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iPads everywhere in Farmington schools

Chemistry teacher Mark Froehling asks students about the unit they just completed. iPads have allowed students in Froehling's class to work at their own pace.

It's hard to get away from iPads at Farmington High School. Walk into a classroom and they're propped up on nearly every desk. Stand in the hallway, and you can watch students walk from class to class with their eyes fixed on the glowing screen. Even in a ceramics class, students have the tablet computers in front of them playing instructional videos as they work on their latest projects.

As the district completes its rollout of iPads to students this week, it seems clear that while new technology hasn't yet revolutionized education at FHS, which in December became the first Farmington building to put an iPad in every student's hands full time, there are definitely signs of evolution taking place.

At FHS, students use iPads to take notes or to work on projects. Hardcover textbooks are being replaced with electronic versions, and backpacks are all of a sudden a whole lot lighter.

"I think it's definitely made things easier, since I don't have to carry my big notebook," freshman ReAnn Qui said.

Principal Ben Kusch said nearly all FHS staff have found some way to make use of the technology, even if it's only to replace paper handouts with electronic versions.

Some are doing a lot more than that. For chemistry teachers Mark Froehling and Lewis Miskowicz, iPads have become an important part of a teaching method known as a flipped classroom. Instead of lecturing during class time, Froehling assigns video podcasts for students to watch at home. In school, students work on what would formerly have been homework.

Walk into Froehling's classroom and you might not even realize class is in session. On a recent Friday morning, students sat alone or in groups working on problems. It's possible no two groups was working on exactly the same set of questions. The addition of iPads has allowed students to work at their own pace. Froehling sets a minimum progress rate for students, but many work ahead. When they get to the end of a section, they take the test. If they pass, they move on to the next part of the lesson plan.

That can create some challenges for Froehling. He has to keep track of where his students are in their lessons. Instead of setting up one lab experiment for all students to do together, he might have to set up seven separate labs for students who are progressing at different rates.

"You do have to keep track of the paperwork of following the kids who are falling behind," Froehling said.

Froehling sees benefits to the new setup. It's much easier for him to work one-on-one with students, and it's harder for a student who is struggling to slip through the cracks.

"You can't sit on the sideline and kind of muddle your way through chemistry," Froehling said. "You can't hide."

Kusch likes to see that kind of customized education. Allowing students to work at their own pace -- and to explore topics in a way that makes the most sense to them -- is one of the features that came up most as the district talked about whether to go all-in on iPads.

In another part of the building, choir teacher Megan Dimich sees different benefits to the addition of iPads to the classroom. She has scanned all of the sheet music her students will use, and she said about half have put away folders filled with paper music in favor of the electronic versions.

Dimich has recorded piano accompaniment for all students so they can practice their parts whenever they want. She believes students are learning songs faster than they used to.

On Friday, Dimich used the iPads to record students' auditions for the Missota Conference Select Choir. The full choir sang the audition song, with students recording themselves on their own iPad. In the past, Dimich would have had to find time before or after school to record each student individually.

Bringing iPads into the classroom is still a work in progress at FHS, and it's clear there is a learning curve as teachers and students find out what works and what doesn't. At a Monday night meeting school board member Julie Singewald expressed some frustration with the fact each teacher seems to have a favorite application or web site for students to use.

"I'm seeing a Mecca of stuff, which is awesome, but it can be overwhelming when the expectations are not standard," Singewald said. "I'm nervous. I don't know how to keep up with some of this stuff.... I swear it took three months to learn all the places they're supposed to be."

But students and teachers say they are seeing signs of progress even since December.

"They're definitely figuring out better ways as we're going," senior Chloe Halvorson said.

Kusch expects that to continue. He compared the process to a snowball rolling downhill.

"What I would expect to see would be a continuous growth of momentum as we've had time to talk about it, as we've had time to learn about it, as we've had time to grow professionally with it," he said.

Nathan Hansen

Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.

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