Chicago-area school district gives free iPads to freshmen

District also invests in cloud computing, server virtualization

Freshmen in a Chicago-area school district now have a reason to be excited about coming to school: Free iPads.

Freshmen in a Chicago-area school district now have a reason to be excited about coming to school: Free Apple iPads.

Township High School District 214, located in Cook County, Illinois, has been plowing ahead on several technology upgrades in recent years, including cloud computing initiatives, server virtualization and, yes, free tablets for incoming freshmen. Keith Bockwoldt, District 214's director of technology, says the district has purchased around 850 tablets that students are now using as replacements for paper-based notebooks, calendars and even some text books that are available to them digitally. The result, he says, has been a dramatic reduction in paper that has helped keep students and teachers better organized.

"For the most part the students love using the iPad," he says. "There's no more lost papers or heavy books to carry around. And teachers love the fact that they can use Google Calendar to share assignments and deadlines with the students."

RELATED: 2011 tech priorities: Finding a place for iPads

Needless to say, issuing and keeping track of 850 tablets is a challenge, especially when those devices are issued to some high school students who may have a knack for breaking or losing expensive equipment. Bockwoldt says the district brings all parents of incoming freshmen in for meetings where they explain that each student will be held personally responsible for what happens to their tablet. Families also have the option of paying a $35 yearly insurance policy that will cover the cost of repairing or replacing tablets that are lost or broken.

The iPads also present the district with a big challenge when it comes to keeping the tablets' software up to date, as Bockwoldt says the district has experienced some problems updating all of its iPads from iOS 4 to iOS 5, a process that he says can take up to an hour to complete. It's been particularly challenging because he says the school has had to find ways to upgrade students' iPads that doesn't interfere with individual class time, but so far there's been no magic bullet to get it done efficiently.

From a data management perspective, Bockwoldt says the school has been mostly able to handle the increased data consumption from in-class tablet use as the school has a 1GB connection to Comcast Metro Ethernet's backbone and is upgrading to a 10GB connection in the near future. He says that bandwidth will keep getting cheaper once the district starts moving more data and desktop applications into the cloud, which will free up even more bandwidth for students to use.

"If we have a classroom with all 30 kids getting on YouTube and trying to stream HD video at once it might be problematic but that hasn't happened yet," he says.

Of course, District 214's iPad project isn't just about giving students cutting-edge devices but also giving them access to top-notch educational material. To help its schools ensure that there is a lot of quality content that can be accessed by those tablets, the district has enlisted the help of Comcast Metro Ethernet services to help it implement cloud computing, server virtualization and video streaming services that will not only enhance education but save money in energy and hardware costs. Bockwoldt says the ability for schools to create their own content and push it out to devices has been especially useful since the district has had trouble negotiating with some text book publishers over digital publishing rights.

"We have been creating a lot of our own digital curriculum in English and in math," he says. "If [text book publishers] don't hurry up, we're going to create all our own content and they'll be out of business."

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