High school gives all students iPads and somehow it all works out

A young girl holds an Apple iPad on display at Regent Street's Apple store in London, England.

Jeff Bertrang is the principal of Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop High School, located in south central Minnesota. When the iPad debuted in 2010, his school decided to make the investment and buy one for each student, about 375 iPads in all. Bertrang wanted his students to have the latest technology but beyond that, he didn't want them to have to go to a computer lab to get it. The tablet purchase was part of a program sponsored by Apple.

Jeff says the program was a success for the most part, enough that they're going to stay with it in the school year coming up. "I think what worked well is teaching strategies, instead of just giving the iPads to the kids, because then it's just a toy," he said. "We had to give the staff hands-on development and training with the iPad to understand how they works and how they related with the kids. A lot of the kids had iPods or iPhones and they understood touch technology, they understood apps. The teachers had to get up to speed on those things, but it doesn't take too long to figure it out."

As for what was a little bumpy, it was, in essence, the TV: "We know that when iPads were first deployed, YouTube is an app that comes with the operating system. But we learned that you don't want to keep YouTube on. So we blocked that or the kids would get lost in terms of their focus."

The first year saw 13 iPads dropped or crushed accidentally, another nine were misplaced or stolen. All were replaced because the students were required to take out insurance policies in order to get the iPads in the first place.

When the story first came out about Bertrang's progam, it was reported as a way of replacing textbooks, but he says that's too narrow a way of thinking. "The myth," he says, "is that textbooks drive what's in classrooms. Textbooks are just resources. The curriculum is what we need to make sure we hit with the kids. We're not focused so much on textbooks as we are on what resources the teachers can find. Through iTunesU, you could be looking at broadcasts of actual video from universities on how heart transplants work, you could talk to college professors about social studies and world history, you could actually face-time or Skype with other people across the globe. The resources are out there to make learning more applicable and real than just a textbook."

Bertrang says the presence of the iPads changed the school culture in some surprising ways. "We have a lot less paper being used," he says. "Teachers post on the wiki, the kids download it, work on it and send it back to teacher. What's interesting is kids would coordinate with teachers when they were gone -- on family vacation or at the doctor's office -- they'd still be able to do work. That was a good thing because they're engaged and learning. The down side is kids are more engaged. They're wanting to know instantly -- emailing teachers. Teachers had to put up parameters; they told students no emails after 8 p.m."

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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