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iPads a hit with schoolkids

History reports are one of only several projects being done using the iPad. Students do their homework on them, make movies, do research, collaboration projects and even assessments. Although parents sign a form making them responsible for damages, the district has yet to charge for any damages. Photo by - Paula Quam1 / 3
Detroit lakes fifth-graders have traded in most of their paper projects for those in cyber space, as each student now has their own iPad to use in the classroom and at home. Educators are so far giving the thumbs up on the initiative that is using fifth-graders as their test group. Photo by - Paula Quam2 / 3
Fifth-grade teacher Ryan Zunich uses his iPad and the Smartboard to lecture as students follow along on their own, essentially replacing the idea of a textbook. Photo by - Paula Quam3 / 3

It's not your grandma's classroom -- gone are the chalky erasers and overhead projectors, now it's apps and charging stations for iPads.

Those old, dusty Encyclopedia Britannicas many remember sifting through for research papers are now being accessed from dust-free cyber space, and on Monday morning, Rossman Elementary fifth graders were using new technology to learn about old news -- history.

"They have to write a report of a historical person," said Rossman fifth-grade teacher Ryan Zunich, who controls his smartboard (essentially a computerized chalkboard with internet capability) with his iPad as he goes through his lesson.

He's been trained on that iPad, as have all fifth- and sixth-grade teachers in Detroit Lakes.

The iPad initiative has every fifth-grader in the DL public school system using one as well. They are assigned their own, which means they use them at school and at home.

It's been six weeks since the start of the school year, and most involved with the program have begun to form their opinions on whether or not iPads are a good investment for the school district (it payed $105,000 for its first shipment of them) or if they're not much more than new, shiny toys.

Suffice to say, the students all seem thrilled with the idea.

"I think that it is very cool, and it is an honor that we get to do this," said fifth-grader Reed Benson. "It's more of a challenge, and I like challenges."

Classmate Gabe Soyring agrees, and talks excitedly about doing his homework on something called "Paper Port" and submitting it to something else called "School-ogy."

It's a whole new vocabulary for Gabe, who says it was a little scary learning how to use it all at first. "But now it's pretty easy, and we get to have fun with learning because there are so many games and quizzes and things."

And although Gabe says his parents like the iPad, he says they don't always like him to play those game apps --  an issue some parents raise as a concern.

And although school officials do not restrict students from downloading non-educational games on their iPads, they do their fair share of snooping.

"We tell them, 'these are not yours to keep; they're yours to use," said Zunich, "and so they know we go into their search history and videos and pictures and emails -- we see what they're doing and have that discussion about what is appropriate and what isn't, so we do teach them about internet safety."

The students are also taught about how to handle their iPads and receive a very real lesson in responsibility, as their parents all signed forms making them responsible for lost, stolen or damaged iPads -- a move not popular with some parents.

Misse Paskey's son is still only in the fourth grade, but she thinks the expensive devices should not be in the hands of children so young.

"I am not looking forward to this," said Paskey. "Kids in 5th grade are not responsible enough to care for these items to make sure they do not get lost, stolen, or broken. This is more or less an item for high school kids not elementary-middle school. And there are many low-income families in our communities that can not afford to replace this item."

So far, according to Education Director Lowell Nicklaus, that hasn't been a huge issue.

He says although there have been a few instances of broken screens, students are thus far proving to be trustworthy keepers of their iPads.

"And we're learning how to fix some of the problems in-house, too, so that repair costs are reduced so that we (the school district) can absorb that," said Nicklaus, adding that the school district has not made any parents pay for any damages up to this point, as so far everything has seemed "purely accidental."

And although not everybody is going to be an iPad fan, there are plenty of supporters of the initiative who say the technology is getting students excited to learn.

Detroit Lakes Public Librarians have been into the classrooms, showing kids how to access the library's e-books, which has kids visiting the library and checking out books from wherever they're at.

Zunich says he's able to get instant feedback from students as he teaches them with the iPad because of an instant response system that shows how many kids understand what he's teaching as he's going. It gives him a better idea as to whether or not he needs to go into further detail or explain something more before that lesson is over.

"They're creating projects on them, making movies, researching the Internet," said Zunich, who says his students email him any time, day or night, with questions about their homework.

So what happens to these fifth-graders next year when their iPads are then handed down to next year's batch of fifth graders?

"Certainly my hope is that at the minimum we add sixth-grade so we have fifth and sixth, but we are having discussions with the technology group and board members to expand it even faster than that," said Nicklaus, acknowledging that money to purchase an additional 1,000 iPads for each sixth through 12th grade student and train teachers to use them is an issue.

"But I think this is a change that's occurring in education that's really going to have an impact on the future," said Nicklaus.