All kinds of learning all at once with ‘BYOT’

By Anne Collier

With their bring-your-own-technology (BYOT) program, teachers in the Forsyth County (Ga.) School District are “learning along with our students how their devices work for their learning,” Tim Clark, the district’s instructional technology coordinator, told me in a phone interview. My excitement about the promise this represents for students grew as we talked. What this school district is doing opens up a mother lode of opportunities for 1) learning the core curriculum in engaging new ways that are personalized as well as collaborative; 2) learning and practicing safety, citizenship, and the three literacies of a digital age (digital, social, and media) together in real time, in and out of the classroom, throughout the curriculum, all day long; and thereby 3) increasing the safety necessary for learning of any kind.

Oh, and by the way, “discipline problems have decreased and student engagement in class has increased across the district since the introduction of BYOT,” Tim told me. One high school in the district went from “400 behavior incidents involving technology” before BYOT was introduced to 4 after it was, he added.

The district has 36 elementary, middle, and high schools, all implementing BYOT in some classrooms (35% of classrooms in the district overall). It’s up to the teachers whether or not they adopt it. “We don’t require teachers to move into BYOT – only when they’re ready,” Tim said, “but sometimes they get pressure from students and parents to start.” The first step for schools to adopt it, he said, is allowing students to use their devices in common areas; the second step is students taking class notes with them; the third is “transforming instruction such that students have authorship – are producers of their own content and learning, not just consumers.” [Right there is the agency, competence, and relevance that foster learning (see this).]

Engagement up, disruption down

Just how can learning possibly go up and disruption down when every student brings in his/her own device? I asked Tim. Basically, each classroom becomes a community of practice, he said. Just having every student bring his or her own device – cellphone, tablet, gameplayer, laptop, etc. – communicates respect for individuality and individual interests, and you build from there.

What does that look like in the classroom? A lot like the way conversation and collaboration unfold in everybody’s lives, regardless of age. “It happens to all of us – we need to find commonalities, talk about things we feel safe about – before we have good discussions about parts of speech or social studies [or Supreme Court decisions or elections],” Tim said. So BYOT-using teachers start the year or a class by taking some time for students to explain how their devices work and why they like them. The device provides an easy way to introduce oneself. Students told Tim that, after that, they not only felt freer to collaborate in class projects, they also felt “they could play better and more outside,” on the playground, in the halls and lunchroom. They felt safer. Feeling safe, we all know, is essential to learning.

Not so counterintuitively, then…

“BYOT does not lead to more disruption or distraction because you already have respect in the classroom.” Tim said. And there’s no expectation that “the teacher knows everything” because teachers are learning from their students (about their devices) as much as students from teachers (about academic subjects). So the approach supports teachers as learning facilitators and collaborators and students as teachers and co-creators. Students are naturally engaged because using their favorite learning tool: the technology they already use at home and everywhere.

As for the flipside, schools that impose bans on technology are “setting up a system where students have to break the rules because the technology is an embedded, integral aspect of their lives.” Allowing BYOT fosters the kind of life-long safety and literacy practice the UK’s education agency Ofsted sanctioned in 2010 (see this). In Tim’s district, “BYOT opened up dialogue regarding responsible use” that folded in the whole school community. “The conversation extended beyond school and into discussions with parents and the larger community.” This whole-community approach is what risk-prevention experts say is necessary to improve school climates and reduce bullying.

Tim sums it up: “Their [students’] technology tools are the devices of their culture; whereas textbooks are quickly belonging to a different generation of learners. This is another reason why the learning has more meaning. Plus, these are the devices that they continue to learn with outside of the classroom.” It’s just logical: Use the tools students use in their everyday lives, and relevance, agency, trust, engagement, safety, and learning all go up.

Sidebar 1: Drilling down a bit

On the first day of school, have students get together with somebody who doesn’t have the same device and have them talk about their devices – favorite features, what they know about it, what excites them. “Then the class needs to have its own online space – a house for everything, some place to hold the learning of the group,” Tim said. IIt could be a free tool, a wiki, a blog, a learning management system. Our district has one owned by Blackboard, but we realized that BYOT has shown us that we can’t tell the teachers there’s only one tool to use. Students are using various tools, so teachers may want to try those. Now we’re investigating a suite of tools. We’re just encouraging teachers to pick a tool to be an expert in – for example a discussion forum or wiki where kids build the knowledge or skill set online about how you do different things with different devices (their students’ devices), including school tools if kids don’t have their own to bring. The school always has extra devices so there are no haves/have-nots.”

Sidebar 2: Researchers have been calling for this

Just one example: Back in 2010, as co-chair of a national task force on youth online safety, I heard University of Southern California media professor Henry Jenkins tell us that teens are engaged in four activities “central to the life of young people in participatory culture: circulating media, connecting with each other, creating media, and collaborating with each other.” It is crucial, he said, to bring these activities into classrooms nationwide so that all young people have equal opportunity to participate effectively. It’s also crucial, Jenkins said, because young people “are looking for guidance” in their use of new media, and – just as, for generations, school has guided youth in their use of traditional media – it needs to provide that guidance for their participation in new media. If they ban these media from the classrooms, they eliminate the environments in which successful navigation and participation can be modeled, facilitated and practiced. Hey, it’s tough to teach cooking without a kitchen, eh?!

Related links

* See Spotlight on Digital Media & Learning for details on how 7th grade history teacher James Sanders and AP chemistry teacher Ramsey Musallam use mobile devices in their San Francisco classrooms in San Francisco.
* See an infographic from the Speak Up Survey for parents’ and students’ perspectives on “personalized learning in 2012.” The data’s pulled from “over 416,000 online surveys from K-12 students, parents and educators representing over 5,600 schools nationwide,” Project Tomorrow says of this latest of its annual Speak Up Survey.
* The 9th-annual Speak Up Survey found that “64% of parents report that they would purchase a mobile device for their child’s academic use at school.”
* Here’s Tim Clark’s own blog, BYOT Network
* eSchoolNews’s best iPhone apps and Android apps for classrooms
* “What does ‘safe’ really look like in a digital age?”

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