La Center schools plug into the future

District embraces technology with use of iPads by students

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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photoShawn Link, a teacher at La Center High School, talks about how she has incorporated iPads into her classes. The La Center School District has taken steps toward creating wireless classrooms.

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LA CENTER — A hushed air hung over Rhea Heaton's first-period Spanish class at La Center High School, as students took an end-of-the-week quiz Friday. Light murmurs of students asking questions mingled with the gentle tapping of fingertips on illuminated screens.

In front of each student was an iPad — a tablet-style computer with a touch screen. Questions were displayed in Spanish and answered with the swipe of a finger. The days of Scantron sheets and No. 2 pencils are being phased out of the La Center School District, as it forges ahead with bolstering its technological resources.

Students in Heaton's Spanish class, and elsewhere at the high school, are part of a push toward creating a more wireless, paperless and collaborative classroom. Since the beginning of the school year, students and staff members have been using more than 100 iPads.

Students say the changes are a move in the right direction.

"I thought it was a lot easier than the paper format test," said sophomore Alex Firl, a student in Heaton's class. "For some reason, there's just something about technology that makes it a lot easier."

The tablets can be used as an all-in-one study aide, Firl said. He typically conducts research on them, watches videos or accesses lesson plans.

No more flipping through papers, Firl said. Or losing them.

Shawn Link, a teacher at La Center High School, said the move toward tablets in the classroom is part of a culture shift. For years, teachers had decried the high number of digital devices students were bringing into the classroom. Now, they're literally shoving them into kids' hands.

"Technology is their world," Link said. "We have to understand it's their world."

She said tablets in the classroom can actually bridge the student-teacher divide. And the reason for that is simple, Link said: Tablets allow students and teachers to communicate with each other in real time, making lesson plans and assignments more collaborative.

Still, implementing tablets into the classroom hasn't been cheap. The devices came with a $70,000 price tag, said Superintendent Mark Mansell.

Proponents of new technology in the classroom say the costs are worth it. In the last 30 years, computing costs have drastically decreased.

In 1980, a gigabyte of information storage could cost around $200,000. Today, a terabyte, or about 1,000 gigabytes, costs about $100, according to a June study by the Alliance for Excellent Education.

"It's really pushed us and made us look at things differently," Mansell said of putting tablets in the classroom "We see going to a one-to-one, where a student brings his own device, like they'd bring a backpack."

Still, the growth in wireless devices hasn't been entirely without complications. The iPads have resulted in a 60-percent increase in the number of devices that access the high school's Internet. As a result, bandwidth is being sucked dry.

The high school will conduct tests on Tuesday to determine exactly how much bandwidth is being gobbled up by the new devices. Administrators say they plan to boost the school's bandwidth capabilities.

School districts across the country are likely looking to do the same.

In 2010, President Barack Obama released his education technology plan calling on classrooms to implement more wireless devices into their curriculums.

Not surprisingly, computer companies have reacted quickly to the president's mandate.

Apple Inc., which developed the iPad, announced at the beginning of the year it would enter the digital textbook market. The computer mega company announced its iBooks digital bookstore would support interactive textbooks.

For now, every learning app the La Center School District uses is free. But digital textbooks are a tantalizing proposition for the future.

Superintendent Mansell said his long-term goal is to create a school district where all students are connected to their teachers, and where teenagers don't need to carry around 40-pound backpacks filled with books.

He admits: It will take time to get it absolutely right.

"Right now," Mansell said, "we're building an airplane and flying it at the same time."

Tyler Graf: 360-735-4517; http://www.twitter.com/col_smallcities;tyler.graf@columbian.com.