Two years ago, Forsyth County Schools staffers treated students' cell phones, handheld video game consoles and other electronic devices like most other school districts around the country: If they caught students with them, they confiscated them.
The Georgia district, about 40 miles north of Atlanta, wants to equip every student with a computer. But with 36,500 students in 35 schools, it can't afford a one-to-one computing initiative. So instead, Forsyth County Schools encourages students to bring to school their personal technology, which is fast becoming an important part of their everyday classroom learning experience.
"From a vision standpoint, it's coming to the realization that the instructional benefits far outweigh any concerns we may have had," says Bailey Mitchell, the district's chief technology and information officer.
In an era of tight budgets, Forsyth County Schools has joined a small but growing number of districts that are embracing the nascent "bring your own technology" (BYOT) movement, allowing students to bring into the classroom any personal handheld device that provides web access, including smartphones, tablets, netbooks, notebook computers – even personal media players and handheld gaming consoles.
With such devices in hand, students can take notes, conduct research online, learn from educational applications and collaborate with other students on class projects. The benefits of BYOT are similar to one-to-one computing: Students are more engaged when they're using their own devices, their test scores improve, and they're more likely to attend class and stay in school. The difference is that BYOT is more affordable, says Rich Kaestner, project director for the Consortium for School Networking.
However, allowing students to bring their devices into classrooms is fraught with cultural, technological and educational challenges that IT leaders, administrators and teachers can't ignore. To implement BYOT successfully, educators say, schools must invest in a good wireless networking infrastructure; offer professional development that helps teachers integrate the devices into the curriculum; and write new acceptable-use policies that ensure students stay on task.
"You save money from not having to buy and support devices for every student, but you still have the upfront implementation costs of providing substantial training to teachers, plus all the upfront planning, such as thinking through what your policies will be," Kaestner explains.
Proponents say BYOT can transform the entire classroom learning experience. Instead of traditional lectures, Kaestner continues, teachers can pursue project-based learning activities and have students work in small groups to complete class assignments using their devices. In so doing, students develop important 21st century skills, such as critical thinking and collaboration.
"It allows students to learn with devices that they are comfortable with, and it's a more effective way to learn," he adds.
Forsyth County Schools piloted a BYOT program in seven schools in spring 2010. Teachers and students loved the approach, prompting district officials to extend it to every school that fall. But because BYOT represents such a significant cultural shift, district officials left it up to each school to decide when it would adopt the practice.
Twenty-four schools took the plunge. The movement has grown organically at each school, Mitchell says. It starts off with a few trailblazing teachers at each campus, and as word of mouth spreads about BYOT's educational benefits, more teachers jump on board.
"It's taking off rapidly and spreading throughout the district," says Tim Clark, Forsyth County Schools' instructional technology specialist. "Some want to wait and see how successful it is. They're worried it will be chaotic. But everyone who does it is surprised that it's so easy to implement."
To make BYOT work technologically, school IT departments must increase bandwidth and build campus Wi-Fi networks that can handle high-density environments, Mitchell says. They also must develop a security and tech support strategy for the student-owned devices.
To accommodate the spikes in network traffic that BYOT would trigger, Forsyth County Schools boosted bandwidth WAN speeds from 1 gigabit per second to 2Gbps in each building and from 500 megabits per second to 1.3Gbps for Internet access. District IT staff also spent much of 2008 installing Wi-Fi networks with filtered access on every campus.
The Deer Park Independent School District learned these lessons the hard way last fall. The Texas district, headquartered about 20 miles southeast of Houston, wanted to try out BYOT before developing a formal program, so it allowed students at its seven secondary schools to bring their own devices to school.
But the campus Wi-Fi networks were so overwhelmed by the influx of devices seeking connectivity – in particular, the students' multimedia smartphones, which gobble up a lot of bandwidth and IP addresses – that IT staff had no choice but to beef up the networks with configuration changes and additional access points.
"We thought our network was strong and sufficient, but BYOT slowed everything," recalls Chief Technology Officer Kari Rhame Murphy. Consequently, the IT team has spent the past year preparing the district for BYOT.
It cost nearly $159,000 to replace and double the wireless access points at its ninth-grade, 10th-to-12th-grade and alternative high school campuses. The access points on these three campuses were then moved to the four junior high schools to increase wireless connectivity there.
Deer Park ISD will formally launch the BYOT initiative this fall. Besides strengthening its Wi-Fi networks to prepare for BYOT, the district has offered professional development to faculty, rewritten its acceptable-use policy and revamped network security. (Murphy shares her best practices for writing a policy that encompasses the new realities of 21st century learning, including BYOT and responsible use, in "Striking a Balance.")
Photo: Phoebe Rourke-Ghabriel
To ensure security, network administrators at both Deer Park ISD and Forsyth County Schools have installed Wi-Fi networks on separate virtual LANs, preventing anyone on the Wi-Fi networks from accessing critical servers and applications on the rest of the districts' networks. The VLANs also shield the networks, in case student devices are infected with viruses and malware.
Forsyth County IT staff initially wanted students to log in with user names and passwords and authenticate their devices, ideally using the district portal as a structured location for BYOT activities. But teachers and students pushed back, saying it took too much time and that some devices weren't completely compatible with the portal technology. So IT administrators created an open, public Wi-Fi network called "BYOT."
Separating Wi-Fi traffic onto its own VLAN provided the security assurances that were needed, Mitchell says. "We've been locking things down and protecting the network from potential threats for so long," he explains. "But we came to the realization that wanting to authenticate every device really isn't necessary."
