A Visit to GFW High School (One-to-One iPad Initiative)

This morning, I had the opportunity to visit GFW High School in Winthrop, Minnesota.  GFW High School is a small rural high school with just over 300 students in grades nine through twelve.  The GFW School District has made technology a priority, and many classrooms are outfitted with various technology including projectors, document cameras, interactive whiteboards, and other items.  The GFW School Board approved the iPad initiative last April for $267,500 (New Ulm Journal, Fritz Busch, 9/10/10).  I had the opportunity to e-mail several people involved with the project over the past months, and I also attended a presentation about the initiative at the TIES Technology Convention in early December.  I would like to thank Mr. Jeff Bertrang, Principal of GFW High School, and Mr. Ron Swanberg, Director of Technology, for allowing me to look into the one-to-one iPad initiative at GFW High School.

Objectives for the iPad Initiative

Because the high school is a consolidated high school (a combination of what would have been multiple high schools in the past), there were extra technology funds from the consolidation along remaining technology funds from a past referendum, so the district began examining the different possibilities of integrating more technology in the curriculum that would meet the district’s school board goals for technology integration, meet the needs of 21st century learners, engage students in the classroom, transform the teaching strategies used in the classroom, and increase student achievement (MREA Technology Presentation, 2010).

A Solution that Met the Objectives

A one-to-one technology initiative seemed to be at the heart of the school board objectives.  Traditional education puts the majority of technology in the hands of teachers, rather than the hands of students.  Mr. Swanberg stated, “We’ve locked students out of so much technology.  This whole enterprise is about lowering barriers to student learning by inviting accessibility while focusing educational use directed by teachers trained to meet the kids where they can meet through rich media (Standard Gazette, Todd Newton, 5/5/10),” and Mr. Bertrang said, “We talk a lot about 21st century learners, but then we have to get technology into the hands of students and let them use it (Mankato Free Press, Tanner Kent, 4/11/10).”  Several solutions for one-to-one initiatives were examined, including laptops, iPod Touches, personal data assistants, cells phones, netbooks, and iPads.  When committee members and the staff of the high school began looking at solutions, the iPad had only been recently introduced, but seemed like a feasible solution.  The iPad had an acceptable price (although everyone involved with the project hopes that the price of iPads will drop significantly in the future), thousands of applications that are applicable for education (many free), wi-fi, no moving parts (less maintenance), and portability.  So the district took a technological leap of faith, and was the first high school in the United States to plan to be all-iPad in the 2010-2011 academic year.

(Note: I’ve adjusted the quotes by Mr. Swanberg and Mr. Bertrang slightly, but I am certain that they would agree with the changes).

Strategy for the iPads

GFW High School had a clear strategy for introducing the iPad.  The initial order of iPads was placed when there was still a significant shortage of the devices, with the intent of getting iPads into the hands of teachers over the summer, so those teachers could prepare to teach with the devices in the fall.  There was additional training for staff in the summer, where the staff was introduced to the iPad by Apple specialists.  The district was already Apple-based, so many teachers were familiar with iWork and iLife apps.  It was decided that teachers should use school hosted wikis and blogs to distribute information to students, and training was offered (and is ongoing) on those programs.  Teachers were also introduced to the use of iCal to record daily homework assignments, and students are able to sign up for a teacher’s calendar (actually, the calendars of each teacher) on their iPad.  Teachers were not given any specific expectation for iPad integration, other than to begin doing something with the technology, as the staff was at all levels of fluency with technology.

It should be separately noted, or at least highlighted, that Apple has been very involved in a positive way with GFW High School and its iPad initiative, and there may be some unique opportunities available in the future as a result of this collaboration.

In addition to obtaining the devices which were distributed in late August, the district also had to upgrade the wi-fi profile of the high school to handle the load of over 300 additional wireless devices on the network in all school locations.  The school originally had three T1 lines, and the upgrade added 20 MB of additional bandwidth in the school.  The wi-fi upgrades were online just before school opened in September of 2010.

