In schools across the west metro, iPads and other tablets are evolving from exciting novelties into established teaching tools.

The “one-to-one” student-tablet teaching model is enhancing learning from elementary to high schools in districts that include Bloomington, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie. In some cases, they’re even saving schools money.

Bloomington’s Oak Grove Elementary School launched its tablet pilot program in March. Every student in one of two 4th-grade classrooms received a Samsung touch-screen tablet with an attachable keyboard.

“It’s going to make learning more exciting for the kids and more informative for teachers,” said Oak Grove Principal Raymond Yu.

Best Buy Corp. donated the tablets, a flat-screen monitor and a mobile charging cart, citing its own corporate curiosity about how elementary-school children would use tablets. The devices feature the latest educational software, provided by Naiku and Microsoft.

Microsoft also donated an Xbox 360 with fitness software to integrate wellness and class time. “We know that’s an additional challenge — how to ensure more physical activity during the school day,” Yu said. “It gives us an opportunity to give a broader reach to kids to do some wellness activities.”

The school plans to shape curriculum around the resources the tablets provide and to use them to prepare students for standardized tests.

They have proved most useful for language arts and math instruction, said Steve Searl, who teaches 4th grade at Oak Grove. They “allow for a lot of differentiation of the curriculum, because I can have kids working independently,” he said.

Students use the program “Raz Kids” to read at their own levels. Each student has his or her own Google account, which saves all classwork and makes it accessible from any device. They use Google documents for informational reports and slideshow presentations. And math exercises designed as racing games make learning fun and interactive.

Parents are pleased.

“I’m thrilled that she has the opportunity to work with these tablets,” said Christy Warner, whose daughter, Claire Sazama, is in Searl’s 4th-grade class. “I think it’s a way for the teacher and the students to get themselves prepared for a future that demands digital proficiency.”

For schools, tablets can be attractive from a financial standpoint, too.

“You can buy two or three ... for the same price as one desktop or laptop and be able to have that mobility to move them around the building,” Yu said. “And you’ll be using the devices more frequently.”

Before tablets came to Searl’s classroom, he didn’t go to the school’s computer lab very often because of time constraints. “More and more, education is going to be a one-to-one device situation,” Searl said. “I haven’t had to worry about going to the computer lab, and it frees it up for other classes to go there so much more.”

Minnetonka: The end of computer labs?

Meanwhile, the Minnetonka district is expanding its iPad program.

At Minnetonka High School, all 9th- and 10th-grade students now have their own iPads. Starting next school year, students in grades 8 and 11 will, too.

“We have four or five computer labs, and we estimate in two or three years we’ll be taking these labs apart,” said Jeff Noyes, a teacher on special assignment for technology integration at Minnetonka High School.

“You shouldn’t have to take a field trip to use a computer. The computer should be where the kids live.”

Students can take their iPads home at the end of the school day to work on homework and projects. At the end of every school year, they are collected, then reissued at the start of the next one.

The district’s technology budget covers the cost. Each iPad costs $400, has an $8 cover and about $40 in applications, Noyes said.

Minnetonka’s iPad investment is cost-neutral for now, but eventually it will save the district money, Noyes said. “We have a chemistry book that costs $170; now we can buy one on iBooks for $15,” he said. “We’re saving money, and it’s more up to date.”

The high school’s English Department uses many free and low-price books that can be downloaded directly onto iPads.

“I don’t think I’ve signed up for a computer lab since having the iPads,” said Andi Larson, a ninth-grade English teacher at Minnetonka High School. “It’s been convenient to have that access in the classroom at all times.”

In science class, students can plug a probe into the iPad to conduct tests and to graph force, gravity and motion. Note-taking applications allow students to take notes on the tablets and download teachers’ PowerPoint presentation. The devices also provide access to other classroom equipment, such as graphing calculators and planners.

Teachers say they’re seeing a learning surge that they attribute to tablet use.

In her English class, Larson said she has seen improvement in communication and students’ eagerness to learn. “The reality is these kids have the Internet at their fingertips at all times, and this makes them more investigative,” she said.

“We want kids to be curious, and the iPads allow that to happen.”

Eden Prairie: ‘There’s just a difference’

Central Middle School in Eden Prairie began its iPad pilot program in the fall. Seventh- and 8th-grade students have iPads for use in class and at home.

“We are now a couple of months in,” said Josh Swanson, executive director of technology for Eden Prairie Schools. “All you have to do is walk into a classroom — there’s just a difference.

“At this point, our students are living in a digital environment,” Swanson said. “Learning and instruction have to shift to meet the needs of what our students are going to experience when they leave our system.”

The district is paying for the iPads via its technology budget and money previously used for textbooks and computer lab replacements.

Starting next school year, iPads will continue to be dispersed in Central Middle School, and each student in grades 9 to 12 will receive a MacBook Air laptop.

The vision, Swanson said, is an eventual “complete digital conversion of our district.”

Said Lindsay Welch, a 7th-grade English teacher at Central: “I think there are some big philosophical changes coming in education. This is just the start of that.”


Candice Wheeler is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.