By Terri Darr McLean
After years of being told to leave their cell phones and other personal devices at home or turned off, students in some Kentucky school districts are not only bringing their devices to school, but using them to enhance learning.
It’s part of a movement called Bring Your Own Device, or BYOD. Proponents, including school administrators, board members and teachers, say BYOD policies enable schools to keep up technologically in the face of budget shortfalls, engage technology-savvy students more effectively, and help teach young people to become good digital citizens.
On the flip side, some educators worry that it increases the digital divide between students who have their own devices and those who don’t. Others wonder if teachers who are uncomfortable with the new technology will use it at all.
But as Nelson County High School Principal Eric Gilpin put it, “the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.”
In Nelson County, high school students were already allowed to bring their cell phones to use before and after classes and at lunch, so it only made sense to take the next step, Gilpin said.
“If you’re going to do that, then why not encourage the academic and educational part of it,” he said.
PHOTO: Stephanie Donnelly uses her iPhone to research a topic during U.S. history class at Nelson County High School. Photo by Tom Dekle/Nelson County Schools
The Nelson County school board approved a pilot project called BYOT (T for technology) in December 2011. The policy leaves it up to teachers to decide how, when and where students may use their devices.
“There are many tools available to the classes now that were not available before the students brought them in,” said David Coffing, chief information officer for Nelson County school system.
The BYOT program gives students in the district’s two high schools and one of its middle schools access to a variety of devices, including smartphones, laptops, e-readers, tablets and any other mobile device that can log in to the schools’ wireless network.
“One of the big things that pushes school districts toward this policy is textbooks – state money for textbooks has dried up,” Gilpin said. “But for us right now it’s not even about that, it’s about putting instructional strategies in teachers’ hands that don’t even require a textbook. ... (With BYOT) teachers get innovative and teach outside the confines of the classroom walls and textbook pages … that’s what it’s about for me.”
For example, first-year Spanish teacher Drew Courtney asks students at the beginning of every class to use their mobile phones to text answers to polling questions he poses through the Web-based audience response system called PollEverywhere.
“It’s a good bell-ringer activity,” he said.
Courtney also allows them to use their personal devices as research tools and translators, and if students finish a test or assignment early, Courtney is all for letting them listen to music or read books or periodicals using their personal devices – as long as they ask first.
“It keeps them from talking and being distractive to others,” he said.
Other teachers allow students to use personal devices for note-taking, to capture audio and video for student-created content, to record assignments for later use, and to collaborate with other students and teachers through online storage sites.
Gilpin said the BYOT project has led to a significant drop in disciplinary problems normally resulting from inappropriate cell phone use.
Coffing, the CIO, helps teachers with professional development sessions, including an introductory class that covers everything from connecting to the district’s WiFi network to classroom management. He also has created a list of websites and other resources and works one-on-one with anyone who might need help or instructional ideas.
Encouraging students to download apps that enhance resources can be a big plus for both the school system’s and a family’s bottom line. For instance, there is an app that turns a smartphone or tablet into a graphing calculator, a piece of equipment that costs $100-$150. Apps for ACT and SAT prep are also widely used, Gilpin said.
“We’re probably just scraping the surface of what’s available,” he added.
“One of the things about doing a BYOT approach is that it allows the district, from a financial perspective, to free up funds that maybe we would have been spending to buy more devices to get those ratios (of students to computers) to 2 to 1 or 1 to 1,” said school board Chairman Damon Jackey. “It frees up funds to make sure that we have enough for students who don’t have their own device at school.”
Crossing the divide
Although there was initial concern that the BYOT project might create disparity among the students who have personal devices (about 70 percent) and those who don’t, Gilpin said it has not been a problem.
“Sure you worry about that, but we haven’t had any issues where it’s been a complaint by a parent,” he said. “And it rarely comes up as an issue for our teachers.”
Senior Paisley Popham said most of those who have devices are “cool” about sharing with those who don't.
“It’s not really that big of a deal,” she said.
Students also can use some school-owned devices, the school’s computer labs and some classrooms with computers.
While the Nelson County BYOT project is still in pilot mode, Jackey said he expects it to continue.
“Everybody is very supportive of it – the big thing we’ve realized is we have to continue to work on making sure, from an instructional standpoint, that we really integrate that technology where it becomes seamless. It’s (the technology’s) almost like the pencil and paper of yore.”
— McLean is a writer from Lexington
Nelson County school board chairman Damon Jackey, a key proponent of the Bring Your Own Technology policy in his district, said when the board approved the policy, members wanted to accomplish several goals:
• To expand students’ access to the most up-to-date information
• To meet students where they are - “connected and online”
• To enable teachers to leverage peers and global experts in content areas
• To increase student participation “We want to move our learners from being a passive audience to being a connected active participant with new learning experiences.”
“Technology just for technology’s sake is not a successful approach,” Jackey said. “We have to make sure that any of the technology we’re using, in this case the BYOT project, that ... it does have a positive impact on the way instruction occurs in the classroom.”