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Wired to learn

Paper, pencils and textbooks at Northern Cass School near Hunter, N.D., are making way for laptops, electronic pens and software. This school year, each junior and senior at the K-12 public school got a laptop computer. Next year, 10th-graders wi...

Paper, pencils and textbooks at Northern Cass School near Hunter, N.D., are making way for laptops, electronic pens and software.

This school year, each junior and senior at the K-12 public school got a laptop computer. Next year, 10th-graders will get one, too.

Students solve calculus problems on their computer screens, read literary classics online, and hand in assignments through the school's electronic network.

"We use the laptops almost every day in almost every class," senior Michelle Bjerke said.

While some states require laptops for students, Northern Cass is among just a few schools in North Dakota doing it, according to Superintendent Allen Burgad.


It's all part of the school's mission to be "on the cutting edge of learning," he says.

"It's not the technology, it's the way we learn," Burgad said. "The teacher is not the expert. Both the student and the teacher are learners in the classroom."

From math to art

Students in math teacher Heidi Salwei's class rarely use paper, except on tests to be sure there is no cheating, she said.

Students use their electronic pen to take notes on their laptop while Salwei teaches at the front of the classroom with a "Smart Board," an interactive, touch-screen that takes the place of a chalkboard.

By entering information on the Smart Board's six-foot-wide display, Salwei can solve and graph functions in two and three dimensions. Students then can upload her examples onto their laptops and review them later while doing their homework.

Salwei's lessons and any other worksheets or assignments can be saved and handed in on the school network, so even students who are absent can access and complete the day's work from home.

Students in English teacher Anne Nyberg's class are using their laptops to read "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," take accelerated-reading and practice ACT tests as well as research essay papers.


Nyberg said she teaches students how to use credible Web sites for research. Students frequently use the Online Dakota Informational Network ( www.odin.nodak.edu ), she said.

"We've talked a lot about Wikipedia and .orgs and some of those that are very iffy out there," she said. "They know and they've heard it over and over, don't believe everything that you find."

Family and Consumer Science teacher Karen Roach says students in her classes use their laptops about 75 percent of the time.

For her independent living class, students may research costs for a budget such as car prices and insurance, she said. Her child development class has an entirely online curriculum, and her foreign-foods class uses the laptops to find recipes and learn about the countries they came from, Roach said.

"I have a number of students who would claim to be nonreaders, but with the computer, they are reading," Roach said. "They just don't always know they are."

Students in Miriam Tobola's art class are using their laptops to create clay animation movies. Tobola said she also frequently uses the laptops during class for "teachable moments," such as looking up online information about an artist.

Next school year, at least six classes will use online textbooks, Burgad said.

On task


Senior Amber Shreiner says having her own laptop helps her stay organized, finish assignments quicker and find the most recent information. She's on it day and night, she said.

At home, Shreiner admits she's not always productive while using the laptop, watching movies or surfing the Web. But at school, she says students have to be "because they're watching."

A program called Vision Client allows teachers to see each student's screen on their own computer. If they see something they don't like, they can freeze it and take over the unit.

"It kind of helps keep you on task, you know you're being watched, so you're not going to do anything wrong," Shreiner said.

Wireless Internet is accessible throughout the school, but students are not allowed to instant message during class, play games, or access other inappropriate materials. They must be logged onto the school network.

Tech support

If a laptop malfunctions, is lost, stolen or forgotten at home, a school "tech-support desk" will try to fix the computer or provide another on loan.

The desk is run by about 10 students and is overseen by a technician four days a week. Students receive course credit for working the desk.


For the most part, students keep track of their laptops and take good care of them, senior Shallyn VanDenEinde said. Getting a loaner is more of a hassle than an excuse to get out of assignments, she said.

One computer was stolen this year, VanDenEinde said. But only the student it belonged to or an administrator would know the password to be able to use it, she said.

"The computer is like everybody's baby," she said. "(If) you don't have it, you're lost, so people make sure they have it with them."

Others interested

Following the laptop initiative, some area schools have shown interest in starting a program of their own.

Northern Cass has hosted seminars for the Ada-Borup (Minn.) School District and Oak Grove Lutheran School in Fargo.

Superintendent Burgad said he is aware of only one other laptop program in North Dakota, in the Stanley Public Schools.

Both Michigan and Maine have laws providing laptops to students, Burgad said.


"Our state hasn't even flirted with that idea yet," he said.

Eighty-five laptops to supply juniors and seniors, plus staff training, wireless Internet and other infrastructure at Northern Cass cost $130,000, according to Burgad.

Of that total, the School District paid about $50,000, he said. Local contributors, including Northern Cass alumni Doug Bergum who built Great Plains Software before it was sold to Microsoft, donated $50,000, and the school got a $25,000 EduTech grant. Students receiving the laptops also paid $50 each.

To sustain the laptop program, Burgad said it will cost about $55,000 a year. Graduating seniors will be able to purchase their laptop from the district, offsetting the cost to buy a new set for 10th-graders.

Reach Ricker at (701) 780-1104; (800) 477-6572, ext. 104; or aricker@gfherald.com .

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