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Over the past two years, students and staff in Wolf Creek Public Schools have brought their own mobile devices to class.
But this Alberta district isn't mesmerized by the shiny technology. Instead, it places pedagogy before technology.
"It's about enhancing and building excellent learning environments," Assistant Superintendent Gary Spence said. "It's not a tech goal; it's a learning goal."
Like anything else, the road to this learning goal is filled with potholes and steep hills. But by overcoming these obstacles, Wolf Creek empowers teachers and students to collaborate and explore their way through learning.
Wolf Creek has taken on this project because it's part of the district's vision and purpose. And the purpose of how mobile devices can be used is critical to the success of the project, said Mark McWhinnie, director of technology integration.
The district didn't force every school and teacher to change the learning environment at a specific time. Instead, the district made the student-owned devices option available, and let schools decide if and when they're ready to experiment with it.
Spence and McWhinnie went to each school and met with its leaders. They asked about 10 questions designed to help them think through whether they were ready to bring in student-owned devices and what their policies would look like. And they made sure that they discussed the importance of digital citizenship.
Seven project schools have formed a community of practice and meet throughout the year to share what they're learning. And the district has focused on making sure that technical staff understand the educational goals of the initiative and that educators understand the technical challenges to enabling it.
So far, most of the schools have allowed students to bring their own devices to some degree. Sometimes they limit it to staff or one class, but it's a start.
At the original pilot Ecole Secondaire Lacombe Composite High School, the initiative started in a few humanities classes. The curriculum already supported collaborative learning, and social studies had a team of educational innovators, said Greg Esteves, an English and social studies teacher who served as the project coordinator.
Esteves shared what he learned and challenged teachers to think about learning and teaching with student- and teacher-owned devices.
"It wasn't really about technology so much," Esteves said. "It was about, OK, this is the world we live and work in, how do we bring that into the classroom?"
The traditional classroom structure made computer lab time a scheduled part of the day. But mobile devices erase the need for scheduling technology time, McWhinnie said.
"So there's a need to change that learning environment to build in opportunities where students can use the contemporary tools of literacy in an ongoing fashion as opposed to a mindset of planning to use technology by going to a computer lab on a given day."
To support anywhere, anytime learning, the district added several hundred more wireless access points so schools could have pervasive and dense coverage. The changes the district made have improved both reliability and bandwidth.
But at first, the district's wireless network wasn't that reliable. And students couldn't jump on it quickly because the network access control took too long to finish its host integrity check, focus groups said.
"Two to three minutes may not seem like a long time," Spence said, "but if you're a teacher in a classroom, you hate to give up any instructional time to a technical impediment. So we had to ensure that it was a seamless and relatively rapid connection."
By working with Alcatel-Lucent and InfoExpress engineers, Wolf Creek tweaked the Aruba wireless and CyberGatekeeper Network Access Control products. Now the connection takes a few seconds for iPhones and iPads, and under a minute for a typical Windows 7 home laptop, McWhinnie said.
Along with solving these technical challenges, the district technology staff made sure each school had a contact to go to for help connecting personal devices through the network access control.
They also encouraged schools to take advantage of the technical expertise many students have. They could either create student groups that could provide first level support or encourage students to ask each other for help.
In the first month that students started bringing devices to Ecole Secondaire Lacombe Composite High School, a fire swept through the building. As a result, they lost access to computer labs and school-owned devices for insurance reasons, and had to be relocated to other schools. But the students were still able to access the wireless network through their mobile devices.
Because of that fire, students lost access to their lockers for a week. And now they're a little reluctant to bring back their laptops, Esteves said. They do bring in plenty of smartphones and tablets, though.
Coming into the project, Esteves knew the school needed to shift its pedagogy. Without a shift in teaching and learning, wireless access and mobile devices wouldn't change anything.
"If you put a device in front of somebody, but they just go about teaching and learning in the old ways, it's not often the most effective tool," Esteves said.
Sometimes teachers are scared to turn over control of learning or information to students, Esteves said. So schools have to prepare teachers to make this switch.
Before teachers start using a software or hardware tool, they need to know their curriculum well. And they need to understand the learning goals for their students. Then they can craft activities and assignments that will take them toward that learning outcome.
In Esteves' class, students turn in work, ask questions and interact on forums through a Ning network. Because he posts assignments several months in advance, they can work on assignments at their own pace at whatever time of day makes sense to them.
He encourages them to post their work for others to look at and comment on. And that's motivated them to put more effort into their work.
"I find that they give a lot more attention to detail when they know that they have an audience."
The switch to personal mobile devices has moved the focus away from getting information to learning and asking questions. When Esteves talks, his students fact check what he's saying to make sure he's not telling them false information and is presenting more than one perspective on a historical event. And they'll tell him if he's wrong.
While the school is still on a learning journey with mobile devices, it's come a long ways.
"If you just introduce technology and open up wireless resources to teachers and students without the rest of the learning and support and coaching, I'm not sure it would be as widely adopted as it has been in this school."
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