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Idaho contemplates computer devices for students

Sun, 04/01/2012 - 3:05pm

The classrooms Tom Luna envisioned when campaigning for a 21st century education system look a lot like those taught in Star, 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 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 implement the changes recommended the device come in the form of a laptop computer.

Among the task force 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.

"It was kind of an eye opener for me," Luna said.

He predicted a competitive bidding process to determine exactly what device Idaho high school students will use starting in 2013. The plan is to equip teachers this fall, while students will be added next year, starting with one-third of high schools.

"I really believe that you will see responses ...that will demonstrate that there's many devices that vendors are convinced will meet the specifications, whether it's a laptop, whether it's an Apple product or a Dell product," Luna said. "I think you'll see that they'll be very competitive. Not just in price but also in capabilities."

Idaho may be months away from contracting for the devices, but Apple seems well positioned to take advantage.

Several districts purchased iPads and other Apple products with technology money set aside in 2011 under Luna's proposals. Some districts wanted to test the products first, so Luna's department launched the iPad Pilot Project in September.

The agency used leftover federal funds to purchase 110 iPads for school districts to borrow for their classrooms. Nine school districts are taking advantage of the program this year, while ten more signed up for next year.

But Luna dismissed the idea that Apple was being given a leg up in the coming bidding.

"I guess the perception may be there, but it sure wasn't part of the thought process at all," Luna said. "It was, 'Hey, let's get some out there so that people who want to can use these and start learning from them, and schools are excited to participate in it."

Luna insisted every company will get a fair shot at Idaho's contract, which is expected to be signed no later than July 1.

The selection of a device for Idaho teachers and students will be overseen by the Division of Purchasing at the state Department of Administration, which is headed by Luna's sister, Teresa Luna. Last summer, her agency cautioned Luna's task force against contact with computer vendors eyeing Idaho.

That advice was taken, Luna said.

When visiting schools to review student use of various devices, Luna said it was made clear that computer representatives shouldn't be in attendance. At one point, the group was invited to meet with Microsoft officials but declined.

Apple is among 10 computer companies that took the initial step toward vying for Idaho's contract, responding to a request for information about their products.

Lenovo promoted the durability of its ThinkPad Tablet, a laptop that has a spill-resistant keyboard. Kuno showcased its education-focused computer tablet, with its neatly organized desktop and "very few icons that can distract students."

Hewlett-Packard recommended a notebook or tablet, but specifically highlighted the HP Mini, a laptop with a 10-inch screen that weighs less than 3 pounds. Dell, IBM, Cisco and Fujitsu also submitted proposals but those were exempt from disclosure under the trade secrets portion of Idaho's public records laws.

Apple detailed specifications for its iPad, which remains the most popular tablet computer - having sold 55 million since 2010 - despite competition from less expensive devices.

"We're going to be marketed to," Luna said. "There's no doubt that Apple, and Dell and HP and any of these players are going to try to make their case. They'll all have equal opportunity, and it'll be a very transparent process."

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Jessie L. Bonner can be reached at www.twitter.com/jessiebonner

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