How one district is leveraging smartphones and other forms of BYOD to disrupt its learning model.
To learn about decimals and dollar amounts, Lauren Blum's fifth graders in Katy, Texas, wandered around their classroom clutching smartphones and zapping bar codes on various products, which they then looked up online to compare prices. Another day, they pulled out their phones and found websites to study the War of 1812. Other times they used their phones to take photos of lab experiments, so they could refer to them when writing their summaries later on. In fact, a day rarely goes by that the phones-Droid Incredibles, purchased by the school district-aren't incorporated into lessons.
"I don't know what I would do without them," says Blum, whose first year teaching, 2009-10, also happened to be the year that the district launched a pilot program to give smartphones to fifth graders at her school, Cimarron Elementary.
"It's normal for me." With every student holding his or her own "computer," learning is more self-guided, says Blum. "Students at a lower reading level can find sites suitable for them. They're choosing their information and their avenue." Far from viewing devices as nuisances or banning them, Katy Independent School District, situated west of Houston, embraced cell phones and other handheld electronics as integral to learning.
Eight years ago, Katy officials embarked on a goal of nothing less than fundamentally changing their approach to instruction. Technology, naturally enough, has been a key component. The transformation began with a decidedly unflashy, but essential, infrastructure overhaul-upgrading systems, staffing the technology department, rewriting policy. That took five years. By 2008, "we felt that the building blocks were there to start some innovative projects," says CIO Lenny Schad. The district decided on a three-pronged approach: mobile learning, Web 2.0 instruction in the classroom, and digital citizenship.
The first phase was the pilot program at Cimarron, where 150 fifth graders received smartphones programmed for school-appropriate Internet use (but without calling and texting capabilities). The following year, the program expanded to 10 more schools and 1,500 more fifth graders. Now, 18 schools participate.
During this time, district officials held numerous meetings to keep parents informed on what was happening and why Katy was taking this unorthodox approach. "We spent year one going for understanding," says Schad, "and then in year two, we went for acceptance." They reassured parents that Internet access would be filtered and closely monitored.
Bringing teachers on board was crucial as well. Technology and curriculum teams created a Web 2.0 toolbox of educational applications such as Edmodo (which creates class websites allowing students and teachers to communicate online), ColorNote (a sticky-note Android app), and Quia (an authoring tool to create educational games and tests). The teams carted the toolbox from school to school to show teachers. This process attracted early evangelists who helped spread enthusiasm to other teachers.
Then came the final piece: bring your own device, or BYOD. When the 2011-12 school year started, all 52 of the district's buildings had public Wi-Fi (filtered for security) and students were allowed to use their cell phones, iPads, Kindles, laptops, and other devices in class.
"It's been a fantastic experience," says Patti Shafer, principal of WoodCreek Junior High. She opened the school four years ago-Katy is a fast-growing district, adding some 2,500 students a year-and put technology at the forefront from the get-go.
"We didn't want to be the school that went to the computer lab to make a pamphlet and then stepped back into an eighties classroom," Shafer says. With 1,960 students, just getting kids into the lab would have been a challenge.
Loosening Restrictions, Increasing Engagement
BYOD "allows our teachers to integrate technology so much more in their lessons," Shafer says. It's too soon to know the impact on test scores, she says, but already teachers are seeing greater homework-completion rates and increased student participation.
While it may seem that teenagers with phones on their desks would be unable to resist texting during class, teachers and principals report quite the opposite: Kids are more engaged. By not having to fight a constant "put your phone away" battle, a regular source of classroom tension has been defused, and students know that if they text when they're not supposed to, they'll lose their privileges. More important, they learn that there is a proper time and place for using technology, an important aspect of the digital citizenship piece of the district's BYOD initiative. Still, there's a release valve: High school students are allowed to phone and text before school, during passing periods, and at lunch. That policy may be extended to junior high next year, says Schad, the district's CIO.
