Edina Public Schools had concerns about the economic feasibility of one-to-one computing over the long term, so the nine-school Minnesota district is pursuing what it considers to be the next best alternative: allowing students to bring their own mobile devices to school.
Two years ago, Edina considered providing middle and high school students with notebook computers as part of a strategy to increase engagement, personalize learning, teach 21st century skills and take education beyond the classroom. After running a one-to-one pilot, the district shelved the idea when it became apparent that students preferred using their personal mobile devices and that the cost of buying and refreshing notebooks every three to four years would be prohibitive. (For more on the district's early one-to-one efforts, visit edtechmag.com/k12/Edina1to1.)
"One-to-one computing is financially unsustainable, so we stepped back and looked at it differently," says Steve Buettner, who proposed a "bring your own device" (BYOD) initiative during the 2009–2010 school year when he became the district's director of media and technology services. "It's the idea of harnessing the same tool that students use for social interaction with their peers and using it as an educational tool."
One-to-one computing initiatives, which first emerged in the 1990s, remain a popular option for many school districts, provided they have the funds to implement it. Increasingly, those facing severely constrained budgets are viewing BYOD as a cost-effective way to achieve their one-to-one goals by leveraging the notebooks, netbooks, tablets, smartphones and portable media players that students already own.
The benefits are twofold: Not only do schools not have to equip every student with devices, but because they are student-owned, schools also don't have to troubleshoot or maintain them, generating further savings.
Studies show that the one-computer-per-child concept engages students and boosts academic achievement, resulting in less absenteeism and higher graduation rates. Further fueling the BYOD movement, says Bill Rust, a research director at Gartner, is education's shift toward digital content, including electronic textbooks, multimedia-rich instructional software, online videos and searchable online libraries and databases.
This combination of student devices with digital content makes learning more interactive, personalized and mobile, and teaches students the 21st century skills — such as creativity, problem solving and collaboration — that they need to succeed in the future, educators say. CDW•G's 2011 21st Century Classroom Report confirms as much, finding that access to current information, the ability to access multiple sources of content from one device and instant access to content are digital content's top three benefits.
"Right now, what's driving the BYOD movement is a clear move toward digital content as opposed to print content," Rust explains. "But in order to access that digital content, some kind of device is needed."
Schools are deploying BYOD in different ways. Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, a private high school of 785 students in Indianapolis, is piloting BYOD this year and will make it mandatory for students next year. But for most schools, including those in the Edina Public Schools system, BYOD is optional.
During the 2009–2010 school year, Edina conducted a one-to-one computing pilot program. Despite implementation difficulties, students, parents and teachers liked the concept of one-to-one learning. But when district officials surveyed the 155 eighth-graders participating in the pilot, they learned something interesting: Although students loved the idea of having their own computer to do their homework, 52 percent of them were using their personal computers rather than those issued by the school, says Secondary Technology Integration Specialist Michael Walker.
That led the district to switch strategies and adopt BYOD. Rather than spend $600,000 to $800,000 a year to purchase and refresh notebook computers for students, Buettner explains, the district instead used those funds to train teachers and to build the technology infrastructure that would be needed to support BYOD. Specifically, the IT department beefed up the wireless network in its two middle schools and the high school and standardized on a set of cloud-based applications.
Although Edina allows students to use whatever applications they want, Director of Teaching and Learning Jenni Norlin-Weaver says it's important for schools implementing BYOD to adopt cloud-based applications as well so students have a base set of applications that they can access on any device. "What we're pushing now is the concept of being 'device agnostic' and finding cross-platform tools that can be used on any mobile device that is district- or personally owned," Walker adds. Through a custom web portal called Edina Apps, students can store documents on the cloud, access Google Apps' productivity and collaboration tools, and connect to the Moodle course management system, where they can access reading materials and other course content and participate in discussion forums and live chats.
Pennsylvania's Hanover Public School District faced the same issue before launching BYOD at its high school last fall. Teachers worried that student-owned devices wouldn't have the applications necessary for them to assign certain tasks, says Technology Coordinator David Fry.
To solve that issue, the five-school district has moved away from client-based applications and relies on cloud-based ones (Google Apps and Moodle among them) for all BYOD-related activities, says Fry, who installed an 802.11n Wi-Fi network of Ruckus Wireless access points to support the students' mobile devices. "As long as the device has a browser, chances are the students can do whatever they need to do," he adds.
Edina middle school students, meanwhile, must complete a training session with their parents and sign an acceptable-use policy before they can use their personal devices to connect to the school's wireless network. Afterward, each student receives a sticker indicating that his or her device is wireless-certified.
