March 26, 2013

As a junior in college, I watched with classmates as euphoric Germans scaled the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989. Over the next weeks, the wall would fall. History changed before our eyes. The Cold War - which so many of us in our youth thought perpetual, a defining element of our existence as Americans - was ending.

Something else happened in those weeks. Hundreds of textbooks for international relations and political-science classes became obsolete. All of this happened in the days before cellphones and the Internet.

It's the risk of printing books expected to have shelf lives of years.

Carroll Community School District students won't face the same issue I did with those textbooks in college thanks to a forward-thinking program approved by the Carroll School Board March 14.

According to a story in The Daily Times Herald by Jared Strong and Paige Godden, the school district will purchase about 1,000 low-dollar laptops built by Samsung and Google that will go to Carroll students in grades six through 12.

The computers - which are about $250 apiece - will cost an estimated $250,000 plus a start-up fee of $30 for each computer and additional costs for protective cases. The board estimated that implementing just the computers will cost about $430,000.

"It will be exciting as we move forward," Carroll Schools Superintendent Rob Cordes said. "I think science and math textbooks will still be here - two plus two will always be four - but some of the social-studies texts may not. As fast as things change, some textbooks just can't keep up."

Cordes did extensive research on the plan before implementing it. He went so far as to take a technology class through University of Northern Iowa and poll students and teachers. He also organized a committee of stakeholders in the district to examine what is known as the one-on-one plan.

The move is at once innovative and frugal. The district can reach students in unlimited ways, all the while saving money on textbooks and paper, and avoiding the obsolescence of certain printed materials.

"The textbook was gospel," Cordes told me Monday morning.

No more.

I called Cordes because the story we published received attention from legislative leaders in Des Moines who told me what Carroll is doing with the laptops should be a model for other schools. Cordes is quick to give credit to the Council Bluffs schools, and those in Leyden, a Chicago suburb, for inspiring the Carroll project.

The one-on-one program will demand more active learning from students. It's not possible to just passively flip through a textbook, accepting its information as truth, maybe highlighting a paragraph or two.

With the computer-learning system students will be expected to think critically, challenge information, find their own angles, explore elements of historical events more deeply, delve into science. This decentralizes learning, empowering parents and families to use the school as a foundation - and then reach beyond that.

It's terrifically exciting for the Carroll Community School District - one of those wonderful stories that makes us realize how much fuller life can be for today's generation of students whose minds are no longer held back by the accident of geography, living in a more remote part of the planet.

Cordes surveyed Carroll teachers of all grade levels about implementing the one-on-one initiative. Of those who responded, 64 percent said they were comfortable integrating technology into a class and 89 percent said they support the one-on-one initiative.

High School Vice Principal Tammie McKenzie says that this marks a rebirth of learning in schools across the country.

"I've seen staff members in our building that have a new thirst for learning," McKenzie said.

What's most encouraging about this program is that the Carroll Schools have embraced the role of pioneers. We doubt this is an isolated announcement.

We're eager to see what other innovations emerge under what is clearly an intellectually invigorated leadership in the Carroll Community School District.