By Jennifer Roland
At Mankato Public School System in Minnesota, students bring their homework, their lunches, and books to school like most students across the country. But they also bring whatever tech devices they own -- and they don't have to hide it or turn it off when they walk into class.
Mankato has joined the growing Bring Your Own Technology movement that allows students to use their own Netbooks, laptops, and tablets -- anything that connects to the school's wireless network -- during class time.
“By allowing kids to bring in their own devices, you free up school resources for the kids who don’t have access,” says Doug Johnson, director of media and technology for the Mankato Public School System. (Johnson wrote the book -- literally -- on the subject; The Classroom Teacher’s Technology Survival Guide is published this month.) For example, in classrooms that have a group of four computers, finding time for all 30 students to use them can be challenging. In Mankato, 90% of the students have some sort of wireless-capable device, which leaves only eight students in a typical class who will need to use the class computers.
This kind of unconventional approach to schooling, in a public school system that's tangled with strict rules and regulations, was one of the tactics being hailed this week when President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke about the importance of bringing schools to the 21st century by finding smart ways to integrate technology into the learning process at the inaugural Digital Learning Day.
For schools that are lucky enough to have the money to carry out this mission -- whether it's providing a computer lab, laptops and tablets for students -- the rewards of the technology are abundant. But the fiscal reality makes this difficult for most public schools that struggle with dwindling budgets and can't afford to hire enough teachers, let alone computers.
That's why school districts like Mankato are experimenting with what could be a very obvious solution: Let kids bring their own tech devices to school. Truth is, at last count (in 2010) more than 75 percent of American kids age 12 to 17 owned cell phones, according to a Pew Research study. And 19 percent of Americans now own a tablet. So it's no surprise that the Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) movement is taking shape across the country with school districts that allow students to use their tablets, smart phones, and other mobile computing devices in the classroom for learning.
Conceptually, that makes a lot of sense. Why not let kids use the tech tools they're already familiar with to enhance their learning? But as schools try to figure out the best way of transitioning to this new world, some thorny issues must first be sorted out. How do teachers and school systems prepare for all the different platforms, when some kids are bringing in tablets, others are bringing their parents' old laptops, and the remainder are on mobile phones? And what effect does this change have on the dynamics of a classroom?
For starters, schools and districts are beset by myriad rules and policies they must follow in order to qualify for state and federal funding. And if district policy does allow kids to bring their own devices, schools must also make sure they have enough bandwidth to deal with all the new devices that need Internet connections.
Schools have long looked at providing Internet-capable devices as the only way to ensure equal access to education for all students, but these endeavors are extremely expensive and, many districts believe, unsustainable without long-term grant funding. That's where kids using their own devices could work.
What's so great about having a mobile device in class? Instant access to information is the main reason for allowing kids to use their devices: to search for information online. Some teachers also use mobile devices to gives quizzes or take instant polls. How they use their devices depends on what teachers decide to do with them.
Though there continues to be a large gap in those who own laptops and can afford broadband at home and those who can't, mobile devices can potentially serve to bridge gaps in access, allowing kids to use them in and outside of school for learning.
HELP OR HINDRANCE?
But allowing kids to use their devices at school might not be as simple a solution as it sounds. Educator and technology consultant Gary Stager believes the BYOT movement "diminishes the otherwise enormous potential of educational computing to the weakest device in the room.” He contends that "cell phones are not computers! They may both contain microprocessors and batteries, but as of today, their functionality is quite different...The computer is an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression that makes it possible for children to learn and do things in ways unthinkable just a few years ago. We impair such empowerment when we limit educational practice to the functionality of the least powerful device."
Mobile phones, and especially those that aren't smart phones, obviously don't have the same capabilities as computers. But when tablets and Netbooks enter the picture, it becomes less of an argument against insufficient technology and more an argument against managing multiple technologies. Stager adds that in a class full of students handling his or her own device, each one different from the other, will only "amplify [teachers'] anxiety and reduce use."
But as one who's taken to using all kinds of devices in school, Johnson believes in the power of the cloud to provide tools that any device can access. In Mankato, they rely heavily on Google Docs and other platform-agnostic tools that serve information to any Internet-accessible device.
And although Johnson admits that more traditional teachers resist or are overwhelmed by this type of learning, students will need little support because they're already familiar with their own devices. If the bandwidth and infrastructure are in place for students to access the school network, Johnson says they'll be able to do their work with little oversight.
Johnson has enlisted parents' help to make sure teachers aren't overtaxed with trying to help kids figure out how to use the devices that don't meet district guidelines. He sent a letter home to parents before the holidays with a checklist of things to look for if they were already planning to buy a mobile device for their child’s holiday gift.
The common theme he hears from parents is, “If I spend $500 on an iPad for my kid, I hope the teachers use it!”