"The kids and parents hear the messages about expectations, and they jointly sign off on a permission form," Norlin-Weaver explains. "If they break rules or try to, they can have their privileges taken away."
Schools that are embracing BYOD are working to incorporate technology into their curriculum. For example, Edina is currently reviewing its English and Language Arts curriculum and investigating whether to adopt electronic textbooks and other digital content. In the meantime, the district currently offers five blended high school courses in English and health education, where students get both face-to-face and online instruction, Norlin-Weaver says.
Professional development also is helping educators learn new teaching techniques that are technology-centric. For example, Brebeuf teachers are embracing the "flipped classroom" concept, which works like this: Teachers record lectures on video and post them online. Students watch the videos at home, and the next day, class time is used for doing homework and one-on-one instruction, explains Jen LaMaster, the school's director of faculty development.
In the past, the school's geometry teacher would write problems on the board for 40 minutes, but when students got home, some of them had trouble doing the homework. By flipping the model, students now do their homework in class, and the teacher is on hand to answer any questions that might come up.
It's a more authentic learning process that eschews the notion of students sitting passively in class, LaMaster says. Adds Chief Information Officer JD Ferries-Rowe: "It provides more one-on-one time for teachers to work with their students in class."
Hanover Public School District's David Fry would like to see a hybrid approach to BYOD, in which schools make some computing devices available but also rely on students' personal devices.
CREDIT: Gary Landsman
Hanover Public School District initially wanted to launch a one-to-one program, but turned to BYOD instead because of financial constraints. According to Fry, equality is one of its chief concerns.
A big downfall of BYOD programs, he explains, is that school officials have no control over whether students actually will bring their devices to class: On good days, 25 to 30 percent of students bring devices to school, he says. But on average, only 10 to 15 percent of students do so.
"Even if it's 25 percent every day, it's still not 100 percent," Fry says. "So how do we make it 100 percent? That's the million-dollar question that we're struggling with right now."
The district currently makes 175 school-owned computers available to its 500 high school students. When students bring their own devices, it helps because there are more school-owned notebooks for other students. "It stretches our equipment further," he says.
Moving forward, to reach the one-to-one ratio, Hanover may pursue what Fry calls a hybrid BYOD/one-to-one model. In this scenario, the district would buy enough low-cost notebooks or netbooks to equip students who don't have their own devices. Another idea the district is considering is to give parents subsidies so they can buy computers for their children. "We are trying to figure out how to approach it and make it work," he says.
To solve the equality issue, some districts have teachers develop lessons in which students work in small groups. When there are one or two students with mobile devices, they can work together and informally share the devices with students who don't have their own, says Scott Knuckles, director of information and technology at California's Paso Robles Joint Unified School District, which began a BYOD initiative this past fall. "You can have one or two students gathering data, another taking notes and the rest working on a presentation, for example. It's group collaboration."
Rust, of Gartner, agrees. Participation in BYOD initiatives will grow over time, but because the initial student-to-device ratio may be closer to three or four to one, curriculum design is crucial in making BYOD work. "If the curriculum is designed for collaborative work, and they do share the devices, then no one is disadvantaged," he says.
Brebeuf had a two-to-one ratio of students to computers, but many of the notebooks were in carts and locked away in classrooms. When students complained that there weren't enough computers accessible to them during their breaks between classes, school officials decided to pilot a BYOD program this year, LaMaster says.
Brebeuf leaders will make BYOD mandatory for the 2012–2013 school year to ensure that the school reaches its goal of one computing device per child. The main driver is the educational benefits to students. But another driver is the fact that the school will increase the availability of electronic textbooks next year, Ferries-Rowe says, noting that administrators want to make sure that all students have devices on which to read their textbooks. The school even plans to provide grants to the 25 percent of students who receive financial aid so they can purchase a device.
Edina, meanwhile, is dealing with the equity issue by expanding each school's media center hours. Besides making its existing notebook computer carts available, the district also has purchased netbooks that students can borrow and negotiated with two vendors to allow parents to purchase notebooks and software at a discount.
Edina has seen steady growth in BYOD participation since the program's launch a year and a half ago. Today, 475 middle school students — about 18 percent of the middle school student population — bring their devices to school. But because the initiative is still new, district officials expect participation will rise to 70 percent in the coming years.
"As devices become cheaper, students who will bring their own devices will become even more ubiquitous in schools," Buettner predicts. "We might have to help the other 30 percent with devices from the district, but that's better than having to cover the entire 100 percent."
