News Column

Schools Encourage Students to Bring Personal Electronics

March 22, 2013

Josh Poltilove

kids and technology

A new initiative for Frederick County Public Schools encourages students to bring their own mobile devices or laptops to school.

Elementary, middle and high school students will use the devices in class to learn, research, collaborate and be creative. The program will begin at three schools this school year and will likely expand to a total of 24 schools next year.

The initiative gives students a chance to work in class with technology they already use at home, said Bill Boyer, the school system's executive director of technology services. It also gives the system a chance to move forward with technology at a lower cost than replacing its computers -- most of which are 5 or more years old, Boyer said. The system will pay for setting up wireless Internet access at schools, and parents will provide the devices.

Parents must sign forms saying they will be responsible for replacing their own devices that are stolen or broken. Families refusing to provide devices and those unable to afford them will be supplied equipment from the school system.

"We see this as a place where a lot of school systems are going," Boyer said.

Superintendent Terry Alban said students are already used to getting information instantly through technology. With the initiative, she said the system is trying to engage children and take advantage of their technological needs.

The system hopes to see positive effects through achievement or student engagement as a result of students being allowed to use mobile devices or laptops in class, Boyer said. And if such technology is going to be permitted in schools, it makes sense to teach students using technology with which they are familiar rather than handing them a piece of equipment they've never used before, Boyer said.

The "Bring Your Own Device" initiative has emerged at other school systems nationwide, including Fairfax County in Virginia. John Torre, a spokesman for Fairfax County Public Schools, said students use the devices to take notes, complete assignments and collaborate with classmates.

Torre said his school system hasn't seen a downside to the initiative and that students are using the devices appropriately.

"Across the board, it has gone very well," he said. "It is one of those programs that will continue to grow when schools and instructors are more comfortable with them in the classroom."

Frederick County's initiative brings potential rewards, but it also raises potential concerns, such as students viewing inappropriate websites, cheating, cyberbullying, teasing of those who can't afford the best equipment, and the liability for broken or stolen devices.

Students caught cheating, bullying or viewing inappropriate websites on their devices will face the consequences, Boyer said.

The school system already has an acceptable-use policy for its technology, and the new initiative will cause that policy to be modified and expanded.

The cost

It's not clear how many students in the pilot program won't come to school with devices. The hope is to use existing equipment to address those issues.

Through the pilot program, the school system will determine on a larger scale how many devices should be bought or made available for an expanded initiative next year, Boyer said.

The pilot program has begun at Catoctin High, and programs are expected to be operational by April 15 at Spring Ridge Elementary and Windsor Knolls Middle.

Wireless networks at those schools are expected to cost less than $250,000 combined.

All schools in the system were encouraged to write proposals to be part of the pilot program. Roughly 40 schools applied. Spring Ridge, Windsor Knolls and Catoctin were chosen based on several factors, including the quality of their proposals.

Robin Wivell, an 18-year-old Catoctin senior, said students in his school were already secretly using the devices, but now it's out in the open.

"It's not such a taboo thing," he said.

So far, Wivell said, the devices are being used appropriately. He plans to use an iPod Touch and laptop in class.

"I think it's great that they're trying to bring the technology into the classroom and bring school forward into the 21st century," he said.

Spring Ridge Principal Deborah Thackston believes her students will follow the rules of acceptable use. She also said the devices will provide students with the most up-to-date information and that the devices will create an immediate, positive change for schools.

"I think right away we'll see an increase in student engagement and excitement," she said. "Over time, it'll be interesting to watch and see if we can maintain that."

Next year, the program will expand to 24 schools, at a total cost of roughly $1.5 million to $2 million. Six of those schools are already set up to handle wireless connectivity, but they still require retrofitting.

The long-term goal is for every school in the system to be part of the initiative, Boyer said.

Catoctin Principal Bernie Quesada said mobile devices and laptops nowadays are more accessible and affordable for families, and the system needs to make the "powerful" tools part of everyday business -- even though nothing, he noted, will ever replace good teaching.

"We're in a new age," he said. "We're in a new era where schools need to be organized around what the future is going to bring."

Source: (c)2013 The Frederick News-Post (Frederick, Md.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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