in school districts,” he said.

That also worries Erin Walsh, a leader of the Spark & Stitch Institute, a Minneapolis-based organization focused on young people, technology and brain development.

Walsh consults with school leaders and parents around the country, and said she’s increasingly hearing that the rush to expand classroom technology has not been the “silver bullet” many had hoped for.

She said schools shouldn’t lose sight of the fundamentals that make kids successful whether they’re on or offline: critical thinking, in-person communication, impulse control. The idea that first-graders will somehow be unprepared for the workforce if they don’t use an iPad every day, Walsh said, is unrealistic.

“Sometimes the best way to build those skills is through things like play and problem solving and relationship building,” she said.

“There’s a lot more to being a young person who is capable of navigating a digitally connected world than just being able to operate the machine.”