Mobility | Feature

The ABCs of BYOL

A bring-your-own-laptop pilot program puts an Ohio district closer to its goal of getting a computer into the hands of each of its students.

Cary Harrod is clearly not one to give up easily. It took the instructional technologist three proposals to the Forest Hills Local Schools board in Ohio before it agreed to her plan for a pilot program that would give mobile computing access to almost every student in the 7,800-student district.

It's not as if the foundation for the program wasn't there. The board had always been supportive of a 1-to-1 program, but it simply did not have the resources to buy every student a computer. What's more, Harrod had spent the previous four years getting the teachers in the district comfortable with technology and the use of mobile devices in their classrooms. The district had some laptops available, but only enough for about one out of every five students. So, when a teacher wanted to integrate technology into a lesson, the machines had to be reserved, rolled into the classroom, and set up for the kids; or media center access had to be scheduled and the class moved there for the session.

That's hardly "authentic," says Harrod. "We were putting these devices into the hands of teachers who were starting to re-envision what they could do. But then they'd go back to the classroom and they'd have to wait until next Tuesday to check the cart out. If we didn't look for ways to increase access, the potential to lose the teachers would grow."

Finally, though, Harrod came up with the right formula that would move the all-computers-all-the-time dream off her wish list and into reality: BYOL, or bring your own laptop. With the school board's approval, the BYOL program officially began in January with an initial class of 567 seventh-graders. But there was a lot of work that had to be done before that.

Where Do We Begin?
First, the district had to decide on which grade to start the pilot program with. "When we started talking about BYOL, we really had to think about a few things," Harrod says. "What staff is ready? What staff is willing to put in an extraordinary amount of time for a pilot project to try to figure out what works and what doesn't? And could we contain it in a single building?"

That last question may have been the easiest one to answer. Whichever schools had BYOL would need to be outfitted with additional access points to accommodate the anticipated increase in wireless network usage, and they'd have to get a guest network to allow those outside devices to safely access the internet without touching the internal network. That left the high schools out. They're housed in older buildings that would have required electrical makeovers to accommodate the network and devices. Plus, the district has two high schools but only one middle school, so Harrod and her team decided on the latter to reduce the expense of an infrastructure upgrade for this initial program.

In March 2010, Harrod's team went to the middle school staff to gauge its interest in supporting a BYOL program. The response was overwhelmingly positive, with 20 of the 21 seventh-grade teachers who took the survey in favor of the pilot program. That enthusiasm drove the decision to run the pilot with their students.

Prep Time for Teachers
The seventh-grade teachers' response wasn't just a happy coincidence, though. In the 2006-2007 school year, Harrod had begun a five-year program in which 90 district teachers from kindergarten through the 12th grade received tablet computers and wireless projectors that they used as part of a yearlong professional development program. The goal of the project, Harrod says, was "for them to feel more comfortable and fluent with the technology, and to become more aware of what's out there in terms of web 2.0 tools."

But after the first couple of years, Harrod began pushing the educators to focus more on instruction and less on merely being tech-savvy. "This isn't about the technology anymore," she explains. "It's about shifting our notion of what instruction looks like in the 21st century. That's a huge paradigm shift."

That move for teachers has included going through Powerful Learning Practice, a professional development program designed to help them learn how to use participatory media (social networks, for example) for their own network building and then to use what they have learned to help their students--which is not always an easy transference. "Devices come into the classroom. If you don't understand how this is about personalizing education and making a student-directed environment, they just become disruptions and distractions," Harrod says.

The Parental Buy-in
While the teachers were being polled about their interest in the BYOL program, so were parents. A survey to all parents of sixth-graders asked a simple question: If we allowed your kid to bring in a device, would you let them do that?

"We needed to get that baseline," says Harrod. "We had about 300 parents reply back. Of those, without knowing much, 200 said, 'Yes.' Of the other 100, we had some that were emphatically 'No. I'm not sending my kid to school with a device,' and some said, 'I need to know more about it.'"

Four primary parental concerns surfaced. First was the issue of security of the device: What if a student loses the device or it's stolen? Second was the safety of kids online: How would that be ensured? Third was skepticism: Just how would the technology be used in educational ways? Finally, there was the question of equity: What about the kids who can't afford a device or whose parents say no?

By the fall of 2010, Harrod and Natasha Adams, principal of the middle school where the BYOL program would be launched, had a plan to help address some of the parents' concerns. Based on feedback from a parent advisory group, Harrod and Adams set up three introductory meetings with parents. The first focused on devices, where people could look at the options--notebooks, netbooks, and tablets. The second meeting addressed learning, a mini-course in how the devices would be integrated into the curriculum; and the third introduced parents to the programs their kids would be accessing, primarily web 2.0 tools.