In March, the Consortium for School Networking recognized Katy's efforts, bestowing on the district its annual TEAM Award, given to a school district for "using technology in an impactful way to help reimagine the classroom." CoSN CEO Keith Krueger praised Katy for advancements that have "placed the district at the forefront of 21st-century education." In 2011, Katy was one of 20 districts nationwide, and the only one in Texas, to win an E-Rate Learning On-the-Go grant from the Federal Communications Commission. The grant primarily funds data costs; when upward of 80,000 devices can tap a network, a lot of bandwidth is needed. Voter-approved bond money has covered the rest of the costs. By leveraging the investment parents have made in their kids' devices, Schad says, the district has adopted a more cost-effective and sustainable model than buying every student a laptop, as some school systems have done.
"This is the world that these kids live in," says Marcia Simmons, who teaches English literature to pre-AP sophomores at Cinco Ranch High School. "They are used to being able to take out their phones and pull something up; I've been able to allow them to do that. At first, they were hesitant, like, ‘Really? We can look up a word?' I have to keep reminding them: ‘You've got phones; look it up.'"
For a recent lesson on heroes, Simmons had students go through a PowerPoint presentation that included songs and videos. Before BYOD, she says, the students would have sat passively while she went through the presentation on an interactive whiteboard. Now they can do it themselves, at their own pace.
Still, it's not all devices, all the time. Simmons has developed a system: A red sign means no devices out. Yellow means students may have devices out for research. Green means they can listen to music on their devices while working.
The biggest change she's noticed? "I'm happier this year, and I think the kids are, too." After 20 years of teaching, she recognizes the importance of that. "If they're not engaged, it doesn't matter what I'm trying to teach. But if they're relaxed and I'm relaxed and they're connecting with me, learning is going on."
After five years of building infrastructure and three years of implementing major instructional changes, no further whiz-bangs are on tap for the near future, says Schad. Rather, the district will focus on deepening teachers' skills with the current technology. They'll also address the question of equity. In a school district in which 31 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price meals, it's inevitable that some families can't afford to provide their kids with devices. For now, they can pair up with other students or use classroom laptops. Officials are compiling data on how many kids go home without a device. Once the numbers are in, Schad says, the district will determine what approach to take. "I don't want to solve for a problem until I see how big it really is," he says.
Looking back, Schad says the initiative was never just a tech thing. "It's not about the device; it's about changing instruction. There has to be a higher purpose to why you want to begin the mobile learning journey."
Change, of course, always involves stress, but the way Katy officials view it, sticking with the same old methods, producing the same lackluster results, is stressful, too. "Which stress do you want?" Schad asks. "I would rather be stressed over doing innovative things and sharpening my skills than sitting in a stagnant place."
From Rejected to Respected
BYOD ends the era of hidden devices and changes work habits.
Molly Wade, a tenth grader at Cinco Ranch High School, is known as one of the more tech-savvy kids in her class. She always has her phone with her and usually an iPad as well. Both are getting even more use this year, the first that students, through Katy ISD's BYOD initiative, are allowed to bring phones, tablets, e-readers, and laptops to school for instructional purposes.
"It definitely is a change from last year, when we couldn't have our phones out at all," says Wade. "We were so used to having to hide our phones and secretly text in class and Google stuff."
She prefers her iPad for Internet research, she says, because of the bigger display and faster speed. It's also better for jotting down notes. She sometimes types a rough draft of a paper on her iPad and then e-mails it to herself, to be cleaned up and properly formatted on her home computer.
Some teachers incorporate technology into lessons more than others, Wade has found. Her English teacher, Marcia Simmons, is "very aggressive about the whole technology movement," says Wade. For a recent project, for example, students chose a biography, then wrote on the class blog, created with Posterous, about why they selected the book they did and what they learned about the person. When giving students a choice of books for an assignment, Simmons encourages them to first read excerpts on sites like Amazon and Google Books, and to see what others have liked on GoodReads. (She suggests that they add their own favorites, too.)
Wade's know-how has made her something of the de facto tech support person in class. Yet despite what adults may think, there's a lot about technology that high school kids don't know, Wade says. While they're fluent in what she calls "the basics"-texting, Twitter, Facebook-other operations trip them up, such as uploading videos to class blogs and transferring files from one device to another.
Overall, Wade has found BYOD to be a good move; she's glad to get a reprieve from lugging around heavy textbooks, and using less paper appeals to her. But students and teachers alike are still feeling their way through the new territory. "We might be pushing a little too much on everybody," she says. "I think, everything in moderation. We can only handle so much at one time."