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How to Get the Most Out of Student-Owned Devices in Any Classroom

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Brad Flickinger/Flickr
Brad Flickinger/Flickr

Allowing students to bring their own devices to class can be a cost-effective way to quickly get access to the internet and to the many useful tools those devices carry. But students don’t always get the chance to use their devices, especially in low-income schools.

As we previously reported, a 2013 Pew study revealed that only 35 percent of teachers at the lowest income schools allow their students to look up information on their mobile devices, as compared to 52 percent of teachers at wealthier schools. And while 70 percent of teachers working in high-income areas say their schools do a good job providing resources and support to effectively integrate technology into the classroom, only 50 percent of teachers in low-income areas agree.

But it's not a lost cause -- the disparity can be addressed, according to Michael Mills, assistant professor of teaching and learning at University of Central Arkansas, who trains in-service teachers and works in a seventh-grade classroom. Mills has spoken openly about how race and expectations may be playing into how teachers use devices in the classroom. For him, this is a crucial issue, because without access to powerful tech use in school, kids who come from disadvantaged backgrounds will continue to fall behind.

The bottom line for any teacher: technology works best as an extension of what's already happening in class. At the recent ISTE conference, Mills outlined some essential ideas for successfully leveraging the power of technology for learning, regardless of a school's income status.



"The kids who 'have' are going to keep having and the kids who 'have-not' are going to keep being over there," Mills said. He suggests the best way to build equitable classroom technology use is to create a culture of trust. That takes time, but Mills said teachers need to give students a chance to prove themselves before displaying mistrust. “Instead of automatically saying, 'I don’t trust you,' why not create opportunities where you can trust them,” he said.

To do that, Mills recommends developing engaging lessons that use technology in collaborative and creative ways. "We've got to make sure the kids are doing the work, but we have to provide them with guidance," Mills said. The best way to make sure kids are on task is to move about the room and check on their work -- one of the oldest classroom management tools around -- but effective even in a high-tech classroom. "Instead of relying on tech to be the policeman, cultivate a culture of responsibility," Mills said. "You can’t fake that."

Providing guidance on how devices can be used for learning is an essential role for teachers in this era. Despite their facility with the technology itself, kids need direction. "The research says that if you hand kids a device, they aren't going to inherently use it for an educational purpose," Mills said. They need a teacher to guide them along that path.


Creating an environment of trust in the classroom extends beyond its walls and into the community. Not only will a transparent classroom make it easier to engage with parents, but it also helps the community come to grips with a different style of education from what they experienced as children. And being transparent about classroom practices opens up the door for more collaboration with colleagues.

If a teacher doesn't feel what they're doing in the classroom is strong enough to be seen by others, he or she probably shouldn't be doing it. "If it's not good enough for everybody, it's not good enough for the kids," Mills said.


Technical issues with devices can be a headache, so setting some ground rules for device management helps mitigate some hiccups. Mills recommends making it clear that it is students' responsibility to bring their device to school charged and ready to go. Designating a spot on student desks or tables where devices go when they aren't being used for a specific assignment is also a great way to deter students from succumbing to distraction.

"Instead of relying on tech to be the policeman, cultivate a culture of responsibility."


Mills is not bothered by students bringing a variety of types of devices, with varying levels of computing powers. It shouldn't matter if students are working in groups and sharing their devices. “We need to make sure students have individual tasks asked of them within each group,” Mills said. “The beauty of that is the kids don’t all have to have the same device.”

Mills is a firm believer that a powerful use of devices turns students into producers, not consumers of content. “The most important aspect of teaching is to give students an opportunity to create,” Mills said. Sometimes technology will be the perfect tool for that, but in other cases the wireless may give out, an app will go on the fritz or any number of other obstacles might arise.

In those cases, have a back-up plan so the lesson and its creative energy isn't lost to the whims of malfunctioning technology. Mills described one project he planned for his class around The Diary of Anne Frank. He wanted students to analyze primary and secondary sources, so he made QR codes to accompany various images relevant to the book. He put so much information into the codes that they didn't work.

As an alternative, students researched topics on their phones and cut and paste relevant passages to match the images. In the end, the backup plan required more critical thinking and collaboration than the original project and students had a good time doing it.


Though many have lauded the benefits of one-to-one device initiatives, Mills isn't a proponent. "I like a one-to-three [ratio] because it forces kids to collaborate more and the technology gives us an awesome way to facilitate collaboration," Mills said. "We can’t let that laptop or iPad be the centerpiece of our instruction."


Mills is a fan of simple, creative tools that he can use in lots of different ways. He worries that too many apps provide little added-value to the classroom and believes teachers should carefully analyze how and why a new app will be used.

“We really have to think about our instructional objective,” Mills said. "What is it we need our students to do or know? Without that [focus] we become product marketers." The standard he sets for himself is to ask whether the activity has students creating, synthesizing and analyzing. If it does those three things, it’s probably worthwhile.

Mills also suggests teachers try out new apps on the school network, with a student account before planning a lesson around them. Some apps are blocked, or require too much bandwidth for the wireless. He also says it’s important to read the terms of service for any new product. Tumblr, for example, says it is not appropriate for students under 13 -- important information for a seventh grade teacher.

Mills has a go-to list of apps he uses regularly.

  • Infuse Learning: This is a free, formative assessment tool. Teachers can ask students multiple choice or written answer questions to assess how well or poorly they are understanding concepts. The teacher can also hover over a student’s name to see how long he or she took to answer the question. If there are a lot of wrong answers, the teacher knows she probably didn't teach it well enough the first time and needs to rethink her approach.
  • Padlet: Mills uses this app like a class Twitter account or a poster board. It has both display options, although some devices won’t show the poster view. Students can collaborate on different "notes" and drag in multimedia, images and documents from other places.
  • Google Docs: Aside from the obvious use of Google Docs to collaborate on writing projects, Mills likes the sheer amount of information that can be uploaded onto this platform, allowing kids to work on it at the same time. In a lesson about point of view, Mills started a Google Sheet and gave each student a column. He asked each student to write down the significant words that demonstrated a literary character's point of view in their column and then took all of them and made a word map with Wordle. This sparked a vibrant discussion about the words that rose to the top. And it was easy to do the exercise again from a different character’s point of view. “The tech gave us an opportunity to have a conversation and to really compare and contrast,” Mills said. While it’s a simple exercise, there wouldn’t have been enough space on a whiteboard and it would have been much more time consuming.
  • Mills used Google Trends to have students analyze who is more popular -- Jay Z or Beyonce. “What’s exciting is they start analyzing the graph instead of arguing about what they think they know,” Mills said. The quick Google Trend search got them talking about a topic they love from an academic point of view.
  • Another favorite tool is Instagram, which Mills often integrates into math class by having students photograph and share different shapes around town. In one high school project he even had students snap images of grammatical errors on signs in the community. “When students have to create something and put something out there, they work a lot harder,” Mills said. “If they know their peers are going to see it, they care." That doesn't mean teachers should share the results of formative assessment polling all the time. Mills strongly believes that kids have been told too often that they aren’t smart, so being shamed in front of the whole class doesn’t motivate them. Instead, teachers should try to be sensitive to students’ feelings.

Ultimately, Mills sees BYOD as a great way to engage kids through the tools that they use everyday. “My 'nefarious' purpose is for kids to see the device in their pocket as a learning device," he said. And if they learn some ways their phones can help them navigate life beyond Snapchat and selfies, that’s a good thing.