Idaho contemplates computer devices for students

Idaho is considering which devices to purchase as it looks to give every student a mobile learning device.

The classrooms Tom Luna envisioned when campaigning for a 21st-century education system look a lot like those taught in Star, Idaho, a town named after a 19th-century navigational tool used by travelers and miners.

With Idaho moving to new technology in its classrooms under reforms advanced by Luna, the state schools chief, he’s holding up Star Elementary as an example. The school sits about a mile from the site of the original schoolhouse, where a wooden star nailed to the front door was a key landmark in the 1800s.

Luna hopes Star classrooms can now serve as a different kind of guidepost, one for the future, one where students and teachers, as he often says, aren’t “bound by walls, bell schedules, school calendars, or geography.”

“If you’re looking for examples of how schools are transforming classrooms into 21st-century classrooms, look no further than Star Elementary,” Luna said in an eMail message inviting officials to join him on a recent tour.

Star Elementary is using Apple Inc. products, which are becoming more prevalent in Idaho schools. It’s a trend the state Department of Education has encouraged, launching a program that allows districts to borrow iPads for their students.

The technology push at Star Elementary is part of a Meridian School District project that pilots various devices in different schools. At Star Elementary, the technology was purchased with federal funds and money raised by the Parent-Teacher Association.

“This is the iTool building,” said Meridian superintendent Linda Clark.

On a recent morning, second graders demonstrated their reading skills by recording themselves with an iPod Touch device and eMailing the audio to their teacher for review. Fourth and fifth graders crunched math problems and studied grammar with iPads. A teacher showed off curriculum she developed with Apple software.

“I’m inspired by what I see here,” Luna said after the tour. “Every child was engaged, and that’s what we want to see in every school, and it’s important that every teacher have these tools in order to have a classroom like this.”

Under Luna’s reforms, schools across Idaho are using state funding to buy these same products for elementary and middle school students, with the goal of preparing them for the classrooms that await them in high school.

Idaho will start phasing in mobile computers for every high school teacher and student while making online courses a requirement to graduate. A task force helping to implement the changes recommended the device come in the form of a laptop computer.

Among the task force’s findings: Computer tablets, like iPads, work best in younger grades, while high school students do better with fully-functioning keyboards. That surprised Luna, who said he originally assumed the tablet approach worked well in kindergarten through 12th grades.

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