Thursday, August 4, 2011

Bridging the Axis

A guest post from Lindsey Wright, one on the very topic we are considering at my school, Bring Your Own Technology.

As a general rule, schools frown on students using their own technology in the classroom. If a child brings his or her laptop to school or uses the calculator function on a smartphone, the end result is often confiscation of the device and a phone call home. However, with a host of school-friendly software options available, some institutions are embracing the “bring your own technology” (BYOT) mantra as a way to bridge the educational axis between school and home. If students are able to interact with technology in a learning capacity both in and out of the classroom, it is possible for learning to increase and student success to skyrocket. The trick, then, is in convincing schools that BYOT options are not only safe for students, but beneficial to both student and teacher as they facilitate the learning process. To this end, it’s important to look at what the latest research says about BYOT and to examine the free educational software options that can be embraced to enhance student learning in the BYOT classroom.

What the Research Says
The idea that computers, whether they assist a student in taking online classes or are integrated into a traditional classroom setting, can have a positive impact on student achievement is nothing new. According to a study by the U.S. Department of Education, appropriate use of technology in the classroom has numerous positive benefits. It is recognized to increase both student motivation and self-esteem, helps them develop technical skills essential to the job market, and encourages students to attempt tasks that require higher-order skills — and succeed at them. In short, education that uses classroom technology in meaningful ways creates students who are confident learners and purveyors of information. That these same benefits would translate to the home is not much of a leap.

The primary problem with technology that students carry with them to and from school is availability of funds to purchase it. School districts across the country are facing budgetary shortfalls, and there are far more schools competing for technology grants than there are grants to go around. As the teacher blog “Classroom Technology — Where Does the Funding Come From?” illustrates, having laptops available for a class of students is expensive, running on average $15,000 for single class. If that number is changed to reflect the need to give every student in the school or in a particular grade a laptop so that they can carry their computers home with them each day, the cost goes up astronomically. Smartphones, which have many of the same benefits as laptops, aren’t as expensive but still come with a pretty hefty price tag. Therefore, when funds are scarce and most grant-based funding comes with strings attached, the BYOT option seems a viable alternative.

BYOT Programs in Action
One of the biggest concerns the educators face when schools implement BYOT programs is that of control. How can educators control what the students access and how they use it? If smartphones are in use, how can the teacher prevent students from texting during class? The answer is currently being explored in the Forest Hills School District in Cincinnati. According to Cary Harrod, instructional technology specialist for Forest Hills, at the beginning of January 2011 all seventh grade students in the district were allowed to bring their own laptop, netbook, or tablet PC for use during the school day. To help ensure classroom control and student safety are maintained, the district has launched a “parent voice group” to ensure parental participation and awareness. Professional development has also helped educators learn how to utilize technology in the classroom and monitor its safe usage. Finally, students participate in seminars alongside parents and teachers designed to help them learn how to learn, which gives them a way to own their learning and understand the role technology plays in the learning process.

Likewise, the district has prepared to meet another nearly universal concern of educators when a BYOT program is implemented: compatibility. When students are each bringing their own technology, there is concern that not every student will have the same technology features. Some might write documents in Notepad, others in Word, and still others in Google docs. If the choices for basic word processing software are numerous, consider how overwhelming the choices for other software functions (such as spreadsheets or graphing) might be. To counteract this, teachers are trained to instruct students in basic principles rather than in specific programs. Students are trusted to be knowledgeable enough about technology to work the programs on their own computers.

Finally, Forest Hills has surmounted the most perplexing difficulty of the BYOT innovation: that of students unable to afford the technology. For these students who would otherwise be left out, Forest Hills has begun soliciting donations from organizations and individuals. They are seeking both new and used laptops, netbooks, and tablet PCs so that each student has an equal opportunity to learn in a technologically facilitated environment.

It’s essential that students be provided with every opportunity to learn and develop new skills, and integrating technology into the classroom is great way to do exactly that. Technology, when used both at home and in the classroom to facilitate learning, is a powerful tool. For students, BYOT options provide a chance to use this tool without being fettered by school budget constraints. By bringing their own technology, students will learn how to use their personal devices in new ways and develop an appreciation for what they can do with just a bit of technical assistance. Most importantly, the divide between school and home, the educational axis, will be bridged, allowing learning to become part of the student’s daily life.

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