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Access to Technology for Immigrant Students

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School administrators are looking to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies as a way to bring technology resources in the community to bear in the classroom when there is little funding for school-owned devices. We are examining how three different teachers in three completely different communities -- urban, rural, and immigrant -- are dealing with BYOD issues, including trust, equity, and what happens when teachers try to put student-centered learning in the hands of students who've never experienced it.

The advantage of BYOD has always been flexibility -- educators don’t have to wait until a school board approves funds for mobile technology, rolls out a policy and implements a training program. Instead, teachers began experimenting with technology to engage learners and allow them to have more ownership over their learning. Using student-owned devices has the added benefit of helping students to see their phones as learning tools that can be used for research at home. And while not all kids own smartphones or tablets to access the internet outside of school, many do.

School districts that can afford it are opting to issue school-owned devices to students that stay at school. But the drawback to these types of one-to-one programs is that they don’t allow for anytime/anywhere learning. Other schools are combining BYOD with school devices as a way to help mitigate equity gaps.

In this article, we learn how a ninth-grade teacher handles BYOD issues with a mostly immigrant population.


(Read Part 1: Trust, Equity, and Student-Centered Learning With Fourth-Graders.)


At Washington Technology Magnet School  in St. Paul Minnesota, many students are recent immigrants from Burma, Bhutan, and East African countries like Somalia and Ethiopia. There’s also a sizable Hmong population. The school's diverse student population represents a shift experienced in schools across the country towards more immigrant children and English Language Learners.

In Stephanie Erickson’s ninth-grade Life Science class, students speak four or five different languages and have different levels of access to technology. Many newer immigrants have no phones at all. Other low-income students have devices, but not access to the internet at home. “It needs to be school-provided because they don’t have them and they can’t get them,” Erickson said.

The official school policy on BYOD allows students to use personal devices to aid learning, but it hasn't become a huge part of instruction because only some students have them. A few students use their phones to take pictures of notes or to use flashcard apps, but most of the technology in the classroom is school-issued. The leadership at Washington Tech is supportive of teachers trying to integrate student-owned devices, even sending along articles and ideas to the whole staff, but Erickson has been hesitant to embrace that freedom because of concerns that not all her students will be able to participate.

Equitable access to devices comes up a lot in discussions of BYOD, but teachers committed to making technology work for them in the classroom often find learning can be just as powerful without one-to-one programs. In a MindShift article from several years ago, sixth grade teacher Bill Ferriter noted that teachers are always dealing with a deficit of resources, but that shouldn't prevent change. "If I can have kids work in groups of three—something that I do 9 days out of 10 anyway–then I really only need one student to have a cell phone with unlimited texting," Ferriter writes. "The odds of that are pretty high in most middle schools. From there, groups can do anything."

Erickson isn't entirely sure how many kids have devices, but she knows that only 30 percent of her 150 students use Remind, an app that lets teachers text students reminders en masse. The wide range of experience with technology has made Erickson wary of making devices central to her teaching. She did an informal survey with her students after trying to flip a lesson, asking students to watch a video at home so class time could be devoted to discussion and real-world problems. She found that 95 percent of her students liked the flip model, but only 50 percent could watch videos at home.

Still, she's found some value in her experiments. “I think a major shift I've made is that everyday, the kids get immediate feedback,” Erickson said. She uses clicker apps to ascertain whether students are following and understanding the lesson, for example. But she hasn't been able to turn control over to students so they can have more input into how they will learn.

"My concern -- and maybe it’s just a fear rather than a real thing -- is my English Language Learners who have only been here one or two years,” Erickson said. “I think they wouldn’t know where to start." Students have trouble designing their own science experiments and Erickson doesn’t want to saddle them with the responsibility of directing their own learning when they're adjusting to a new language and school system at the same time.

“They don’t have the academic language yet to show any critical thinking because that’s where they’re at in their language development,” Erickson said. “To do student-centered, you need to do some critical thinking and show it.” This is a common dilemma for teachers who don’t speak the same first language as their students. But educators at schools in the Internationals Network would disagree with Erickson’s hesitation to ask students to demonstrate critical thinking skills for fear their grasp of the language isn't strong enough.

“You don’t have to know how to read and write to think deeply,” said Claire Sylvan, founding executive director of the Internationals Network during a Deeper Learning MOOC. Instead, she suggests engaging students with complex thinking on projects that use both English and a student's’ native language. "Provide them with on-ramps that allow them to develop literacy in the environment that they now inhabit," she said. The pedagogy behind the Internationals Network focuses on helping students develop literacy and critical thinking skills simultaneously by giving them more freedom to explore their interests in school.

While Erickson hasn’t seen how BYOD or even school-provided iPads have helped to engender student-centered learning, or put learning in the hands of students, she has used school-issued devices to help differentiate learning for the wide variety of learners in her classroom. She gives students extra research options so they can delve more deeply into lab work, and takes time to process what they’ve learned with her later. One day a week she has an intervention day, asking students to review topics they find difficult through video and discussion.

Meanwhile, her school is moving towards an approach that favors technology in the classroom. The goal is to have a Chromebook cart in every classroom to help make sure students have the tools to work at their own pace. In this vision, students would get individualized homework, based on where they are in the course. Erickson says the IT team needs to do significant upgrades to the wireless system before the vision can be implemented.

"My dream is that the kids grab a device and they’re on right away," Erickson said. "There's no logging in and no delay because of the wifi. The kids can get what they need to learn for that day. They get the slides and what’s going to be projected. They get some sort of way to get formative assessment with teacher feedback, and if it’s more of an intervention lesson, the kids know exactly what they need to do that day.”


That dream is within sight, but Erickson's frustration with the technical performance of devices in the classroom have kept her from embracing it wholeheartedly.

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