Franklin Regional plans to expand BYOD procedures

| Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Pencils and notebooks aren't the only tools children will bring to their classrooms this school year.

An increasing number of districts across the region have begun “Bring Your Own Device” programs, encouraging students to bring laptops, tablets and, yes, even their once-banned smartphones into the classroom. Most recently, the Gateway School Board approved a policy slated to be implemented this fall, while Franklin Regional School District officials plan to expand last year's pilot at the high school.

“It's a great avenue to get students actively and meaningfully engaged in the learning process,” Franklin Regional Superintendent Jamie Piraino said. “Learning becomes more relevant for the students, in some ways.”

Today's students never have known a world without the Internet, said Sean McDonough, interim assistant technology director for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. A Pew Research Center survey released in March shows that 78 percent of children age 12 to 17 have a cellphone – and 47 percent of those teens own smartphones. About 23 percent of teens use a tablet, and 93 percent have a personal computer.

For them, using a computer or smartphone to learn isn't anything special; it's just how they learn, he said.

“It's native to their lifestyle,” McDonough said. “Teachers and other adults, we think of it as ‘Go get your iPad or computer now.' It's so inherent in kids' lifestyles.”

In the Plum School District, between 20 and 25 percent of the district's nearly 4,000 students brought their own device each day during the last school year, technology director Chris Davis said. Most of those students were at the high school, Davis said, but children in all buildings are permitted to bring their electronic devices to school.

Each teacher uses that technology differently, he said. Some require students to complete Internet-based scavenger hunts, while others administer quizzes online. For the students, having their own technology at their fingertips can help with comprehension.

In the Norwin School District, where a “BYOD” policy was put in place for all grades last school year, high school students have used their personal devices to send text-message responses to questions posed in class, while others have used Evernote, an online application that enables students to take notes electronically. Elementary students read novels on their iPad tablets and other devices, said Jonathan Szish, district coordinator of school and community relations.

“Students get real-world experiences in a media format with which they are highly familiar,” Szish said. “Students have told us they are excited to have the privilege.”

While the program works well in the district, it's not always seamless, Szish said. Every student brings a different device — and not all devices are created equally. It takes class time to make sure each device can be used in the way the teacher intends.

At Franklin Regional, officials might have found a solution to that problem. Piraino said the district plans to upgrade its technological infrastructure to enable students to log into a virtual desktop housed on an online storage space. Then, regardless of device, students would have access to same interface and programs.

But, like all technology upgrades required for “BYOD” to work properly, that costs money. That's one of the largest hurdles for districts to overcome when implementing these policies, the intermediate unit's McDonough said.

The investment is worth it, Piraino said. Last year, eight Franklin Regional high school classrooms piloted the district's new policy and, this year, officials plan to see it expand greatly.

“We envision ‘BYOD' at the high school becoming pretty ingrained in the everyday education experience of the students,” Piraino said. “These children have had a computer since they were 2, 3, 4 years old. They think this way, they work this way — they multitask, and have that stimulation.

“They're going into a world that collaborates using technology. If we don't provide students those skills when they're developing, we're putting them at a competitive disadvantage.”

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