THIEF RIVER FALLS – On his iPad Mini screen, Challenger Elementary second-grader Max Arlt steered his computerized truck around a clogged racetrack with one hand and worked math problems with the other.

“The faster you answer the math question, the faster your truck goes,” the 7-year-old explained.

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His multitasking of steering and doing short division was not happening at recess or lunchtime. The gaming was happening during class time, an example of what education circles characterize as the “gamification of education,” the use of computer games for learning.

The iPad Mini, a handheld device, is not a gimmick nor is it a reward for good behavior, at least not in teacher Kayla Delzer’s room. It is integrated into every subject in her curriculum.

“For the students, it’s more fun than anything else,” Delzer said. “The beauty of it is they don’t realize they’re learning in the process.”

And, she said, her students are learning more and learning quicker than her previous five classes, who didn’t have their own devices. She gives much of the credit to the school system’s first-year initiative to have a device for each of its 2,000 students in grades K-12 and each of its 250 faculty/staff.

Delzer already has noticed scholarly advancements.

“Typically, our second-graders don’t do any multiplying or dividing until the last week or two of the school year,” she said. “But they’re learning them now because they want to pass to the next level on their game.

“The best part of this is how much more they are motivated and engaged.”

Leveling the playing field

Not every classroom is as engaged with computers as Delzer’s. The level of involvement is up to each teacher.

“There are some classes where the computer isn’t taken out of its bag,” said Tim Vagle, the school district’s technology coordinator.

“Change is always tougher for teachers than kids.”

For Vagle, the best part of the initiative is that it has “leveled the playing field” for students whose families can’t afford the technology.

“It doesn’t matter if your parent is a vice president or a line worker at Digi-Key and Arctic Cat,” he said. “Everyone has the same access.”

More high school students are gathering in the commons area at the end of the school day to access the school’s Wi-Fi. Freshman Samantha Streets is one of them.

“It’s a lot easier getting homework done now,” she said. “Also, it helps in getting in contact with teachers through email.

“At first, I thought it was a dumb idea because students would be distracted by Facebook and Twitter. There has been a little of that, but most have been responsible. Everyone thinks it’s pretty cool to have computers at school and be able to take them home.”

Investment of $1.5 million

Supplying each student with their own device is not unique among Minnesota schools. But it’s rare, especially in the public sector, Vagle said.

While TRF students in grades K-3 are issued iPad Minis, which cost the school system $350 apiece, those in grades 4-8 receive a $500 iPad  and those in grades 9-12 get a $1,000 MacBook Air laptop.

“Our situation is unique in using differing devices,” Vagle said. “Other schools are doing all iPads. But, I know of only one other public school (suburban Eden Prairie) that is issuing MacBook Airs in grades 9-12.”

Students in grades 6-12 can leave school with their device.

“We’re hoping they take the device home to use for homework, but they’re not limited to using it just for that,” Vagle said. “The school district is not in the business of telling the kids what they can do at home. That’s the parents’ job.”

The three-year cost of the technology for students and staff is about $1.5 million, according to Vagle. At the end of the three years, the district can opt to keep the devices, sell them to students or trade them in at 25 percent of their cost. No matter the chosen option, plans are to continue issuing technology to all students for at least 12 years.

The technology question was part of a 2011 referendum for $54 million that also asked for improvements to the district’s three school buildings. The measure passed with 52 percent approval.

“Technology is the pencil and paper of the past,” Superintendent of Schools Laine Larson said. “It’s the way kids learn now. Their brains are wired differently than ours.”

Students as teachers

On Jan. 20, Thief River Falls was host to an all-day technology conference that attracted about 500 teachers and administrators from the region. They were there to learn how the school district had used its new technology during the first five months.

Teaching the teachers included 16 second-graders from Delzer’s classroom. Each second-grader worked with two teachers, showing them how the apps worked.

“It was a way of not just teaching teachers, but enlightening teachers about how much kids of that young age know,” Vagle said. “It was a way to show teachers how much kids that age can do, so don’t limit them.”

Second-grader/technology tutor Carlie Rogalla made a different pitch during her time with her two teachers.

“I told the teachers it’s more fun to learn this way,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s boring to learn on paper.”