On a recent morning at Madison’s Huegel Elementary School, Jodi Alt informed her 23 fifth-graders they were about to have a pop quiz sprung on them.
Oddly, an excited murmur swept through the classroom.
Alt had said the magic word: Kahoot. It’s the name of a research-based computer learning game, one of the small ways Alt is incorporating technology into her lesson plans.
Alt’s school is one of six in the Madison School District where all students this year have instant classroom access to computer tablets, the first wave of the district’s new technology plan.
Her students had just read a printed magazine article on space exploration and were now to be tested on their comprehension. They logged onto their Dell Venue tablets.
The night before, Alt had created 10 multiple-choice questions based on the space article. As each question appeared on a large screen in the classroom, students picked from four answers on their tablets while “Jeopardy”-like music played and an on-screen clock ticked down.
After each question, a graph popped up showing how many students chose each of the four answers, and which answer was correct.
“Everybody loves it,” Anna Jordan, 10, said later. “It’s fun because it’s competitive and you can work on your skills and how fast you answer.”
For students, the five-minute game reinforced what they needed to learn.
For Alt, it served as a stealth assessment tool, one she uses maybe twice a week.
“On my laptop, I can see how every student answered every question, so I know who understands a concept and who needs more help,” she said.
Prior to this school year, Madison spent about $1.5 million a year on technology — paltry for a district of more than 25,000 students, officials said.
The money went for things like computer labs and carts of laptops that circulate among classrooms.
This is a whole new phase called one-to-one computing, meaning every student has a tablet or laptop. The state Department of Public Instruction encourages the approach.
“Inevitably, everybody is moving this way,” said Kurt Kiefer, DPI’s assistant state superintendent for libraries and technology and a former chief information officer for the Madison School District.
He declined to estimate where Madison falls on the technology spectrum, but he said it’s fair to say some Wisconsin districts have moved more rapidly to embrace it and others are still struggling.
“What Madison has done is create a very, very solid road map,” he said. “Now it’s an issue of how quickly they can implement it.”
The district doubled its technology budget this year to $3 million, out of an operating budget of about $350 million. Technology spending is slated to grow annually by $625,000, to about $6 million in five years.
The district’s stated goal is to ensure that, within seven to eight years, “every student has access to a computing device when they need it.”
For kindergarten and first grade, that means at least one device for every two students. At the other grades, it’s one-to-one. The original hope was to achieve this goal in five years, but fiscal realities intervened.
The six schools in the first technology wave this year are Huegel, Gompers, Sandburg and Shorewood Hills elementary schools and Sennett and Whitehorse middle schools. No additional schools are set to be added until the 2017-18 school year.
The district is leasing the Dell Venue tablets used by elementary students. The cost to put the device in the hands of a student for one year is $126.55, the district said. For now, the students are not allowed to take them home.
District officials have sold the idea as a 21st century must-have, saying technology is an essential instructional tool that will enhance great teaching, not distract from it.
Part of their goal is to bridge the gulf between those who have ready access to computers at home and those who don’t. In a survey last year, 15 percent of Huegel parents said they did not have a computer in their home.
In preparing the plan, the district hired Tammy Stephens of the Milwaukee area, a national expert on educational technology, to survey the academic research on one-to-one computing and student achievement. She found mixed results but cautioned that it’s early.
In her report, Stephens said it’s more important how a one-to-one program is implemented than the quantity or the type of devices purchased. A district should have a clear vision, sustainable funding, an evaluation process and a training program for teachers.
Madison has a newly expanded instructional technology department that includes three coaches who work full time with teachers. Before schools get devices, the teachers spend the prior year on professional development related to using them.
“You have to focus on the pedagogy or you won’t make a difference with kids and the devices will just turn into heavier notebooks,” said Richard Halverson, a UW-Madison education professor and an expert on technology and learning.
Research results have been particularly strong when it comes to computers improving engagement, with technology leading to students being more interested in school, absent less often and better behaved, Stephens found.
That’s been the case in Leah Nelson’s kindergarten classroom at Huegel. A veteran teacher, she was an early adopter of technology, applying for a district grant three years ago to outfit her classroom with iPads.
Test scores for reading improved in her classroom, she said, and referrals to the principal’s office for behavior problems dropped significantly.
Yet she stressed that she uses the tablets only 30 to 45 minutes a day. Her classroom retains all of the tactile wonders of early childhood, from crayons and building blocks to stacks of books.
The district is sensitive to parents who may be concerned about too much screen time, said Cindy Green, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction. Although teachers have not been told how much or how little to use the tablets, the technology is strictly for the lessons at hand, not for free time, she said.
During the day the State Journal spent in Alt’s classroom at Huegel, the students spent 48 minutes on their tablets, out of an instructional day of just over seven hours. Alt said that was typical and that she didn’t envision the total time increasing, with the possible exception of students using the devices for Internet research for a classroom project.
At one point, the fifth-graders were given the option of doing a short writing assignment either on paper or on their tablets. Five chose paper, including Alexander LeRoy.
He said sometimes the tablet isn’t the most efficient way for him to do something. His typing skills are so-so, he said, and he sometimes finds it hard to edit on a screen.
During the single longest stretch of tablet use, students spent about 30 minutes in math class learning the rules that define which procedures to perform first — add, subtract, multiply — to solve an equation. They used their fingers to write the equations on their tablet screens as Alt walked them through it by projecting her work on the large screen.
“Who wants to mirror with me?” Alt asked, as hands shot up.
The technology allows Alt to instantly show, or mirror, a student’s tablet on the large screen for everyone to see. It’s akin to the old and often dreaded practice of being called to the chalkboard to solve a problem in front of the class, yet this approach seems to be considered an honor.
“It helps in math to be really excited about what you’re doing,” said Edie Maysack-Landry, 11, one of the students whose work was mirrored.
She said she writes stories on a personal iPad at home at night and that it would be “sort of lame” not to have the same access to technology at school.
“It’s going to be everywhere when we’re adults,” she said. “We need to know how to use it.”