Special Report: Collier school district embracing 'Bring Your Own Technology' policy

Scott McIntyre/Staff
Nick Lalonde, left, and Tyler Luneki look for right angles with their new iPads for their algebra 1 class at St. John Neumann High School, a private school, in 2012. The school has started a program where each student and teacher will use an iPad for their daily studies as well as tests. The Collier County school district is now taking a hard look at integrating technology into all classrooms and some district officials are headed to Georgia to look at a successful technology program there.

Photo by SCOTT MCINTYRE // Buy this photo

Scott McIntyre/Staff Nick Lalonde, left, and Tyler Luneki look for right angles with their new iPads for their algebra 1 class at St. John Neumann High School, a private school, in 2012. The school has started a program where each student and teacher will use an iPad for their daily studies as well as tests. The Collier County school district is now taking a hard look at integrating technology into all classrooms and some district officials are headed to Georgia to look at a successful technology program there.

Kamela Patton, Collier Superintendent of Schools, on NewsMakers 03--03-13.

Kamela Patton, Collier Superintendent of Schools, on NewsMakers 03--03-13.

At Kelly Mill Elementary, students don’t get scolded for using cellphones during class. No one bats an eye when they bring a laptop, iPad or Nintendo DS into the classroom.

In fact, teachers and administrators at the Cumming, Ga., school encourage it.

They say technology is providing new ways to engage students in learning. So, students take notes on their iPads, respond to teachers’ questions on their cellphones and compete on math quizzes on their laptops — and teachers think of technology as another learning tool.

“It is as natural for today’s learner to use technology to learn as it is for my generation to use paper and pencil,” Kelly Mill Elementary Principal Ron McAllister said.

The approach is called BYOT — Bring Your Own Technology — and something similar is on its way to Collier County schools. This week, Collier Superintendent Kamela Patton will lead a team of 38 district officials heading to Georgia to learn more about it through a conference held by the Forsyth County school district, which oversees Kelly Mill Elementary. The 39,000-student district north of Atlanta has a BYOT policy at all 36 of its schools.

Collier County School District administrators budgeted $25,000 of operating dollars for the trip, which begins Wednesday. The list of those attending the three-day conference includes: the associate superintendent, deputy superintendent, a board member and teachers and principals from schools across the district.

Patton said administrators will likely select several schools to run a pilot program of BYOT.

“We think it’s a good thing for our kids, so that’s the reason we’re investing our time and our resources into it — because we believe in it,” she said. “For us, it’s a matter of going to see, what are the details to make it happen and implement it?”

LEGAL ROADBLOCKS

When Forsyth County schools administrators began exploring BYOT in 2009, state law stood in the way.

Created 20 years earlier, the law banned students from using cellphones and other electronic devices at school. The district had to get a waiver from the state Board of Education to avoid violating it, said Jill Hobson, director of instructional technology.

Other states passed similar laws in the late 80s and early 90s, viewing cellphones as distractions. In those that didn’t, school systems often took similar actions — either barring phones or requiring students keep them powered down.

Gradually, opinions have shifted on the role of technology in the classroom.

Georgia lawmakers repealed the law barring cellphones from schools and other states did the same. Lee County School Board members signed off on a change last fall that stops teachers from confiscating students’ cellphones. Miami-Dade County school district administrators implemented a BYOD — Bring Your Own Device — policy last summer.

In the Collier County School District, students can’t use electronics during the school day. That includes while on the bus, in between classes, during lunch and in the restroom.

But Hobson said policies like that aren’t keeping electronics out. Forsyth County Schools had something similar before launching its BYOT initiative, and dealt with as many as 400 disciplinary actions related to electronic devices each year.

“Every school system is doing BYOT,” Hobson said. “Whether they want to acknowledge it or not, the kids have it with them. It is in their pockets. It’s a matter of whether we want to leverage that for learning or continue to fight it.”

Patton said the Collier County School District doesn’t track how many students own electronic devices, but 20 percent of those using its wireless Internet are non-employees.

“Who does that tell you is using it? The kids,” she said. “So, you’ve got to quit fighting them and figure out, how do you embrace that?”

ELECTRONIC ENGAGEMENT

On a recent school day, a cluster of children at Kelly Mill Elementary sat down for a Skype session with a Daily News reporter, holding iPads, smartphones and laptops. They got up one by one to describe how they’d used them at school.

One Kelly Mill Elementary student talked about creating a QR code — a bar code that, when scanned by a smartphone or tablet, links to a website — to connect people to information he put together for a project. Another said he uses a website, IXL.com, to practice multiplication and division and to compete with other students.

Other students talked about iPhone apps — one called StoryKit that makes electronic stories and another called Pic Collage, which creates collages.

“So many apps are fun,” a student said. “Even if they educate you, you can still have fun while learning.”

Increased student engagement is one benefit of using technology at school, said Mark Warschauer, a professor of education and informatics at the University of California, Irvine. His research shows it can also lead to more measurable results, including small improvements in test scores.

Warschauer hasn’t conducted formal research on BYOT initiatives, but he has visited schools where they’re in place and talked to students, parents and teachers. He’s generally “very positive” about the concept.

Students like working with technology, Warschauer said. They like the images and sounds and the quick feedback it can provide. If teachers can take advantage of that, they can make classes more engaging — and perhaps see better results, he said.

Allowing students to use technology at school doesn’t just change learning: It also changes teaching.

“A teacher’s role has to change when kids have access to all the information in the world in their pockets,” McAllister said.

Teachers don’t need to stand at the front of a classroom and lecture students, he said. They’re more like facilitators.

Using technology in lessons has become normal to teachers, McAllister said.

“The hook has been when a teacher sees a kid engaged in learning that they’ve never seen engaged before,” he said. “And teachers buy into that because that’s exactly what they want.”

BRIDGING THE INCOME GAP

What about students who don’t have their own electronic devices?

Critics say BYOT policies leave them behind, widening the gap between low and high income students. That was initially one of the biggest concerns for administrators with the Collier County School District, where more than 63 percent of students are categorized as economically needy.

Forsyth County schools administrators said the district supplements what students own with laptops and other computers, and students are happy to share. Surveys of students show they don’t get negative responses when using school technology instead of their own, Hobson said.

And even in schools with higher percentages of lower income students, devices are becoming more prevalent, said Tim Clark, coordinator of instructional technology for Forsyth County Schools.

“As a teacher uses technology more in the classroom, there becomes more of a purpose for it. It becomes like another school supply,” he said.

The greater challenge is often that students don’t have wireless Internet access at home, so the district is identifying local businesses willing to allow them to use free Wi-Fi, Clark said.

Another concern some raise is that electronics can be distracting. To combat that, the Forsyth County school district requires students to use its filtered wireless Internet, which blocks sites with inappropriate content. They also have to power their devices down at their teacher’s request.

At the same time, teachers are trying to teach “responsible use” — when it’s appropriate to have a cellphone out and when it’s not.

“How many times do kids doodle on a piece of paper or write notes and pass them to another kid? Those are behavior issues and not really technology issues,” Clark said.

Warschauer said laptops in classrooms will make a good school better, but won’t make a bad school good.

“If you’re doing good things with students, you can do better things with laptops,” he said. “If the teachers and students have a lot of discipline problems or are wasting a lot of time, there’s no better way to waste time than with a laptop connected to the Internet — other than maybe an iPad or cellphone connected to the Internet.”

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