Early adopters say school districts should implement BYOT in phases. A phased approach lets districts test the viability of nontraditional educational devices, such as smartphones, in classrooms, says Lenny Schad, CIO for the Katy (Texas) Independent School District. More specifically, it gives teachers time to adapt and to incorporate devices into the curriculum; it gives school administrators and other staff time to make parents comfortable with the concept; and it gives IT staff time to ensure that the infrastructure and policies are in place to make BYOT work.
Katy ISD plans to launch a BYOT initiative this fall, but it first spent two years testing the use of smartphones in a few select classrooms. The effort began in 2009, when the district issued 130 smartphones to fifth-grade students at one of its 32 elementary schools. That first year, teachers taught students about digital citizenship and introduced Web 2.0 technologies, such as blogging, on the devices.
In 2010, the district expanded the smartphone program to 10 additional elementary schools and purchased 1,600 new smartphones for the fifth-grade students taking part in the initiative. Teachers continued to emphasize Web 2.0 technologies, Schad says, and introduced mobile learning applications, such as math and science simulations and other interactive activities. Through it all, school officials met with parents to explain the technology's benefits.
In using the smartphones in class, teachers discovered that students were more engaged and were turning in higher quality work. Teachers also saw fewer discipline issues and better class attendance. What's more, students showed significant improvements in district benchmark tests conducted during the pilot's first year.
"It has a huge positive impact," Schad says of BYOT's effect on student achievement. "They are spending more time on homework and have a deeper understanding of the concepts we are teaching them."
Once BYOT kicks off in September, school officials expect to see similarly positive results throughout the district. The community has rallied around the effort, as evidenced by voters' recent support for a bond measure that's allowing the district to build Wi-Fi networks with filtered Internet access at each of its 51 schools for the 2011-2012 school year.
"Parents understand and support why we are doing this," Schad explains.
One year into Forsyth County Schools' implementation, none of the worst-case scenarios has come to fruition. Their worries included students playing games in class and using their phone data plans to text-message and to bypass the district's Internet filters.
"What we've witnessed early on," Mitchell says, "is that you can trust students with their devices and they will understand responsible use."
The key, Forsyth County's Clark adds, is for teachers to talk to students about appropriate and responsible use and to teach students the broader lesson of good digital citizenship. The district's updated acceptable-use policy lets students bring their personal devices to school, but it states that they are only allowed to connect to their school's filtered Wi-Fi network. They aren't allowed to use their personal phone data plan, and they can't listen to music, make calls or text on their phones, Mitchell says.
If students use devices inappropriately, teachers rely on the same disciplinary procedures they follow when addressing other bad behavior. Confiscating devices and sending students to the principal's office are typical responses. "We converse with students and ask for a culture of trust and respect," Mitchell adds. "That conversation works best from a teacher who says, 'You can bring your devices, but here are the ground rules.'"
Because students own a variety of devices, teachers feared a couple of obstacles. First, they worried that they would have to teach students how to use the devices. And second, they were concerned that the devices wouldn't all have the same capabilities, making it hard for some students to complete classroom exercises. Both concerns were unwarranted, however. Students already know how to use their devices, Clark says, and on the rare occasion that they don't know how to do something, they help each other or figure it out on their own.
For additional reassurance, the IT department implemented a policy that no staff member would be expected to touch or troubleshoot student devices, nor would they be required to teach students how to use them. If devices malfunction, students and their parents have to fix them.
This decision alone elicited a massive sigh of relief from teachers, Clark says. The most teachers will do is help students log in to the public Wi-Fi network. "It frees up teachers to focus on teaching," he explains.
Because devices have different capabilities, teachers also have learned to allow their students to complete different exercises to satisfy lesson requirements. For example, one student may watch a video, another may do web research and a third may use an educational application that teaches the same content. Sometimes, students even share their devices and collaborate.
"Let kids come up with their own way to do a project," Clark says. "It gives students more control and empowerment in the classroom."
To deliver the same educational experience to all students, districts must find a way to provide devices to those who can't afford their own. But early adopters say that a large percentage of students do bring their own technology to class. They're filling the gap for students who lack their own devices by making existing school-owned desktop and notebook computers available to those who need them.
For example, the Forest Hills School District in Cincinnati allows seventh-grade students at Nagel Middle School to bring personal netbooks, notebooks and tablet PCs to school as part of its "Bring Your Own Laptop" pilot program. When the program launched in January, 353 of the school's 559 seventh-graders showed up for class with their own computers. According to Cary Harrod, the district's instructional technology specialist, students lacking personal devices were equipped with district-owned computers.
For the 2011-2012 school year, district officials will continue to run BYOT for seventh-grade students and will allow the eighth-graders to continue using their personal devices. And they have tentative plans to expand the program to the district's two high schools and possibly its six elementary schools during the 2012-2013 school year. Harrod says they will continue to evaluate the effectiveness of the program before determining which elementary grades will take part.
"This is to get kids more engaged, to [encourage them to] take ownership of their learning and become creators of content, rather than just being consumers," she says. "It's a huge shift, and we will continue to work to create learning experiences that will fully engage students."
Not every classroom needs one-to-one coverage, however, adds Forsyth County Schools' Clark. Students often share, look at each other's devices and work collaboratively, he says.
The educators at the forefront of the BYOT movement believe that the time and effort it takes to implement such a program delivers huge dividends. "It's been incredible to see how disruptive this is in the classroom – in a good way," Forsyth County's Mitchell says. "It allows us to raise technology use to a transformational level."