Mobile Computing | Feature

Bring Your Own Technology

A school district in Ohio is embracing the "bring your own laptop" concept in an effort to get computers in the classroom without taking a hit to the budget.

With district budgets shrinking and technology advancing at the speed of light, keeping up can be difficult at best. While few would argue that today's students need hands-on experience with technology, some schools lack the resources needed to put the proper tools in the hands of every child.

That's why the 7,800-student Forest Hills School District in Cincinnati will implement a "bring your own laptop" program for its seventh grade classrooms in January 2011. If the implementation is successful, the program will be rolled out for all students in seventh through twelfth grade shortly thereafter.

Intent on giving students a complete education that includes as much hands-on technology usage as possible, Forest Hills began investigating the BYOL approach after realizing that the purchase of hundreds of computers for students is simply too expensive.

"As our budgets have been slashed, we've had to come up with other ways to [obtain] technology," said Cary Harrod, instructional technology specialist for the district. Harrod said the idea of a 1:1 implementation has been on the district drawing board for about five years. "Every time we put a proposal out there for the school board, it comes back as being cost prohibitive."

In 2009, for example, Harrod said her team presented a hybrid 1:1 plan that would increase the number of laptop computers purchased outright by the district itself, while also allowing students to bring their own devices into the classroom. "Even that plan was too expensive," said Harrod. "At that point, we realized that we needed to approach the situation from a different angle."

Known as the Partnership for Powerful Learning, that "angle" is now coming to fruition, and will soon find the majority of Forest Hills' seventh grade students toting their own laptops to and from school every day. Harrod said her team settled on the BYOL idea after researching similar programs--"what few that there are out there," she said--at other schools.

"I took the idea to my boss, knowing that while it wasn't necessarily 1:1, it would give our students more access to technology," said Harrod. She got a thumbs-up on the idea and then spent about a month researching it even further and surveying sixth grade parents (whose children would be part of the first seventh grade BYOL pilot) for input and feedback. Out of the 300 respondents, she said 200 gave the proposed plan an "absolute yes," while 100 said "no."

Those parents who were reticent about the BYOL program were able to voice their concerns on the survey. The district turned the feedback into an FAQ and posted it on its Web site and is "currently addressing all of those issues," according to Harrod. She said the top three concerns were equipment cost, safety, and security. "Some parents were worried about not being able to afford the computers," said Harrod, "while others wanted to know more about safety, security, and damage--like, what would they do if the computers were lost or stolen?"

To address one of the biggest issues on everyone's minds--cost--Harrod said the district is in discussions with a local foundation and other groups that might be able to subsidize some or all of the equipment costs for the families in question.

"We're also contacting local banks to see if they would be able to offer low-interest loans," said Harrod, who added that the district already has 120 computers devoted to the seventh grade, and could also use those to fill in the gaps where needed. "We want to make sure no one is left out."

To address the security and safety concerns expressed by parents, Harrod said, the district has set up "student boot camps" that will help the children and their families learn how to protect the equipment while on campus, store the computers properly, maximize battery life, and take other measures to ensure a successful experience.

Earlier this year, Harrod also solicited feedback from all seventh grade teachers and said the comments and opinions were "overwhelmingly positive." She credited a 5-year-old technology training program for staff members for creating the solid foundation for the BYOL implementation. Every year, about 90 educators are given a tablet PC and projector and then spend the following 12 months with Harrod, "learning and becoming fluent with the technology," she said. "We've covered a lot of the groundwork for our BYOL initiative with this program."

There's even more training ahead for teachers, according to Harrod, who said the professional development covers both hands-on technology usage and cultural issues that stem from an increasingly automated classroom. "We talk to teachers about how they have to be learners themselves in this new environment," said Harrod, "and help them understand how powerful technology can be."

Ultimately, Harrod said, the BYOL implementation serves as just one more piece of the puzzle for a district that's interested in developing 21st century learners--and without too much of a financial investment on Forest Hills' part. "We've passed the tipping point in terms of seeing technology as just an add-on and are now looking at more creative ways of accessing the tools," said Harrod. "If people are willing to supply their children with those tools, then we need to leverage that."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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