Got questions? Don't raise your hand, just look on your iPad

While many regard Apple's iPad as an expensive toy, Barnum Elementary School Principal Tom Cawcutt would beg to differ. In the right hands - in this case, the hands of 5- to 12-year-old children - the tablet computing device becomes an amazing tool.

Randi Lembke's kindergarten class
Randi Lembke's kindergarten class shows how they can handle the school's new iPads, and how happy they are to do it. Contributed Photo

While many regard Apple's iPad as an expensive toy, Barnum Elementary School Principal Tom Cawcutt would beg to differ.

In the right hands - in this case, the hands of 5- to 12-year-old children - the tablet computing device becomes an amazing tool.

Earlier this month, the Barnum School District purchased 30 iPads for the elementary school, plus 30 HP laptop computers for the high school. Both purchases went hand-in-hand with the district's installation of WiFi in both school buildings, and will supplement both schools' existing computer labs without the schools needing to find space to add more computer labs. They are traveling computer labs and more.

"The iPads are much easier for younger students to hold and manipulate than a laptop," said Cawcutt. "They can read e-books on the iPad, do research on the Internet, use the dictionary, even maneuver math manipulatives."

He described how a classroom full of kindergarten students could move blocks around on an iPad screen instead of waiting to use a set of shaped blocks for a math exercise. Or how a pre-reading student could put on a set of headphones and listen and look at "The Cat in the Hat" book, complete with introductory music and a highlight box that shows which word the narrator is reading.


Not amazing enough?

Consider the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

"I can pull up GoogleEarth and see real time photos," the principal said. "The kids are instantly engaged in what's going on."

Cawcutt displays the district's recently purchased Encyclopedia Britannica book on dinosaurs on the iPad screen. With it, a whole classroom of students could access the volume's drawings, research materials, videos and more.

"I would never want to discount the value of picking up a book, but if they can get more kids interested by making it digital, engaging them more quickly, then that's great," Cawcutt said, also pointing out that the e-book editions cost much less than purchasing a set of hard-cover books (that might soon be out of date) for the district.

If other Barnum School District officials had any qualms about how much the district's new wireless system would be used at the high school, which is highly unlikely, those fears would have disappeared within hours of installation.

Superintendent David Bottem told how, the same day the system was installed last week and before anyone had informed the high school that WiFi was available, the students were already accessing it.

"If you come into the building and access our WiFi, we can tell what device you are using and what you are doing," Bottem said. "That same afternoon, [the consulting firm for the district] was here and they went to check the system and found that kids were already using it with their smartphones."


The Barnum district's WiFi has three levels of accessibility: one for the public, one for students and one for staff. So, for example, if a parent was watching Barnum's talented basketball team in the gym, that person could check his e-mail or look at the school website during the game via a smartphone, or even get onto the parent portal to see what kind of assignments his child needed to complete by the next day. Other things, such as music downloads, would not be a permitted public or student use on the new system.

While Bottem firmly believes WiFi is the future of the Internet, the district is also expanding its Internet bandwidth. During the summer of 2011, fiber Internet access will be installed in the school facilities. In addition to providing an increase in bandwidth from 3 megabytes to 13 megabytes per second, the new fiber Internet access and the district's currently used T-1 lines will back each other up should either system fail.

For now the iPads and laptop computers are available for teachers to use in their classrooms, not for students to bring home from school.

Cawcutt hopes in the future students will be able to check out an iPad for use at home.

With an iPad in hand, elementary school students can submit homework digitally, do digital flash cards that tell them if they're wrong or right, play educational games, see what's happening on the other side of the world, access the most up-to-date information available ... the list goes on.

"Everything [that is permitted by the district's protective firewall] you can think of, the arts, math, photography, your local newspaper," Cawcutt said. "All it takes is the right teachers to work with it."

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