Jul 10 2011

Students Have the Technology. It's Time We Let Them Use It.

 In 2008, Scarborough Research named El Paso, Texas, the top texting market in the United States among cell phone users age 18 and older. As director of instructional technology for the 65,000-student El Paso Independent School District, I find this statistic telling. It shows that even in a 230-square-mile area of low socioeconomic status with a population composed primarily of minorities, our residents are “connected.” Whether their school-age children are using these phones for learning is less clear.

If you count cell phones and other Wi-Fi–capable devices, K–12 may be close to achieving a one-to-one student-to-computer ratio – the Holy Grail of educational technology. We've gotten there, in large part, through no concerted effort of our own. While district IT directors like myself were paying attention to the desktop and workstation vendors at trade shows and ensuring our students were connected in controlled, filtered, exclusive environments, our students and their families were paying attention to television advertising and buying devices that kept them connected beyond our walls in uncontrolled, unfiltered and inclusive arenas.

That disconnect between our school environments and the real world can't be good for students. During his frequent industry keynote addresses, Will Richardson, author of the influential educational technology blog Weblogg-ed, likes to hold up his cell phone and tell his audience that students have access to “the sum total of human knowledge in a device the size of a deck of cards.” That means everything, both good and bad.

Most schools prohibit the use of personal electronics on campus. But this ban rarely applies to faculty and administrators. Students see the hypocrisy of these policies, of course, and bring their gadgets anyway, betting that teachers are too preoccupied to catch them while they text under their desks – the 21st century equivalent of note passing.

Budging the Boulder

We can either continue the Sisyphean struggle of trying to equip students with district-owned and -filtered “safe” devices or start to embrace the technology that's already paid for and in pockets, purses and backpacks across the country. The trick is to develop a methodology that allows the use of such devices while at the same time meeting district infrastructure and policy needs.

Districts already have spent vast amounts of time and resources fighting the use of student-owned devices on their campuses. So it's not all that surprising that school personnel in all departments harbor fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) about whether allowing these devices into their walled gardens is a good idea.

Planning and training are key to any implementation of a “bring your own technology,” or BYOT, initiative. IT departments, for example, need to learn how to come to peaceful terms with devices they have fought against for years. Here are a few pointers to make the transition easier:

  • Consult with your curriculum department to determine where student-owned devices would be used most often. Should these devices be allowed districtwide, restricted to certain grade levels or available only in select locations on each campus?
  • Expect resistance from your network staff. How will you deal with their concerns about bandwidth, filtering and other related issues? Have a plan in place before you embrace BYOT.
  • Pilot the program at select campuses to identify and eliminate unforeseen bugs. Start small, then go big. Expect to encounter a few bumps along the way; setbacks are learning experiences, not roadblocks.
  • Remember: You aren't the first to try this. Seek out other districts that have made the switch to BYOT and ask for their advice.

Well-planned professional development and other outreach efforts are key. Teachers must be taught how to seamlessly integrate multiple types of devices into their lessons. Students must be taught how to use their electronics for education instead of entertainment. Parents must be educated about what their children's schools will and will not allow. And administrators must collaborate with technology and curriculum personnel to develop acceptable-use policies that allow for the influx of student-owned devices.

Pocket Full

Kevin Honeycutt, a fellow educational technology blogger and industry speaker, likes to say that at the electronic buffet of knowledge that is the Internet, our students are eating the napkins because no one is showing them where the meat and potatoes are located.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of any type of BYOT program would be to show students that they do, indeed, carry the sum total of human knowledge in their pockets. Maybe someday soon they'll all be using their personal mobile computing devices as learning tools too.

Ready, or Not?

Results from Project Tomorrow's Speak Up 2010 initiative seem to indicate that educators are beginning to see the value of mobile devices for learning. The organization's recently released report, “The New 3 E's of Education: Enabled, Engaged and Empowered,” shows that 77 percent of teachers and 84 percent of administrators agree that mobile devices increase student engagement in learning. And yet, just one-third of teachers and one-third of administrators believe BYOT is the best way to enable mobile learning, compared with 62 percent of middle and high school students.

Tim Holt, director of instructional technology for the El Paso (Texas) Independent School District, speaks frequently about technology integration in schools. Follow him at timholt.net or plurk.com/timholt.