Creating an Acceptable Use Policy for the iPad

Additionally, the district had to develop an iPad Policy, as no institution had a policy which specifically covered the challenges of such a device.  An iPad isn’t a notebook computer and has unique characteristics that must be addressed in an acceptable use policy.  A committee was formed, and a policy was written which borrowed from the Acceptable Use Policies from schools across the country.  The iPad Acceptable Use Policy is attached at the end of this document, and is from the 2010-2011 academic year.  As with all acceptable use policies, it will continue to be revised.

Determining How to Handle the Logistics of the Initiative

Another set of challenges, which are ongoing, are based upon the logistics of unpacking, registering, loading apps, and handing out iPads to every student.  Although the district did not receive any additional discount on the iPads from Apple beyond the normal educational discount, they were able to purchase iPad cases at a significant discount, so that every iPad could be distributed with a case.  One of the initial problems (which continues) is that the educational iPads were shipped twelve to a box, with serial numbers printed on the outside of the box…numbers that were often rendered unscannable because of marks obtained on the label during shipping.  As a result, serial numbers often had to be entered by hand, which is a time consuming process.

There is one paraprofessional at GFW who is tasked with updating the iPads, which is done from four laptops in the media center (one for each grade level).  Each iPad must be individually updated, and in the case of a major upgrade (such as the movement from iOS 3.2 to iOS 4.2), the update is time-consuming.  For every update, the school’s password must be entered for that iTunes account.  At the moment, there is no easy way to push an update of apps (or the operating system) to many devices at once without having to enter the password (and several other “clicks”) for each device.  There are some vendors looking into offering such functionality, but at the moment, the password and clicking still needs to happen, so those solutions really aren’t solutions.

Some apps were chosen by administration, others by teachers.  Teachers were asked to look for free apps as often as possible.  When the school began the iPad initiative, there was no educational volume discount program, and the common practice (even confirmed by Apple at the time) was that an app could be bought once, and distributed on all devices.  That was unfair to developers of paid apps, thus GFW had an emphasis on using free apps as much as possible.  Later this summer, Apple changed its app policy for education, and asked that institutions buy a code for each app that will be used on each device.  Some apps are sold at a significant discount in bulk (for instance, iWork apps are $5 instead of $10).  For the sake of distribution, the school is allowed to use four iTunes accounts, one for each class, and to only use four codes, which distribute on all the devices.  However, the “paid” yet “unused” codes reside in a database, ready in case the school is ever audited.  Additionally, some apps are not needed by the entire student body, so students are asked to delete the apps they do not need.  For example, band students use ClearTune, but the whole student body does not, so ClearTune should only be on the iPads of band students.  Students are not supposed to install additional apps on the devices, but some do (iPads can upload apps from various accounts).  The iPads could be locked from installing apps, but then each device would have to be further unlocked (meaning more time spent per device) before being able to “officially” sync them.  As a matter of discipline, if inappropriate apps or content are found on the device, there is a process that is followed that can include the loss of the iPad among other actions.

Student Distribution

Use of the iPads at GFW remains optional, but every student was told that they were required to access the online content, even if they declined to participate in the initiative.  Every student at GFW High School participated.  The school also requires one of three solutions for iPad protection.  First, students can enroll in a yearly insurance policy for $50.  Second, they can write a check which remains undated and uncashed for $500 which remains in the office.  Third, they can take personal insurance out on the device.  Currently, one check is in the office, and every other family participates in the $50 policy.

To date, there have been twelve iPads that have been returned.  Ten have been replaced, two are considered to have been mistreated and were not replaced.  Several have been damaged, but interestingly, the glass has not been broken on any device.  Several came dead on arrival, and recently they have been replaced.  Apple originally wanted the school to call in regarding every broken device, but through work with an Apple official, they were able to work out a way to trouble shoot all of the broken devices and return them with one (long) phone call.  The school bought fifteen extra iPads to “fill-in” when necessary (because the iPads are backed up after each sync, a new iPad can be restored to another iPad’s contents if it needs to be replaced).  Only one student has lost her iPad privileges after breaking two devices.  No students, as of yet, have brought their own iPads to school (interestingly, in my high school, we’re starting to see personal iPads arrive with students).

