Mobile Tools in the Classroom

Not too long ago, students used to leave their cell phones and other devices at home, or they had to turn the devices off before class started. Now, mobile technology is often welcomed in the classroom as a way to open up learning and move beyond the traditional classroom lecture model. We’ll look at some ways districts are implementing technology and mobile learning in their schools to use these devices as learning tools rather than distractions.

One-to-One Versus BYOD
BYOD seems to be the first choice for many districts implementing mobile learning. Not only does it stretch budgets, it allows students to use whatever device they are comfortable using outside of the classroom.

Chuck King, manager of computer networks at Desert Sands Unified School District, in La Quinta, Calif., explains, “We were getting more and more inquiries from schools in our district, where students were bringing their own devices on campus, around how we could give them filtered Internet access. Students were beginning to use their personal mobile devices to communicate with teachers, access learning materials and complete homework assignments.” They started a trial BYOD program last year due to the number of requests.

Folsom Cordova USD in Rancho Cordova, Calif., currently provides technology to its students, but they are considering BYOD right now. “We want to make sure we are thorough and have a strong policy in place for use and liability,” explains Joe Jenkins, chief technology officer for the district.

Network security was also a primary concern for Bret Foster, CIO, Anderson County School sin Lawrenceburg, Ky., when they began their BYOD initiative at the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year. BYOD was a more financially feasible way to approach one-to-one in their classrooms than the district purchasing devices for all their students. Mike Leseburg, executive director of Information Technology at Richland School District in West Richland, Wash., also notes that BYOD helps them leverage the fact that they cannot purchase a device for every student, and it also helps them engage students effectively.

What’s in Use?
Districts often provide laptops to teachers now to promote mobility in the classroom, like at Richland School District, where the traditional desktop was replaced with laptops to help teachers integrate interactive whiteboards. Tablets and iPads have also proved popular with the districts we talked to.

At Desert Sands Unified School Districts, Android devices, iPads and iPhones all come to school with students. Samsung Galaxy Tabs are used for administration functions, and Google’s Chromebook is becoming a popular stand-in for laptops in lab environments.

The Technology Tool
“Traditionally we focused on teacher use of the technology and integration in their instruction. I think were we have failed in a lot of ways — or where we lacked focus — was in student use of technology in their learning,” says Foster. Many students own mobile devices and are quite proficient with technology, but they couldn’t transfer those skills over to the classroom. “Our policy in the past has always said that you know you’re not allowed to bring personal devices to schools and use them on our network. Now we’re saying not only can you bring them, we want you to. We want you to use them.”

Instead of leaving phones in their lockers or shut off in their backpacks, students can use their mobile devices as a tool to supplement their learning. “The opportunity to have these types of devices that the students bring in, and harnessing that power, it really opens up what you can do as an instructor. You’re really capable now of having your students access a resource and information that they’ve never had before in real time, right on the spot — as opposed to hopping everyone up and going to the lab or taking a kid to the computer at the back of the classroom,” Foster explains.

How do districts ensure that these devices are used as tools? At Desert Sands Unified School District, they leverage the common core curriculum standards from the state and federal government. King explains, “We send tech teachers with specialty training on assignment to show the teachers and students how to use the technology and how it can enhance the learning experience.”

Jenkins also agrees that training and professional development are key to increasing the integration of mobile technology. “It is not just training on the gear, but program and curricular development, in-classroom modeling, collaboration opportunities, content delivery, assessment and follow-up,” he says.

At Anderson County Schools, they’ve found that implementation of student devices has been hit-or-miss, partly due to the fact that in grades where students switch classrooms, there are different expectations among teachers about how the devices will be used. “This is a pretty huge philosophical shift in the way that a lot of our educators look at how you can incorporate this into the classroom,” Foster notes. To work with that, the district is currently creating standard classroom guidelines for device use across the schools as well as pushing for digital citizenship and good use of the devices in learning environments.

Moving Forward
The one-to-one learning environment may not always be feasible with shrinking school budgets, but BYOD helps fill gaps and creates an opportunity for students to take an active role in their everyday classroom instruction. Foster relates that one third grade classroom in Anderson County Schools has a teacher who has really embraced technology use in his instruction. “He has 24 students,” says Foster, “16 students bring 18 personally owned devices. They bring them everyday and they use them in varying ways. They use it as a way to gather information in projects. Also the teacher distributes materials out on his blog that he has through our school district that the kids can pull up on their devices…. Some of the kids’ devices can access Study Island.”

Students can use mobile devices anytime in class to get information, look up a word or concept they don’t understand, even snap a photo to remind them of something to use later in a project. Technology is a part of their lives outside of school hours — districts implementing mobile learning and mobile technology allow students to use technology skills in an innovative way to open up the traditional classroom environment.

Effective implementation of these devices requires a good look at how and why the district, teachers and students want to use this technology. If its just because this is the latest thing, it won’t work out well. Training, pilot programs, a review of the district’s network infrastructure and eager participation (from administration, teachers, students and parents) will help create a successful shift in the way students learn and teachers teach, whether the district buys all the students a tablet or kids bring in their own devices. 

Christine Beitenhaus is an Ohio-based writer with experience in educational and architectural topics.