They're both suburban school districts that have put iPads or iPods in the hands of nearly all of their students. Now they'll work together to figure out how to use that technology to improve the classroom experience.

The Spring Lake Park and Farmington districts are partners in what's called an Innovation Zone Pilot Project. They can share training resources, curriculum, strategies on how to incorporate personal technology into daily lessons, and maybe even teachers someday.

In 2012, the Minnesota Legislature approved this kind of collaboration to improve student outcomes. The idea is to cut through some of the red tape that can sink otherwise good ideas.

For example, the Farmington district is hoping to utilize Spring Lake Park's online learning program. It would take 18 months for Farmington to set up and get approval for its own program.

"Unlimited information is available to everyone on the planet in the palm of our hands. You can work with anyone anywhere. This is a different world that our students will have to be successful in and compete in and collaborate in. Schools have to change," said Farmington Superintendent Jay Haugen.

The Innovation Zone designation, approved by the state Education Department, will begin with the 2013-14 school year and last five years.

The two districts' superintendents met at conferences over the years and agreed to work together. Spring Lake Park schools enroll about 5,300 students, Farmington schools about 6,700.

The districts already have collaborated on teacher training for the rollout of iPads and iPods. Both districts distributed tablets to nearly all of their students this school year.

How else will they work together?

The superintendents agree that the best, most innovative ideas will come from teachers, not administrators.

"This is not about what the administration team thinks they need. This is about what the staff thinks they need to think outside of the box," Haugen said.

A big shift in digital learning involves teachers' stepping back and giving children more control of their education. Students need to graduate with the same strong math, reading and science skills, but how they learn them will change, the superintendents said. Technology means more customized education for each student vs. the traditional, one-size-fits-all models of the past.

"How can they make it more engaging where the kids are taking more ownership of their learning?" said Spring Lake Park Superintendent Jeff Ronneberg. "There is the changing role of teacher to facilitator. iPads give them access to the world. How do you teach kids to develop self-direction, critical thinking and collaboration?"

In Spring Lake Park schools, each student in Grades 2-12 was issued either an iPad or iPod touch. Students in early childhood classes, kindergarten and first grade have access to iPod touches in the classroom. Farmington issued iPads to all of its students. Farmington leases the iPads for about $1.1 million a year, including the devices, network, bandwidth and software allocation. The Spring Lake Park district spends about $625,000 a year leasing its tablets.

Quick impact

The iPads have had an immediate impact on student interest and comprehension, said Scott Wicklund, a ninth-grade geography teacher at Spring Lake Park High School.

Basic vocabulary and map memorization used to be done on paper. Now students use the iPad to run games and drills. They're learning the basic information faster.

"The test scores are astronomical," Wicklund said.

Using their iPads, students are tapping into current events, United Nations statistics and even images from Google Earth to better understand geography.

They just studied a unit on industrial development. They talked about how America imports large quantities of clothing and consumer items made in Asia. They used Google Earth to look at those factories and discuss why it costs less to manufacture in other countries. They read news stories, looked at photos and discussed the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh that killed more than 600 people.

Instead of relying on their textbook for facts and figures that are quickly outdated, they look for data online. "It makes it more real," Wicklund said."Before I would stand up there and lead them through it. Now they are the ones bringing up the questions. That's when I know I've got them."

Wicklund said he's open to sharing ideas with other teachers and other districts.

"I would love to talk with other teachers and get different ideas and different ways of getting knowledge to students," Wicklund said.

Third-grade teacher Angela Skauge said the iPads give her some spontaneity. If the class is talking about layers of the Earth and volcanos, students can quickly find a video online of a volcano erupting.

"It's instantaneous." said Skauge, who teaches at Northpoint Elementary in the Spring Lake Park district.

It's changed how students present their findings and reports. Students are using iMovie to edit and present photos, text and video.

"They can be very creative with how they show information," she said.

She too welcomes joining forces with another district.

"It's figuring out creative ways to use it in the classroom and see success with our students and prepare them for the real world," Skauge said. "This will be their reality. They will need to collaborate."

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804