Collaborative Technologies | May 2013 Digital Edition

Schools Share Essential Tips and Tools for Collaborating in the BYOD Classroom

With the help of browser-based software, students in BYOD districts can be on the same page even if they have different devices.

different hand-held devices

This article, with an exclusive video interview, originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's May 2013 digital edition.

When school district leaders talk about the potential benefits of "bring your own device" programs, they often mention budget savings and promoting personalized, mobile learning. They note that BYOD can expand the boundaries of learning beyond the classroom. But not many of these leaders mention enhanced student collaboration as an obvious benefit of BYOD. This is partly because, when students come to class bearing a plethora of devices on multiple platforms, sharing resources can get complicated.

Doug Johnson, the director of libraries and technology for the Mankato (MN) Public Schools, says his district has been experimenting with BYOD this year. To ease collaboration issues, Mankato has teachers using device-neutral platforms, including Google Apps and Moodle. Teachers and students use the Moodle LMS to share their class assignments and syllabi. Students use Google Apps for e-mail, document storage, and collaborative writing projects, and Poll Everywhere for a student response system. These browser-based apps are compatible with a wide range of devices and operating systems, Johnson says, adding that teachers are still struggling with the more basic issue of how to adjust when students fail to bring their devices to class.

So far, although 90 percent of Mankato high school students surveyed before the BYOD project said they had their own devices, many fewer seem willing to bring them to school on a regular basis. Students end up having to do collaborative work by sharing devices or relying on devices the school owns. "Some teachers are shy of BYOD because they can't count on the students to bring them," he says. "It may be that a 1-to-1 program will make more sense eventually."

Device-Neutral Platforms
Meanwhile, many instructional technology leaders in BYOD schools and districts are working through issues around access to devices and shared curriculum resources to find new ways to help teachers foster collaboration. They are out to prove that students can work together even if they aren't all carrying the same devices into class. For the most part, this means finding device-neutral, browser-based applications.

Paso Robles (CA) Public Schools, for example, are taking advantage of a cloud-based solution from Lightspeed Systems called My Big Campus. Described as part learning management system, part social network, and part content management system, My Big Campus lets students collaborate, store documents, and work on projects in a safe environment, says Scott Knuckles, the district's director of information and technology.

In a recent Education Talk Radio interview, Knuckles named the top benefits of his district's BYOD effort--and collaboration was right near the top of his list. Besides working withclassmates during school hours, Paso Robles students can now work together on homework or comment on each other's work in My Big Campus. Knuckles describes it as "a combination of Facebook and Moodle, and BYOD fits right in with it. Anytime, anywhere, and with any device they are able to collaborate on projects. It has been fun to watch it grow, and it has been student-driven.", a not-for-profit based in McVeytown, PA, offers schools hosted K-12 curriculum, learning technologies, and professional development. It works with 180 districts in six states. Of those, approximately 30 are BYOD environments, says Mark Gensimore, vice president of business. To foster collaboration, most of those BYOD districts use Blackboard Mobile to allow students to do journaling and participate in discussion boards. "Students can submit their work directly into Blackboard, and teachers can set up groups of students so group work can be submitted that way, too."

Blackboard Mobile also provides students using Android or iOS smartphones with mobile access to the LMS, enabling them to participate in discussions or activities wherever and whenever they want to.

Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland, CA, also relies on Blackboard as the centerpiece of its BYOD program, but complements it with other device-neutral platforms. "Before we launched the BYOD program, we thought this question of collaboration would be a much bigger issue, but teachers and students figure it out," says Romeo Baldeviso, CIO at Bishop O'Dowd. "Our teachers rely heavily on discussion groups in Blackboard," he says.

Most student collaboration takes place between Blackboard and Google Apps for Education, but several Bishop O'Dowd teachers also use peer assessment to teach writing. To ease collaboration, they use, which besides its tools to help check for plagiarism also has peer-editing capabilities. Turnitin's web-based PeerMark lets students anonymously evaluate each other's work and learn from their classmates. Teachers can create questions to help students rate elements of a paper, and the writer gets peer feedback before submitting the paper for grading.

