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Whitnall district will use iPads to turn the page on paper textbooks

Photo By Mike De Sisti

Feb. 19, 2013

Greenfield - Picture schools without textbooks.

It's coming to the Whitnall School District, at least in a transition phase this fall at one school, but the days of those paper books could be entering a final chapter.

Beginning in the 2013-14 school year, Whitnall Middle School will go completely digital, with all students using an iPad. Paper textbooks will still be available, but maybe not for long, judging by the experience eighth-grade math and social studies teacher Kathryn Kaiser is having with her class.

Kaiser is already ahead of the game. Her classroom doesn't rely on textbooks - she prefers to use the same curriculum in the other eighth-grade classrooms that she finds online and for free. She still has textbooks, if students want them, but only two have asked for them.

"Our kids have adapted to it," Kaiser said of the digital revolution.

Technological limits

Digital is great but only to a point, acknowledged Eric Gran, Whitnall education technology director.

Going 100 percent for technology is not as useful in fourth grade and under, where lessons include handwriting, he said.

Technology could expand upward from middle school to high school freshmen and sophomores, he said, but it will be tougher for upperclassmen.

In the higher grades, other factors limit technological leaps.

The problem with the curriculum for juniors and seniors is that there is so much mingling of students in those upper grades that going digital would have to happen in one big and expensive shot, Gran said. Another limiting factor is whether the high school curricula Whitnall uses will be available in digital form.

But school districts in Oshkosh and Portage have gone 100 percent digital in their high schools, apparently being able to match their curriculums with online texts. But they both found they had to provide more-costly laptops to their juniors and seniors, Gran said.

Witnessing the evolution

A group of Whitnall educators visited the Milton School District, which went 100 percent digital two years ago.

Kaiser, who was in that group, said she saw children engaged and interested in their lessons.

"They all seemed like they wanted to be there," Kaiser said. "And from the teacher's point of view, engagement is huge."

The technology helps organize students by having assignments on their calendars, and parents can keep track of those assignments, she said.

One teacher Kaiser spoke with said the digital classroom has saved time.

Even a Milton leader teacher who was a technophobe is now sold on the digital classroom, Gran said.

Phasing in iPads

But Whitnall is starting with small steps, Gran said.

This year, carts with iPads are available for every grade, kindergarten through 12th. This fall, each classroom from kindergarten through fifth grade will have learning centers with five iPads. In grades six through eight each student will have an iPad.

Teachers in some grades use the iPads like flashcards in math and English. Students also do extra exercises on them. Digital workbooks are far more interactive, especially at the earlier grades where cartoon characters pop out and celebrate when the student gives the correct answer, Gran said.

The kids love that, he said.

High school students use iPads for many things, including finding and mapping the locations of ancient cities, Gran said.

The teachers are going through concentrated training to be able to use technology effectively, he added.

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