National Spotlight: Districts adapt policies for new devices in classroom

It used to be that in most schools across the nation, students were banned from using cell phones and other personal gadgets while on campus.

Now, as districts move to a new era of technology in the classroom, not only are policies prohibiting these devices being repealed as state officials and K-12 administrators contemplate rules that not only allow - but even encourage - use of student-owned electronics as tools for learning.

It becomes less about what the device is and more about what you want kids to do with it," Patrick Larkin, assistant superintendent for learning at Burlington Public Schools in Massachusetts, said during a webinar on the issue last week. "It's really important to start with the why' question - why do you want to get devices? It shouldn't be what apps or what computers should I buy. The question we want to ask is How can this improve our learning outcomes?' "

Like Massachusetts, California and some 43 other states are in varying stages of restructuring their learning environments to meet the challenge of teaching and testing new common core state standards.

But Burlington schools are among those ahead of the pack when it comes to embracing and expanding the use of technology as a key educational tool in the 21st century classroom. That commitment has required an open dialogue and collaborative process both within the district and community-wide to develop policies that address digital practices in school - including student use of either their own or district-owned hardware.

In Burlington, the decision was made to provide all students and teachers with their own individual devices - in this case, iPads - that they can take home and use in the classroom as well.

Another Massachusetts district, Public Schools of Northborough and Southborough, is also in the midst of completing distribution of standardized personal tablets for each of its 5,000 students.

But, according to the district's technology director Jean Tower, who also served as a panelist for last week's Alliance for Excellent Education webinar, several years of planning and infrastructure upgrades were key to reaching that step.

Like its neighbor, Public Schools of Northborough and Southborough began with a technology committee of interested staff, parents and students, said Tower, and the team worked backward from its goal of integrating technology for the benefit of student learning. For the past few years, she said, the district has worked to increase its wireless capacity, improve network infrastructure and increase bandwidth - all to allow for large capacity usage as well as to install security and control measures to limit unnecessary access to the Internet or secure systems.

Both districts as of now have chosen to have all students use one type of device to simplify instructional training for teachers but both Tower and Larkin said they see the day when more school programs will be BYOD - bring your own device - or, in the case of Forsyth County School District in Georgia, BYOT - bring your own technology.

The chief technology and information officer there, Bailey Mitchell, said allowing students to bring and use their own devices led to a more creative, collaborative and communicative learning environment.

"We think the advantage to students not all having the same device is that it really enhances their ability to think differently about how they would approach a project or tackle an instructional standard," he said. "Since each device is different, the student can't always ask for the hand-holding or coaching from the teacher to walk them through how they get a project done - they actually have to take on some responsibility themselves and that definitely makes them think more critically about how they'll accomplish an assignment or produce a product."

Whether schools choose the one-on-one, BYOD or some other variation of a school technology initiative, there is another educational component that must be addressed: Responsible use of those devices.

This involves educating parents, most of whom have never experienced a school day the same way their children are in terms of technology, as well as creating a culture of trust with students from an early age.

"You can't teach responsible citizenship in my mind in the year 2013 without talking about digital citizenship," Larkin said.

Mitchell said his schools use the word trust' as an acronym for their responsible use policy: T - think about privacy before posting; R - recognize other work and ideas; U - unleash learning with technology; S - stand up to inappropriate use; and, T - treat myself and others with respect. "You'd be surprised how well the students monitor each other," Mitchell said.

Larkin said he believes keys to successfully integrating new technologies into education are involving students in the decision-making process early on, providing professional development and support for teachers and budgeting for technological learning tools and upgrades on a consistent basis.

"The world our kids are going into is one where they're going to be using these resources for their work. If we're preparing them for the real world, like our mission statement says, they're going to need to be able to employ the skills they're going to need when they get to that world - not going back a decade or more and using outdated resources," he said.

Policy makers, administrators and educators also need to recognize that the shift to a new way of learning is a change that will take time and also needs to remain adaptive to account for continual advances in technology.

"It's important to get out to the community that we're not investing in technology, we're investing in our kids here. This is a resource that's going to make our kids better," he said. "That's a big change that districts have to get comfortable with. We can't just make this one time purchase of technology every three to five years like we used to; this needs to be a regular instructional resource that we dedicate money to."

The Alliance for Excellent Education, in addition to posting webinars related to common core standards implementation issues, has also created a guide for districts planning technological transformations.

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