Transforming Instruction

Teachers are using iPads in different ways.  Chemistry and Physics teachers are using online textbooks instead of physical textbooks.  (http://www.ck12.org).  According to the students, the economics teacher and the agriculture teacher are two staff members that require (or cause) students to use their iPads throughout the hour, every day.  The biology program utilizes ProScope, which broadcasts what is captured by the device to all the iPads in the room.  The wood working/technical education teacher utilizes Numbers (iWork) to track product management.  The music teacher  has used simple writing apps, like Draw or Paper Desk to ask students to quickly draw an answer on their iPad and show feedback for their answers.  You can see all of the various teacher wikis and blogs here.

Students use g-mail accounts (not available to students under the age of 13) on their iPads.  Teachers will create documents which are placed on their wikis, which students download, edit, and e-mail back to their teachers.  One staff member tried testing by placing the test on his wiki for a few minutes, and had students download the test.  He then took the test off the wiki, had the students complete the test, and then had them e-mail the test back to him, deleting the original from their devices (it may have still remained in the “sent mail,” however).  This was a great example of trying new techniques to accomplish testing on the iPad.

The district also uses Infinite Campus, an online grading and student management system, so every student has continual access to their grades, missing assignments, and so on.  They would have had this access before the iPads if they stopped in the media center or had computer access at home, but now every student has access to that information all the time (Parents also have access to that information).

Two other interesting observations were that the school store sells some iPad accessories, such as the Pogo Sketch (which I use on a regular basis with apps like Penultimate).  Apparently, students have not been interested in styluses, instead preferring to type on the screen (Mr. Bertrang feels that this is connected to their familiarity with texting).  Additionally, students have moved from texting in class to e-mailing in class (As a side note, AT&T reception within the town of Winthrop was limited, although 3G access was strong all the way to Winthrop until I entered town).  So the “old” fight about texting in class (it sounds hilarious to say that) just changes form to something else.

Technology in Music Education

In terms of “Technology in Music Education,” the music teacher was attending a music event at a Twin Cities University with some students, and I was unable to visit with her while I was at the school.  Therefore, I am unable to speak as to how the iPads are specifically being used in music education (we have only communicated via e-mail), but the music teacher did specifically request ClearTune, Tempo 2, and Glee Karaoke (for fun) for her students.

A Strategy for Continuous Improvement

One of the most exciting parts of the iPad initiative is that the principal, Mr. Bertrang, stands behind his staff, his students (knowing each student by name and interests), and the continued implementation of technology in the building–he has also mentioned repeatedly that continual improvement requires continual training.  Staff meets twice monthly to discuss ways of incorporating iPads in their teaching, and staff development days are designated specifically to increase teacher skill on the iPad, apps, wikis, and blogs.  This means that the iPad initiative won’t be a one-and-done approach–which is a great danger with technology.

Challenges for the Future…Challenges Right Now

Teachers are finding that students can easily be off-task, yet still look like they are working, so apps like LanSchool will become increasingly important.  As it is, teachers need to walk around the room to make sure students are on task.  As should be expected, some students make poor choices as to content contained on their iPads, and when this is discovered, they are disciplined as necessary by faculty, or as needed, by the administration.

There are students who fail to bring their iPad to school (How this can happen, I have no idea, but I was assured that it happens on a regular basis), and there are students who fail to charge their iPads at night.  The iPad can easily last ten hours on a charge, but that wouldn’t get the average student through two days of school.  We did not talk about what the strategy might be if batteries need to be replaced in the future (A $100 charge at Apple after the iPad is out of warranty).

GFW has a strong commitment to continued teacher training and continuing the iPad program.  There is discussion of letting seniors buy their iPad at a depreciated rate, allowing the school to buy new iPads for each incoming class with limited additional investment.  Most of the needs of the school lie in the need for better device management, which needs to come from Apple.  Apple needs to find a way to allow school-owned devices to be maintained through the network and not individually managed through a cable and password entry.  Several companies need to step up to the plate and create multi-iPad chargers/syncing devices and even iPad carts (things have been promised, but have not been released).  And Apple needs to make a way for schools to lock students out of adding additional accounts on the iPads and downloading their own apps.  And there appears to be no way to volume license iBooks, meaning the school is limited to using free eBooks, or else four book purchases would sync across more than 300 iPads.  At the TIES conference, Sue O’Neil, an English teacher, mentioned that most of the students prefer reading eBooks, but there are still a small number of students who ask for a printed book.  Additionally, Ms. O’Neil mentioned that when the students are writing a paper on a book, they prefer to go to a computer lab to write, and the iPad to look for source material (although this was before the ability to switch apps in iOS 4.2).