Early on, recalls Harrod, "The parents were telling us, 'My kid can't keep track of a cell phone. How are they going to keep track of a laptop?'" To make sure seventh-graders were prepared for the extra responsibility of having computers, each student was required to attend a January half-day "camp," to which the parents were also invited. That was the official launch month for the BYOL program. Conversations About My Personal Learning, or CAMP-L, as it was called, had 250 people show up for the first session, 350 for the second. Participants learned how to care for the devices, how to navigate the internet safely as digital citizens, and how the technology would be used for educational purposes.

Off to Camp
During that mandatory CAMP-L session, ground rules were set: The device had to be clearly labeled with a student's name; it had to go into a sleeve instead of being shoved directly into a book bag; it had to be registered in a database that Harrod maintains. Harrod also recommended to parents that they get an extra or a bigger battery instead of some other add-on, such as a CD drive; and that they install Prey, a free open source GPS location program that allows the device to be tracked online if it's stolen.

To counter some complaints about the heft of the devices, Harrod and Adams helped parents to understand that in some cases, the kids would no longer have to haul heavy textbooks around. Also, the computers would take the place of paper notebooks. To address safety issues, they assured parents that web filtering would be put in place.

The school has also set up some new practices for itself. When a student leaves for lunch, if he or she is returning to the same classroom, the device can stay put, and the door is locked. If not, the student has to bring it to a locker and secure it there.

All of the district's educational efforts paid off: Although the initial survey had only 200 parents buying into the program, by the time January came around 358 kids arrived at school with their own laptops, tablets, and netbooks. In the first three months of the program, none of the devices had been stolen or damaged, despite the fact, says Julie Bissinger, a school board member and the parent of an eighth-grader at the middle school, that "we're dealing with 12- and 13-year-olds."

Next Stop: Transformation
The solution to the third parental concern--how the technology would be used in educational ways--is still playing itself out. Harrod has walked into classrooms and seen kids on Facebook, but she says, "For the most part they are doing what they need to be doing. It's a no-brainer to see that all kids--not just the ones bringing in their own devices--have greater access to technology. That was our main goal, and I really believe we have done that."

Harrod says the next step in getting the BYOL program off the ground will be to show how learning is enhanced. That's what parents and students are waiting to witness. "Otherwise, we run the potential of kids saying, 'It's not worth carrying this heavy thing back and forth.' What helps is that something happens when you have your own device to take here and there. It becomes like a third arm. That's what we want the kids to experience too. It allows them so much freedom to learn in their own ways. We're really trying to personalize learning for each kid."

Some classes are well on their way to recognizing the benefits of the program, says Harrod, who offers a science teacher's classroom as an example. "He was already a phenomenal teacher," she says. "Very inquiry driven." Adding student use of technology, however, has added a dynamic quality to his classes that Harrod says she rarely sees. "You walk into his classroom, and you know right away that this is a community of learners. [Those students] are taking even more ownership of their learning."

Examining the Equity Issue
The final concern for the parents and the biggest source of angst for the district has been the challenge of working with the kids who don't have their own computers. The school was able to divert 130 laptops that were being used for another program into the BYOL program. Now, seventh-grade students can just retrieve them and start work when they walk into the classroom. It's not optimal, Harrod acknowledges. "It doesn't help at home, but it gives them more access and in more authentic ways than having to wait until next Tuesday. Is it perfect? Probably not. We're being called on to be really innovative here."

Bissinger says the "question of equity" was a big one for the board and for parents. "We're always sensitive to that issue in our school district," she notes. "We have people who are high income and then we have people who are on free and reduced lunch. We're a public school system, but right now the bottom line is that we've met our goal of increasing access for all students."

The district has explored multiple possibilities for getting devices into students' hands around the clock. One idea--allowing the kids to check out district computers to take home--was rejected. First, there weren't enough for every single child who needed one, and second, there were liability issues if the machines were damaged. "It doesn't mean we wouldn't go there," Harrod says, "but right now we're still seeing how receptive the parents are to buying devices for their kids."

Other ideas for filling the gap have included setting up a program to lease computers to families that can't afford to buy them; having a community business refurbish district devices and distribute or resell them to district students; and going after grants to buy laptops. Those options are still on the table, but so far, one particular solution has not materialized.

As Harrod points out, however, the issue may simply disappear with time. As tablets come onto the market at ever lower prices, the district may one day simply be able to mandate that every student comes to school with a device because they're no more costly than a calculator. But, she adds, "We definitely want to pay attention to the equity issue. That's an important piece to us. I could see us looking at many, many iterations of this as we move along."

We'll check in with Forest Hills Local Schools (OH) as their BYOL implementation progresses. Look for articles on how the program's shaping up in future issues of T.H.E. Journal and on thejournal.com.

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