Special Report
Classroom Technology

Districts Turn ‘BYOD’ Disorder to Their Advantage

By Sean Cavanagh — June 10, 2015 6 min read
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By their very nature, bring-your-own-device programs can be messy.

Students roll into class with a hodgepodge of laptops, tablets, and smartphones of various brands and vintages—or without any devices at all. It’s up to teachers and administrators to figure out how to manage the technology mishmash.

As district BYOD programs have grown increasingly popular, schools are using different strategies to cope with the wide range of digital tools and skill levels that students bring with them. Some of those efforts focus on choosing technology platforms and classroom strategies that will accommodate any device reasonably well.

But more broadly, administrators and teachers say they’re learning to embrace the eclectic jumble of technologies students use, in the belief that taking a flexible approach will benefit not only students’ academic development but also classroom instruction.

“Our philosophy is, we build for whatever the kid brings in,” said Aaron Turpin, the executive director of technology for the Hall County, Ga., schools, which has a BYOD program. “When these kids leave us, they’re going to be expected to use a myriad of applications. We need to build an instructional environment modeled on that.”

The district northeast of Atlanta launched its BYOD program six years ago partly because it could not afford the anticipated high costs of implementing a full 1-to-1 student-to-device initiative. Many districts have followed a similar rationale, choosing BYOD for budgetary reasons.

As they adopt BYOD policies, many district officials do so with considerable wariness.

They worry about teachers’ lack of familiarity with the devices students are using, and about the potential distractions of having so many devices in play at once, said Keith R. Krueger, the CEO of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, an association of district technology officials. They worry about how to give and collect assignments for students using so many different tools.

Most of the time those fears are overblown, Mr. Krueger contends.

Teachers don’t need to understand every feature of all the devices they see, he said. And students are much more capable of figuring out how to complete tech-based assignments than school officials often give them credit for.

For students, “learning to use the right tool for the right purpose—that’s a life skill,” Mr. Krueger said. “The anxiety going in is much higher than the reality.”

Momentum Builds

Despite the prevailing unease, districts’ interest in BYOD programs is growing, research suggests.

While just 14 percent of districts report having fully implemented a BYOD program, many more, 58 percent, have some plans in motion for large-scale BYOD measures, according to a nationwide survey CoSN released this year.

Those estimates may be conservative. CoSN surveyed districts implementing 1-to-1 initiatives. Many more K-12 districts that have not taken the relatively ambitious step of pursuing 1-to-1 programs may be implementing BYOD projects, too, Mr. Krueger pointed out.

The Hall County system, for instance, has 27,000 students, about 14,000 of whom bring devices to school, Mr. Turpin said. Those include tablets, laptops, and many brands of cellphones.

In recent years, the district has implemented cloud-based systems by Google and Microsoft, and a centralized learning management system, Canvas, all of which are designed to allow students to work and communicate with teachers using the devices they want.

Rolling Out Technology At Different Rates

A recent survey of 447 district chief technology officers found that more than 40 percent of school systems that are putting in place 1-to-1 technology projects have implemented or piloted bring-your-own-device programs, or are working on large-scale implementations of that strategy. The organization surveying districts says the BYOD numbers likely would be even higher in districts that have not committed to ambitious 1-to-1 projects, but are using strategies to have students bring their own devices.

BRIC ARCHIVE

Source: Consortium for School Networking

Many students in Hall County live in poverty: Nearly 60 percent receive free or reduced price lunches. To meet the needs of students who don’t have their own digital tools, the district has tried a mix of solutions, including making computing devices available on its school campuses; loaning them to students to take home; and encouraging teachers to allow students to choose between completing work online or on paper.

Kia Shields, 17, relies on those backup options.

The senior doesn’t have her own device, so when she needs one, she checks out a laptop or tablet from either the East Hall High School library or the school’s blended learning program. She prefers laptops.

“I’m not a touch-screen person,” the teenager explained. “I’d rather type it out.”

She uses school-issued devices for Spanish classes, completing assignments on conjugation and vocabulary and working with classmates on Google platforms. She also relies on devices, in combination with a textbook, for AP Calculus. She prefers the print version, but says online tools make some lessons, like plotting graphs, easier.

Once she has a device in hand, she faces another challenge: getting online. Like many students in Hall County, she lacks Internet connectivity at home. Ms. Shields said she goes to a number of locations—her uncle’s house, a McDonald’s restaurant, a bookstore—for Web access. She keeps a written schedule of their hours and availability.

To help other students facing the same challenge, Hall County has arranged a discounted Internet service with a local telecommunications provider, Mr. Turpin said. It also circulates information about free Wi-Fi locations.

Device-Agnostic

In other parts of the country, districts have taken similarly flexible approaches to managing BYOD programs.

Students in Saline, Mich., bring a diverse mix of devices and brands to school—mostly Chromebooks, tablets, and smartphones—said Scot A. Graden, the superintendent of the 5,300-student district.

Teachers typically build their lessons through Google Apps for Education, and the assumption is if students can access a Web browser, they can use it. The district has urged teachers to worry less about the details of what system or font size students are using—and focus on the essentials, the superintendent recalled.

“It’s about the lesson you’re doing,” Mr. Graden said. “It’s not about using this specific tool to do this specific function.”

Most students in the predominantly middle- to upper-income district have their own devices and home Internet access. For those who don’t, the district loans out devices, and encourages students to use libraries and other locations with connectivity, though Mr. Graden acknowledges that “we don’t have a great solution.”

Some districts look for outside help managing BYOD.

Chalkable, a developer of school data management and other systems, has provided training on how to implement BYOD in 25 to 30 districts, said Davis H. Brock, the senior director of educational innovation for the Mobile, Ala.-based company.

The company typically takes an inventory of the devices students are bringing to school. It then works with groups of teachers to devise model lessons, and finds online resources that are device-agnostic. (Districts contract with Chalkable for the training; they do not have to be clients using the company’s products.)

Many teachers fear students will spend class periods goofing off on various devices and that the educators themselves won’t understand how those devices work.

“Because the child is bringing their own device, they take ownership of it,” Mr. Brock explained. “The teacher’s job is to find resources that will work for it.”

Lisa Sheehy is trying to make that happen.

The math teacher at Hall County’s East Hall High School, who also directs the school’s blended learning academy, is comfortable giving students assignments and letting them figure out how to turn them in.

When she’s asked students to explain various calculus problems, some have recorded video- or audio of their answers on their smartphones and submitted them to the school’s LMS. And that was fine with her.

“I can’t imagine teaching this class without kids having access to their cellphones,” Ms. Sheehy said. Most kids “can type as fast on a cellphone as they can on a laptop.”

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