The future is now

Editor’s note: This article is the first of a three-part series on the implementation of technology in Hamilton County schools.

The future is coming to Webster City schools.

Nearly two years in the making, the Webster City school district is planning to roll out a program in mid-October that will put an iPad tablet in the hands of every student and teacher.

Superintendent Mike Sherwood said that two years ago the time came when the district regularly looks at upgrading its computer labs. The cost of that regular upgrade was about $250,000.

“So we were at a point where we had to either upgrade our labs or move to something else,” Sherwood said. “We decided that, opposed to investing that money into labs, let’s move to a one-to-one device where the technology is available 24/7 to kids and each student has their own device.”

There was much research to be done before that decision was reached. Several committees were formed to find out what device would work best for students and how other school districts had implemented similar programs. District Technology Director Mark Murphy said Webster City will benefit from not showing up to the party early.

“We had the chance to learn from some other district’s mistakes,” Murphy said. “A lot of people gave us pointers on what they would do if they were doing it again.”

The decision of which device to purchase for the district fell mostly to a subcommittee of several people. Murphy said the three paths the committee saw were to either stay with the desktop computer labs, purchasing laptops or purchasing mobile devices like a Windows tablet or an iPad. The committee considered what device the district would be able to sustain going forward and the cost of implementing the device.

“What that looked like more and more was the Apple iPad as the device we would go with,” Murphy said.

Sherwood said the district could have purchased laptops that might have cost a couple thousand dollars each for the district, but their budget would limit those devices to Webster City High School.

“[The iPad] may not meet all of our needs for every teacher,” Sherwood said. “But when we look at the money, it puts a device in all of our student’s hands as opposed to one particular building or grade level.”

Making the investment

In July, the school board made the decision to lease 1,720 iPads for four years for the district at a total cost of $906,000. Of those devices, 1,470 are regular-sized iPad tablets and 250 are iPad minis. The smaller version has a 7.9 inch display and the regular version has a 9.7 inch display. The iPad minis will be used in pre-kindergarten through 1st grade classrooms. Sherwood said the smaller tablets will be easier to use for the youngest of students. The larger iPads for students in 2nd grade and up are also required for Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) testing as the smaller model is not compatible with the program. MAP testing measures a student’s general knowledge in math, science and reading.Additionally, Sherwood said the district has invested about $350,000 in its wireless network and solidifying the network remains one of the challenges the district will face during the roll out. While the district has yet to see how the network will fare with upward of 600 students online at once at Webster City High School, Murphy said several professional development days at that school have been a good stress test. On Sept. 16, the school had about 400 people, including local and visiting teachers and staff, connected to the network.

“What we’ve seen is we’ve gotten better,” Murphy said. “We’ve fine tuned after every one of those events. We’re in the process of doing that again from our last event. It’s just one of those things that you can’t expect it to be perfect when it rolls out. If you had to wait until it was all perfect, you’d never have it done.”

The district has also invested money in peripherals for the iPads, which cost about $100,000 according to Sherwood. The cases, power supplies and the iPads themselves will all have laser engravings to identify them as property of the district. Rather than choosing to get each item engraved at a minimum cost of $8 through another company, the district chose to purchase its own laser engraver at a cost of $14,000. Each iPad and peripheral “package” for a single student or teacher takes about 20 minutes to engrave. At 40 hours a week, it will take about 14 weeks to get all of them done and Sherwood said he expects the engraving to be completed by the time the district rolls out the tablets.

All of this planning and expense will roll out in the district in mid-October. Sherwood said the final roll out date will be determined early next week with the recommendation of the technology committee. Currently, there is no computer lab at Sunset Heights Elementary and Sherwood said that school and Pleasant View Elementary will likely see the iPads first. From there, the roll out will continue to Webster City Middle School and then Webster City High School. Overall, Sherwood said the roll out will continue over a period of a few weeks before it is completed.

Once those tablets are in the hands of students, they are largely responsible for the devices. A digital citizenship committee is laying out the care policy for the devices. Students will also be charged a small textbook fee when they receive the iPads that will help cover any damages to the devices. However, Steve Haberman, Principal of Clarion-Goldfield Middle School said at a Sept. 16 professional development presentation that his school saw just minor damage to only three tablets over a year after a similar program was rolled out in his district. Students will also be assessed for the cost of the iPad if it is lost.