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How BYOD Programs Can Fuel Inquiry Learning

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Launching a Bring Your Own Device program can be both exhilarating and scary. The opportunity to extend access to technology in the classroom and at home is enticing, but school districts can get hung up on important details like providing a strong network, making sure each child has a device, and questions around distraction. Of course, no one answer will work for all teachers or students, but one guiding principle that's shown to work is for schools to focus on how mobile technology will help shift instruction to be more collaborative, learner-driven and inquiry-based.

“Instead of this just being a technology initiative, it really is an instructional initiative, so all of us from different departments can get on the same page,” said Tim Clark, coordinator of instructional technology for Forsyth County Schools in Georgia.

Forsyth started out by creating a learner profile, a set of criteria the school district wanted students to learn while in school. That profile includes: seek knowledge and understanding; think critically and solve problems; listen, communicate, and interact effectively; exhibit strong personal qualities; and engage and compete in a global environment. The profile helps guide all approaches to learning in the district.

“Kids already know how to use their devices, but they don’t know how to learn with their devices,” Clark said in an edWeb webinar. It’s the teacher's role to help them discover how to connect to content, one another and learning with a device that they may have only used for texting and Facebook previously. “It’s about the kids being empowered in the classroom to make decisions about the ways that they are learning,” Clark said.

To achieve that level of decision making, school culture has to shift to one that encourages an on-going conversation, often filtered through devices. “Anytime I see students watching a video in the classroom I expect them to be back-channeling,” Clark said. Back-channeling is an ongoing conversation on Twitter or an app like Socrative about what students are watching. The teacher then knows how students are responding to the material and can decide how to move into the next activity.


Inquiry-based learning grounded in authentic projects go hand in hand with BYOD, Clark said. “What we are trying to do is get to transformative use of tech, where kids are doing things they wouldn’t be able to do without the tech,” Clark said. He recommends using big picture questions to frame ideas and help students identify the many smaller questions within the topic. “I expect that if I go to a student and ask them what’s the big question you are working on they’ll be able to tell me and talk about,” Clark said. “There’s not just one right answer. I want more questions to arise out of that one big question.”

Asking the right questions, developing a research approach, collaboratively deciding on a grading rubric and using all the tools available to complete a project aren’t skills that necessitate the use of technology. But having many devices in the classroom throughout the inquiry process gives educators and students more opportunities, including more authentic ways to showcase student work beyond turning an assignment into a teacher.

The most important thing is to take the focus off of the final product and place it on the process of discovery. “Find ways to ask the right questions to lead students to discover the apps they need to show what they know,” Clark said. He admitted that while the goal is to use the technology to transform learning, much of the time teachers and students are actually only adapting an old task to the new medium. Often that means work can be turned in more quickly and graded more efficiently.

Clark estimates that about 10 percent of the time, Forsyth teachers are able to facilitate a transformative learning experience. “Trying to get towards transforming helps us frame the conversation with our teachers as we provide feedback about the kinds of lessons they’re planning,” Clark said.


Like many school districts, Forsyth was concerned about how its students would use the internet once they had access all the time. The district started out with a draft policy that required schools to filter internet for things like pornography and gambling, and required certain uses. Schools could then modify that draft for their own needs. But over time, most schools came to just expect responsibility because kids weren’t misusing the privilege.

“There was this respect that grew out of having BYOT and working together in the classroom,” Clark said. The policies soon shifted away from all the things students couldn’t do and became a short list of things students should do. This shift allows teachers to address issues of digital citizenship like privacy, respecting others' work, and standing up to improper uses on a daily basis as they arise.


“At the beginning have the kids share how they already know how to use their technology,” Clark said. “Let them decide what apps they want to use to show what they know. The teacher doesn’t need to know all the technology.” He said some of his teachers only know the three to five apps that they find useful, but they allow their students to use whatever helps them achieve their learning goals.

“The teacher is not always directing everything; they have to learn how to learn alongside the students,” Clark said. “Teachers need to feel comfortable sharing that learning with the students and asking for help on the devices.” Many kids love to show off what they know and are good teachers too.

The most important ways the school can support its teachers in the transition to BYOD is to provide training on how to manage the class when devices are involved. One easy way to make it more manageable is to rearrange the classroom to allow more small group work or individual exploration.


According to Clark, the most powerful attribute of BYOD programs is the ability to extend learning beyond the school day. But it can only work if all kids have access to the same opportunities. Twenty percent of Forsyth students receive free and reduced lunch. The district was worried about equity, but jumped in knowing that not every student had a device and that some parents wouldn’t want to send their child to school with a device even if they owned one.

Schools in the district have found that as some kids bring personal devices, the technology in school should be more available for those who don’t bring one. Schools have a centralized location for laptops, rather than a cart or lab, so students can grab a laptop when they need it. “If they’re using that laptop in the classroom that has so much power and another kid is using a smartphone that doesn’t have quite that power or screen real estate, it requires collaboration,” Clark said.

And it allows cash-strapped schools more flexibility. “Since we’re not purchasing handheld devices we can use title funds to buy district devices,” Clark said. Schools have also asked parents to donate old smartphones that can be used on the wi-fi network without a data plan. And, in some cases, schools have bought devices for kids whose families really couldn’t afford one.


A bigger equity question remained around access to the internet. One strategy Forsyth has employed is to pull the community into the effort. Businesses with free wifi put a sticker in their windows and the district offers a directory listing of those resources. Many businesses have risen to that challenge and now even some dental offices offer free wifi, so kids know they can work online while waiting for an appointment. The district also bought Kajeet smartspots to send home with students who had no internet access in their houses.

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