To help students give each other feedback on their writing, Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy in Melbourne, FL, leans heavily on the device-neutral Edmodo in its BYOD setting. Russell Deatherage, a computer science teacher, says each of his students is required to contribute a blog post on Edmodo each day and must also comment on two other students' posts. "They are required to contribute to the conversation by adding meaningful responses or thought-provoking comments about the entries," Deatherage says. "It's a great way to get the students engaged right away." Deatherage also uses mobile devices for polling (through Edmodo or Poll Everywhere). "Polling is a wonderful conversation starter when starting or reviewing a topic," he says.

Projects in the Cloud
Forsyth County Schools in Georgia also has a list of device-agnostic, web-based tools--including Edublogs, Wikispaces, Socrative, and VoiceThread--that it supports in the classroom and integrates into its lightweight directory access protocol (LDAP) in order to enable single sign-on. Tim Clark, Forsyth's coordinator of instructional technology, says that BYOD has gone hand-in-hand with the district's shift toward project-based learning. "It changes the work environment into a modern-day digital workplace that encourages higher-level thinking," he says.

Forsyth has recently redesigned its media centers with collaboration spaces set up to support BYOD. "The biggest challenge for teachers is to redefine their role," Clark says. "It makes much less sense to lecture in that environment."

Forsyth's experience has been that students need to develop their capacity to teach each other and their teachers how to use their technology and become more accustomed to being part of a collaborative learning community. To that end, Forsyth is moving toward a cloud-based platform that offers personalized learning plans for students. The district has launched a five-year public/private partnership with the digital learning platform developer itslearning to create an instructional framework to connect the data silos that are often created by student information, assessment, and learning management systems. The district expects the integrated system to provide standards-based learner plans for each student.

Desktop Virtualization and BYOD
Three years ago, when launching a BYOD project in their district, instructional technology leaders at Avon Community School Corporation (IN) were concerned about how students were going to access the resources they needed to collaborate. "Because of the way our network was set up, their devices had access to the internet only, not to our network's resources," explains Jason Brames, director of technology. "We needed a mechanism for them to gain access to shared network drives for storage and to specialized applications that they could access without purchasing their own license. For instance, we have an engineering program and one in web design that use specialized applications."

Avon turned to desktop virtualization using VMware View to allow students to log into those applications from a variety of devices. "We have a limited number of virtual desktop licenses, so we don't have students log into it automatically," Brames says. "We have them log in only when they need access to applications or services on our network." When they do log in, they have access to shared drives, network drives, and network applications that they are used to seeing on school-owned computers. And the district expects to save money because it will need to buy fewer licenses for specialized applications in a virtual environment.

Teaching Real-World Skills
Several instructional technology leaders mentioned that choosing which device and applications to use for each assignment (and how to share resources among devices) can be part of the learning experience itself. Susan Bearden, director of information technology at Holy Trinity, says that if teachers want students to create a presentation, they can give students the project requirements without specifying what software or platform to use. "We've had teachers do that, and the kids end up using a variety of platforms for their project--PowerPoint, Keynote, Prezi, and others. The kids enjoy the flexibility and come up with some amazing stuff!"

Likewise, Lisa Nielsen, an education blogger and coauthor of Teaching Generation Text, says she doesn't believe teachers need to have standardized software for students in BYOD settings. Instead, she recommends talking to students about the tools they own. "It is interesting to see which tools students will pick. They might surprise you," she says. "For instance, many students are more comfortable writing on their phones than on laptops. They type incredibly fast with their thumbs, and they like taking notes on their phones. This is really about teaching real-world skills of picking devices and applications."

Some have argued that BYOD will dumb down work to suit the least powerful technology in any given class. Nielsen disagrees. "Students working collaboratively share and swap devices," she says. "They bring more technology to the class and update the systems and applications they use much faster than the technology refreshes districts can do."