There will always be new apps which supplement or add to the educational experience.  I look forward to what AirPlay can bring to education (and to GFW) when it is opened to 3rd Party apps.  An iPad has the potential to replace (or supplement) an interactive white board, clickers (student response systems), document cameras (iPad 2 will likely have cameras), and wireless slates (AirPlay potential).  Sadly, all Minnesota mandatory testing and MAP testing is Flash based, meaning that traditional labs must be used to take a required assessment test.  If enough schools adopt iPads, these testing agencies will eventually have to create software that can also be used on iPads (currently, if a student exits a state test on a traditional computer, the program locks them out until a test administrator lets them back in.  The same safeguards could be created for the iPad).

Where’s the Risk?  Where’s the Assessment?

What is the biggest risk of the iPad?  In the eyes of many, the risk is in the possibility that something better will come out–whether it is the iPad 2, or an Android, Windows, or Blackberry Tablet–and then the school will be left with “old” devices (I’d challenge most people to get into schools and find out how old the computer labs, LCD projectors, and other technology really are–they would be surprised).  Education is traditionally very slow to change, particularly with technology.  Many districts left Apple after the scary business years of the early 1990s.  A strong case can be made that Apple is once again a viable alternative to Windows computers, but school districts (and district technology staff) are fearful of switching (sometimes back) to Apple after nearly twenty years of Windows use in a district.  And that includes any and all Apple products, including iPod Touches and iPads.

Frasier Speirs, a technology administrator at an all-iPad private school in Scotland, writes a blog about his experiences (http://www.speirs.org) [and in fact, you really need to read this particular post, which is very poignant to the discussion at hand], and he states clearly (this is a link to yet another article) that other, better products will come out, and when they do, his school will evaluate that technology.  He also reminds us that you can spend your entire life waiting for something better, which will lead to perpetual inaction.  Sometimes you need to leap and take the risk.

The better question, and one I failed to ask, is how the iPad initiative will be assessed.  Surely pre-iPad and post-iPad test scores will be examined.  I’m sure there will be student surveys of some kind.  But some things, such as student pride in a school that leads the country in the adoption of technology, or renewed interest in subjects because of the use of technology, are hard to measure.  Hopefully GFW will post (online) some of their assessment results and thoughts at the end of the year, or the beginning of the next year.

Note: In a follow-up e-mail, Mr. Swanberg mentioned that some surveys have already been taken, others will be given as the year progresses, and there may be some research done in conjunction with some outside (non-district) researchers to examine the effect of the iPad initiative.  Some schools will want to see this data before “risking” their own iPad investment.  It’s going to be a great study…I almost wish I was back in my Ph.D. program again!

In Conclusion:

The GFW High School One-to-One iPad Initiative is a wonderful example of a district using earmarked funds to transform education.  From casual observation, students appear to love their iPads, carrying them everywhere.  They are proud of their school (School apparel was literally everywhere).  They like to be at a school which is being nationally and internationally recognized for what they are doing.  As expected, teachers have different levels of integration of the iPads in their classrooms, but there is a clear effort and plan to increase the integration of iPads in those classrooms.  As other school districts adopt iPad initiatives, GFW High School will continue to set examples of how such a program should be run, and all educators will all benefit from the changes that Apple will make for educational distribution of iPads, as GFW has trouble-shooted (and will continue to trouble-shoot) many issues that will (eventually) be solved.

Some GFW iPad Documents

(I’ve linked these here as these documents will change or be removed at GFW over time)

GFW iPad Information (Year 1, 2010-2011)

GFW iPad Acceptable Use Policy (Year 1, 2010-2011)


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