With a plan in motion in the Cedar Rapids school district to give all secondary students a laptop or tablet within the next two years, the district is set to join scores of other Iowa districts with one-to-one computing initiatives.
“This is the way the world is now,” said Ryan Rydstrom, the Cedar Rapids district’s associate director of access and instructional design. “We need to help students navigate that world in a safe and meaningful way.”
Under the district’s plan, students attending Cedar Rapids high schools will receive a device next fall and middle school students will receive one a year later.
Hundreds of Iowa schools have equipped students with MacBooks, Chromebooks, Windows Tablets and other computing devices since 2005, according to Iowa’s Area Education Agencies.
Many of those districts have smaller enrollment sizes and are in more rural areas of the state.
In the North Fayette Valley Community School District, about an hour northwest of Waterloo, Superintendent Duane Willhite said students began receiving personal computers six years ago.
Most rural districts use funds from a state penny sales tax known as SAVE — which can be used to purchase technology as well as finance facilities needs — said Willhite, who also holds a leadership role in the lobbying group Rural School Advocates of Iowa.
“In rural Iowa, especially as we’ve got small districts and we have the sales tax that we can use for equipment, we are able to use that to purchase the laptops,” he said. “A lot of smaller rural schools are doing that because they don’t have the building needs that more urban school districts do.”
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Years later, the Cedar Rapids district also plans to leverage SAVE funds to pay for devices for students. Rydstrom said the district has not yet chosen a brand or type of device to distribute.
He hopes the devices will help “break down barriers for learning” and improve equity for all students.
“The world is becoming more and more integrated with technology, meaning that we can access information at our fingertips,” Rydstrom said. “Kids can get answers to questions they might have in milliseconds. … The motivation for us to be able to go one-to-one is so students can really become creative and have critical problem solving skills — so they can be globally-competent citizens.”
Cedar Rapids’ middle school students won’t receive devices for another year-and-a-half, but McKinley Middle math teacher Molly Lamb said she already is looking forward to the shift. She has 10 laptops in her classroom, funded through a grant, and otherwise shares a cart of 28 laptops with five other teachers.
“They’re a hot commodity,” she said, adding that she uses web-based games to bolster her lessons. “It’s more interactive. ... It’s not the traditional paper and pencil. It keeps them engaged.”
Once the Cedar Rapids district identifies a type of device to purchase, Rydstrom said discussions will begin about how to “redesign what instruction looks like” in classrooms.
In the nearby Iowa City school district, officials chose to give junior high school students Google-brand laptops, Chromebooks, at the start of this school year. High-schoolers received the devices last fall, said Adam Kurth, the district’s director of technology and innovation.
Two years in, “instruction is changing,” said Kurth, noting it can take five to seven years before personal laptops are fully integrated into classroom curriculum.
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“That seems really long, but the reality is it takes a lot of time to change both instruction and instructional resources. It has had a really important impact making resources and assignments available 24/7.”
The vast majority of students in the Iowa City district — about 91 percent — have home internet connections, according to the district.
“The caveat there is some of those homes’ internet might be only in the form of a smartphone,” Kurth said. “That’s not necessarily all that useful, and there could be bandwidth limits.”
To address any lack of high-speed internet access at home, the district purchased internet hot spots that are available to high school students free-of-charge, as well as partnered with Sprint to provide hot spots to middle school students.
About 500 Iowa City students use the devices, Kurth said.
Internet service gaps impact Iowans in metro areas but are more pronounced in rural areas, according to Connect Iowa, a not-for-profit focused on expanding internet access. Tens of thousands of Iowans are considered unserved or underserved when it comes to a high-speed broadband connection at home, according the not-for-profit.
In North Fayette Valley, Superintendent Willhite said about 80 percent of parents reported having internet access in a survey issued a few years ago.
Without hot spots available to the district’s students, Willhite said connectivity has been a concern for the rural district. He said some students stay after school to download assignments, or complete work from the public library.
“When we started, we thought we’d try to get some internet service discounts (for families) or something, but not too many people took advantage of it,” Willhite said. “From that time on we’ve just kind of counted on kids being able to get to what they need when they need it.”
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