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Culler Middle School students will trade math textbooks for tablets this fall as Lincoln Public Schools tries out a fully digital curriculum for the first time.

The pilot will cost the district about $878,000 this year for the curriculum, supporting technology and infrastructure, and will provide a tablet for each student to take home and use in other classes. Some of that money will be used for technology upgrades to Riley Elementary, which feeds into Culler.

LPS, like school districts across the country, is struggling to navigate the tectonic shift from traditional textbooks, paper and pencils, to instruction delivered online — efforts often hampered by inadequate wireless access, slow Internet speeds, the cost of hardware and textbook publishers scrambling to figure out a new market.

Bottom line: It’s complicated.

“The impression that all of this can be done with a flip of a switch is not true," said Jane Stavem, LPS associate superintendent of instruction. "There’s a lot that goes into doing this well because we don’t want to sacrifice instruction.”

The district made its first big foray into digital instruction last year with a language arts curriculum that offered both digital and traditional instruction materials. And on the digital side there were bumps with both the program itself and wireless access at the district level.

But when it got bumpy they still had books and worksheets. In Culler math classes this fall, it will be all digital from the start.

Part of the reason LPS officials decided to pilot the program schoolwide was their experience putting the language arts curriculum in place. They piloted that curriculum at certain grades at different schools, which didn’t give them the best information about connectivity for a bigger audience.

“We felt like for a digital math pilot for middle school we’d learn more if we did the whole building at one time," said Jadi Miller, the district’s curriculum specialist.

LPS officials selected middle school math for a number of reasons: an update of the 2005 curriculum was overdue and middle school has just three grades. Advancing technology is one of the district’s strategic goals, and it has started connectivity upgrades districtwide with proceeds from a $153 million bond issue approved in February.

“It seemed like it was the perfect storm and a unique opportunity ... to try this,” Miller said.

A committee of educators reviewed digital math curricula, keeping their priority on quality instruction, said Matt Larson, math curriculum specialist. It wasn’t easy to find one they thought was both instructionally sound and fully digital.

The GO Math curriculum from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will allow teachers to organize lessons online, and students will do their assignments on tablets. Teachers will be able to customize individual lessons to give students extra practice on concepts they haven't mastered. And students will have 24-hour access to video tutorials, so if they’re stuck on a homework problem at home, they can watch a video to help them.

“This is some of the best digital content we’ve seen,” Stavem said. “This isn’t just the same math page in a PDF. That’s not what we’re looking for.”

If LPS dipped its collective toe in the digital waters with the language arts curriculum, the district is wading in with the math pilot.

Each student will have a tablet for math, but will also be able to use them to type a report in English, or do research in social studies — and that will give LPS officials important information about how well their infrastructure works, Langer said.

The pilot fits into a five-year, $55 million technology plan unveiled to the Lincoln Board of Education last year. The proposed 2014-15 general fund budget increases the regular $3 million technology budget by $1.4 million to help implement the plan, though money for the math pilot came out of this year's technology budget.

Initially that plan provided devices for every student from third through 12th grade. That’s been revised to fifth through 12th grade, said Technology Director Kirk Langer. That fits better with the four-year replacement cycle, and would generally mean students would keep one device from fifth to eighth grade and get a new one for high school, he said.

The technology plan also calls for devices in each school available for students K-4.

As part of the pilot, the district will add 150 tablet devices on carts at Riley Elementary to supplement the 56 existing laptops on mobile carts to help find the right ratio of computers per student in the lower grades.

Each Riley fifth-grader will get his or her own tablet this year, because those students be moving to Culler as sixth-graders. They’ll be able to use their tablets for the language arts curriculum — which is used through sixth grade — at Riley and as sixth-graders at Culler, and will have the device for middle school math.

About $13 million of a $153 million bond issue approved by voters in February is paying for fiber cables and wireless access points for all schools, and Culler is among the first group of schools getting the upgrades.

LPS general funds will pay for the pilot, including $90,321 to add wireless controllers and network switchers to both schools; $505,895 for 825 devices (at $559 apiece); $10,000 for the online curriculum subscription; and $271,400 for interactive classroom monitors and teacher iPads for each Culler classroom. The district made similar technology upgrades before putting the language arts curriculum in place. 

During the math pilot, officials will be looking at the savings, including paper and printing costs, to better gauge what savings would be districtwide, Langer said.

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The district chose Lenovo Yoga devices, which have keyboards but can also be used as tablets. The math lessons will require students to use a stylus to work out some math problems longhand, in addition to filling in numbers in problems laid out in the online workbooks.

District officials wouldn’t share cost estimates for using the math curriculum at all 11 middle schools, but a five-year subscription to the language arts curriculum — which serves more schools and more students — cost $3.1 million.

There are too many variables to give a firm estimate on expanding the math curriculum, officials say.

“This is new territory for us,” Miller said.

Previously, LPS would buy textbooks, and they’d have them for a number of years. If budgets were tight, they could hold off on buying new textbooks. Digital subscriptions need to be renewed each year — because without the subscription, there’s no curriculum. But curriculum wouldn't go out of date, officials said.

The cost of the devices alone for the district's 8,100 middle schoolers would be nearly $4.6 million.

Whether LPS would buy devices for all students or allow students to bring their own hasn’t been decided.

But for this pilot, students will use the district devices. They’ll be able to access the curriculum offline, so it will work in homes without Wi-Fi, and filters that limit Internet access at school will stay in place at students’ homes, Langer said.

Whether — and how quickly — LPS expands the pilot depends on the experience of Culler students and staff this year.

One of the challenges will be training teachers, Larson said.

"We have 200 years of experience doing it the other way, so we'll have to learn some other routines and processes," he said.

​Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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