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Madison teachers will soon be handing out Apples to students.

The School District for the first time plans to buy more than 600 iPads for use in the majority of schools this spring. Another 800 iPads are expected to be in classrooms by next fall, all paid for with money from a state settlement with Microsoft.

District officials are enthusiastic about the possibilities presented by tablets, from students wirelessly sharing classroom work to replacing workbooks purchased each year with online "apps." Other districts in Dane County and around the state are already experimenting with tablets.

In Madison, the popular computing device presents a "jumping off" moment for technology in classrooms that hasn't happened with desktop and laptop computers, said Bill Smojver, the district's director of technical services.

"This is the most significant transition point for having digital learning at the optimal level," Smojver said.

Compared with computers, tablets are cheaper, more portable and easier to use, Smojver said. And as Madison administrators found at a recent demonstration in Chicago Public Schools, students were more engaged in classrooms using tablets, deputy superintendent Sue Abplanalp said.

Apple recently announced it would make textbooks available through its iBooks application, which Smojver called a "significant development." Abplanalp said the district will proceed cautiously in considering whether to replace textbooks with electronic versions. 

"We're very open to what technology is going to bring us next," she said.

Pending School Board approval Monday, the iPads will debut in 20 elementary schools, 10 middle schools, and Memorial, Shabazz and West high schools by mid-March.

Principals have proposed using the tablets in a variety of ways. Sandburg Elementary, which is receiving the most iPads with 105, plans to experiment with each student in four classrooms accessing a device. Other schools, like Gompers Elementary, which is receiving two iPads, are allowing teachers to experiment with use in their planning and record-keeping.

Paid for by settlement

The iPads are being paid for with part of $3.4 million from a state-negotiated settlement with Microsoft. Wisconsin received nearly $80 million in technology vouchers as part of the 2009 settlement related to a consumer lawsuit over software.

In December the School Board approved a plan to divide $2.1 million of the settlement among the schools with each getting $85.09 per student. Some schools chose to spend that money on iPads while others spent it on laptops, smart boards, projectors or other technology upgrades.

The district plans to spend an additional $442,000 of settlement funds on iPads, which it can buy for $479 apiece.

The state doesn't track how many districts are using tablet technology or other 21st century learning tools, but Naomi Harm, a Minnesota-based tech consultant, said her company has worked with more than 50 school districts in Wisconsin implementing iPad technology.

State Superintendent Tony Evers is expected next week to release a statewide digital learning plan that has been developed over the past year by a group of state and local technology experts.

Kurt Kiefer, assistant state superintendent for libraries, technology and community learning, said Utah has recently announced a project to develop open source digital textbooks. The digital learning plan will recommend exploring those kinds of options more aggressively, he said.

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