Overall, early adopters say BYOD has been successful, and they expect to see many of their counterparts move in a similar direction over the next few years.
"I think every school would love to provide everyone with powerful digital tools to do their work in, but we are in education, and it has constrained funding," Buettner says. "BYOD is an alternative that's less expensive and allows us to put resources in different areas to reach the same missions and goals. It gives us the biggest bang for the buck."
Students are learning in new ways that would be impossible without their mobile devices, educators say.
In Pennsylvania's Hanover Public School District, for example, high school students on a field trip recently tweeted what they were seeing from their cell phones. They even used the same hashtags so they could review each other's tweets after the trip.
And at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis, students use the audio recorders on their devices to record their teacher's lectures and their cameras to photograph notes written on the classroom whiteboard.
"Students are learning with the tool that works best for them," says Michael Walker, secondary technology integration specialist at Edina Public Schools in Minnesota. "It's truly personalized learning, and it's enhanced participation and collaboration in class."
Recently, some Edina middle school students broke into groups to produce videos. But in one group, the student who wrote the script was home sick, leaving her classmates in the lurch, Walker says. So one student pulled out her cell phone and called the ailing classmate at home. The sick student had saved her work in Google Docs, so she could easily share the document with other group members. For the rest of the class period, she stayed on the phone and collaborated with her classmates as they edited the document and the video at school.
"That couldn't happen if students didn't have their personal devices and computer access," Walker says. "Instead of waiting around until the next school day, they got around the distance issue by using technology."
To implement BYOD successfully, Gartner Research Director Bill Rust says every school must do the following:
Be open-minded about the mobile devices students bring to school. Edina Public Schools officials initially preferred that students bring notebook computers or netbooks, believing that tablets were good for consuming information but not for creating content. But then came Google Apps for tablets.
Combine these tools with an attachable keyboard, and the tablet becomes a viable option, says Secondary Technology Integration Specialist Michael Walker. The Minnesota district also discovered that students could handle some school assignments with portable media players. "That really shifted our thinking. We realized that they all could be learning tools for students," he says. "We recommend devices with keyboards, so students can do all the things they need to do, but at the same time, we recognize that other devices may be beneficial."
Don't worry about having all the answers at the outset. When Edina launched BYOD, administrators, teachers and parents agreed that they would identify and solve problems as they arose, says Steve Buettner, director of media and technology services. For example, in the original acceptable-use policy, the district didn't account for students with 3G access on their phones. So Edina is changing the policy to specify that students with 3G can use that connectivity option, but they must abide by all the rules of the acceptable-use policy when they are on school property.
The sky won't fall. Many concerns that school administrators, teachers and staff had before starting BYOD haven't materialized, says David Fry, technology coordinator for the Hanover Public School District in Pennsylvania.
Staff worried, for example, that they'd be inundated with discipline issues and technical support questions, or that devices would be stolen. "We worried about the 'What if's?' but the response has been positive," Fry says. "We've had very few problems."
Take advantage of E-Rate funds to help install Wi-Fi. With the help of E-Rate discounts, California's Paso Robles Joint Unified School District was able to upgrade its local area network and install about 300 access points throughout the district, says Director of Information and Technology Scott Knuckles.
Purchase a web filter that can handle double the number of users. The reason? Many students, teachers and staff bring more than one device to school.
JD Ferries-Rowe, chief information officer for the Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis, says the school originally had a firewall with a built-in web filter that couldn't handle traffic for 900 students' and employees' connected devices. Connections to the Internet were unstable and slow, so he soon upgraded to a device that could handle 1,500 concurrent users.
Create a separate virtual local area network for students. Be sure to secure the VLAN using Children's Internet Protection Act–compliant authentication and network monitoring technologies. Paso Robles students, for example, log in to their own portion of the wireless network, where they have filtered access to the Internet but no access to school servers. The district's content filtering system also protects them from inappropriate websites and systems.
Professional development is important. Hanover's educational technology staff holds a training session every Tuesday, Fry says. The district also built a wiki to educate teachers about using technology in the classroom. In addition to providing how-to's and links to stories, the site gives teachers a forum in which to ask questions and share their successes.
Provide a buyer's guide. Brebeuf is developing a buyer's guide that provides recommendations on notebook computers, netbooks and tablets. In it, Ferries-Rowe will recommend that students use a device with a keyboard as their primary computing option.
If they choose to buy a tablet, he says they should buy an attachable keyboard, too, to simplify the writing of papers and other complex documents. "We don't want there to be buyer's remorse," he says, "because this is a significant investment."