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As more school districts try to individualize instruction, they're looking for ways to give every child a mobile device.
But most of them can't afford to buy a laptop or tablet for every child. That's where a small yet growing trend comes into play.
By allowing students to bring their mobile devices to class, school districts provide the benefits of personalized instruction — without blowing their budgets. And they also pass on their purchasing power to families, who can buy devices from vendors at the district's discounted rate.
“Our goal is to get to a 1:1 ubiquitous environment, but if we let kids and teachers bring in the device they already have, it rechanges the whole economics of what’s possible," said Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking.
1. Financial limitations
For the past 15 years, school districts have tried to provide a device to every student. But now, the average is about 4 to 5 students per device, Krueger said.
While every state has at least one example of a district-funded laptop program, Krueger says that model is hard to scale and sustain economically. Every few years, districts would need to upgrade and replace devices, and that racks up a high bill.
Osseo Area Schools in Hennepin County, Minn., doesn't have the budget to support a huge mobile device initiative, said Tim Wilson, the district's chief technology officer. And neither does fellow Minnesota district Edina Public Schools, said Steve Buettner, director of district media and technology.
“It would have been fiscally impossible to provide that to everyone,” Buettner said.
2. Equity and expectations
But it would also be fiscally impossible for every family in the district to buy a device for their children. And Edina Public Schools does not expect student-owned devices to be a requirement of a proper education. But the district does recognize that technology allows students to collaborate, communicate, create, think critically and demonstrate their knowledge.
“We’re providing again the infrastructure and the capacity for that to happen," Buettner said. "But in no way, shape or form are we mandating that it’s going to happen, that it has to happen.”
Districts should design programs that don't intimidate or challenge families financially, said Rich Kiker, an instructional technology and design consultant and IT adjunct professor in Pennsylvania. That means districts have to figure out how to provide devices for students who can't afford them.
“You don’t want to put a family in a situation where they feel that they need to buy a $300 netbook for their student to perform in high school,” Kiker said.
1. Lay a wireless infrastructure foundation
In the past, districts provided every piece of technology and supported them with existing infrastructure. But with disruptive technologies like the iPad and mobile phones, it's impossible for IT staff members to keep their hands around everything, said Adam Seldow, director of technology at Framingham Public Schools in Massachusetts.
While still protecting the network, Seldow wanted to know what he could do to allow students to gain richer educational experiences by using their own devices. Wireless became an easy way for the district to extend access to a ton of people quickly — without spending money on cabling.
“Wireless is a way to deal with kind of scalability on the fly," Seldow said, "so it’s a combination of saving money and opening up access to all these new devices that kind of drove our wireless initiative.”
Different pieces of wireless technology segregate Internet traffic from internal networks. Through the wireless system, anyone who goes on the public wireless network cannot make it past the firewall, he says, and they basically have a straight shot to the Internet through the district's content filters.
And the cool thing is that IT staff can allocate bandwidth on the different networks, Seldow said. If the staff members only want the public to use a small portion of the bandwidth and reserve the rest for internal use, they can do that.
2. Pilot a bring-your-own-technology program
Two years ago, Buettner's team started piloting mobile devices. At first, they tried a year of providing laptops for a team of 8th grade students and teachers at South View Middle School. But bringing that to scale would have cost too much money, and the district didn't have the support capacity to take care of issues that arose from those computers.
On top of that, more than 52 percent of students used the computer they owned at home instead of the laptop the school provided. So this year, the district decided to tap into the students' resources that they were already using.
“I think we need to kind of walk the process a little bit and pilot it before we might know all the ramifications," Buettner said. "but it’s critical that we start that process.”
By starting with a pilot project, Edina Public Schools has been able to wade into the bring your own technology pool. Without diving in, the IT staff members can learn what works and doesn't work so they can adjust their direction.
“I think this trend is only going to increase," Buettner said, "and it’s only going to be more prevalent as the costs of iPod Touches and tablets get pushed down in the uptake of those by students and kids."
In the middle school, students bring their devices in, and for those who don't have any, the district allows them to check out netbook computers through the media centers. Teachers can also access laptop carts to supplement the technology students bring in.
3. Offer a community device purchasing program
While school districts open up opportunities for students to bring in their own devices, some of them also leverage their buying power to give families discounts on new devices from vendors. And that's a creative way to help put devices into students' hands, said Kiker, the consultant.
“Schools cannot afford the 1:1," Kiker said, "and the more creative they get, the more successful these solutions can be.”
In Pennsylvania this year, he worked with Palisades School District to start a bring-your-own-technology and community device purchasing program. Through district agreements with CDW-G and Apple, the whole community can receive a discount on devices, said Gary Adams, director of technology.
So far, about 15 families have used the purchasing program, Adams said. But by Christmas, he hopes more families will buy laptops for their kids.
“We even saw one family that purchased a netbook for their one child at our middle school, and it was so successful with that child that they purchased another one for their child at the high school,” Adams said.
In Edina Public Schools, the district shares minimum specifications that new mobile devices should have and leverages its purchasing power so families can buy equipment from CDW-G or Apple at a discount, Buettner said. Because the district buys the same equipment, the IT staff knows they're getting good equipment that they can support.
4. Individualize instruction
In the meantime, the district has pushed teachers to move more of their instructional resources to the cloud using open-source and "free" tools. That way, students can access their instructional material, collaborate and work on educational content anytime, anywhere.
Over the past two years, the teachers and staff at Edina Public Schools have been involved in communities of practice so they could learn together. The first year, they received laptops and explored how to design lessons that would tap into the laptop tools, said Michael Walker, secondary technology integration specialist.
And during technology camps, they've been learning how to integrate Google Apps for Education, Moodle and other cloud-based applications into their lessons. Now that the students can use their own devices, they have access to the applications 24/7.
“It’s their own device, and it’s more personalized for them," Walker said. "And being able to personalize their instruction is something that’s one of the main goals of not only the district from a strategic direction standpoint, but also, in alignment with that, is one of the goals of the program.”
1. Be flexible
The teachers who have been most successful with the pilot program at Osseo Area Schools have let go of the idea that every student is going to demonstrate what they know in exactly the same way. Instead, they've allowed students to choose which technology to use to demonstrate what they know. And that opportunity to differentiate is what excites Wilson the most.
Each year, the school district has brought teachers together who are involved in their wireless pilot for a day of sharing their concerns and excitement, Wilson said.
“It certainly requires teachers to be flexible," Wilson said, "and some teachers are very nervous about it.”
Wilson has allowed the pilot program to grow organically so he can take the opportunity to learn how it works as he goes along.
"And that sounds maybe messy," Wilson said, "and it is maybe a little messy, but it also allows us to be flexible and adjust as we learn new things.”
2. Be creative
When districts plan bring-your-own-technology programs, they need to be willing not to give up when they face challenges such as finances and equity, Kiker said. And by combining student technology with community purchasing plans, schools can make mobile devices in every student's hands a reality.
"With a little bit of creativity and some elbow grease, anybody can do this."
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