Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Contraband of Some Schools is The Disruptive Innovation of Others with BYOT (Bring Your Own Tech)

Guest post by Tim Clark @timclark45 on Twitter

In New York City students who BYOT have it confiscated by police
and placed with other contraband like guns and knives
While cities like the one where The Innovative Educator works view student owned devices as contraband, I have found one of the most exciting disruptions to traditional teaching practices to be extending to students the invitation to “Bring Your Own Technology” (BYOT).  Last year, Forsyth County Schools in Georgia  modified their technology guidelines to do just that! They permitted students to bring their personal technology devices to school to assist in their learning.  

Forsyth County Schools has always pursued the use of technology to improve educational opportunities. The district’s vision for classroom technology after-all is “to engage students in asking questions and choosing tools to facilitate real world problem solving.”  Classrooms are each equipped with an interactive whiteboard, teacher laptop and four student desktop computers.  There are also student laptops available at each school and there are peripheral devices such as student response systems, digital cameras, scanners, and document cameras.  Yet, despite all this district-provided technology, the most impactful and influential gadgets are not any of these. Instead after 20 years in education I have found that empowering students to use their own personal technologies is the game changer when it comes to learning.

Our Beginnings
Forsyth County Schools began its venture by implementing a BYOT wifi network in every school.  This “BYOT” network provides filtered Internet access, but the students can connect to that network with their personal devices without using a password.  A few trailblazers from a handful of schools volunteered to pilot the BYOT initiative at a variety of grade levels.  They spent an afternoon of training in hands-on activities designed to explore the potential opportunities of using various student-owned technologies.  Some highlights were collaboration provided by Web 2.0 applications and a focus on student-created projects.

Fundamental Changes
BYOT Facilitates Collaboration!
Click here to watch videos of BYOT in action.
As the teachers began to introduce BYOT into their classrooms, some fundamental changes began to occur.  They no longer had to teach their students about technology in order to integrate technology effectively in their classrooms because the students were already the experts with their own devices.  The students were also eager to share what they knew about their technology devices and how they could be utilized in the classroom. In the elementary grades, students initially brought in their gaming devices, such as the Nintendo DSi or their iPod Touches, and they began to assume ownership of the types of apps they thought they should use in order to learn more in school.  They began to communicate more effectively about real work as they used the PictoChat feature of their Nintendo DS’s and DSi’s to collaboratively complete assignments and generate new ideas.  Eventually, many of these students have progressed to bringing in iPads, netbooks, and laptops as they have begun to create original projects based on what they have researched independently.  Of course, many of these students personally own their gadgets, but many of them have convinced their parents to loan them their devices so that they can attend to the real work of elementary school.

Reduction in Disciplinary Issues
In the middle school and high school, students generally brought in their smartphones and laptops to facilitate their own learning.  In the high school piloting the BYOT initiative, the disciplinary issues related to technology decreased drastically as the students began bringing in their own devices.  Instead of hiding their technology tools throughout the day, which invited theft with the fear of repercussions, the students were able to put their technology on their desks and use them for new purposes.  The school now had open lines of communication regarding the appropriate use of technology between the students, the parents, and the teachers.  In this way, the teachers were now able to educate the students in how to avoid the pitfalls of posting inappropriate content online and how to treat each other with respect.

Going Viral
The growth of BYOT in Forsyth County Schools has been viral this year.  Our Department of Instructional Technology recently organized a tour for district administrators of three of the pilot schools in our district, and we expected about 20 people might choose to attend.  To our delight, we had over 60 administrators and instructional technology specialists sign up for the tour, and we had to close enrollment.  We used two school buses from the district to travel to the schools and followed up the tour with a presentation which caused the administrators to use their devices to participate in the discussion using Poll Everywhere.  You can see the highlights of the tour in this video FCS BYOT Tour.  From this tour, interest in BYOT has grown tremendously, and almost all of our schools are implementing the BYOT initiative in some fashion ranging from a few pilot classrooms to entire schools.

Collaborating with Students
The ultimate goal of the FCS BYOT initiative is to have the students participating in higher level thinking activities involving the use of technology, but this change in practice can evolve as the teachers allow themselves to become collaborators with their students in the learning process.  When the students first bring in their technology devices, they are immediately engaged and want to explore all of the possible capabilities of the technology.  This initial phase of exploration passes quickly as the students become more literate in their devices and learn how to connect them to the BYOT wireless network.  The teacher and the students then begin to adapt what their technologies to their current classroom practices.  For example, they may use a calculator app to help them complete a worksheet, or they may begin to use the calendar on their devices to keep track of homework assignments instead of writing them in an agenda.  Eventually, the students demand more from their devices, their teachers, and themselves, they want to transform their learning by communicating, collaborating, and creating with their devices, and teachers have to get out of the way of these potential applications.

Eventually, teachers can progress to the practice of sharing the standards or objectives for students learning, and the students can determine the strategies for researching those concepts and communicating them to others.  In fact, BYOT is not really about the devices.  It is about the empowerment students feel when they are using those devices which they own and know so well.  This empowerment gives them control over the learning processes and sets the stage for empowering them to evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses.  With the collaborative support of their peers and teachers, along with the relative anonymity of the web, the students are willing to learn from their mistakes and share their successes.  In one classroom with several ESOL students, those students would hesitate from volunteering to answer questions due to their lack of confidence in the language.  However, with the advent of BYOT, every student can be expected to answer questions simultaneously or contribute to the body of knowledge housed online, and every student is included in the discussion.

Equity Issues
When I discuss the concept of BYOT, I am often questioned about the issue of equity and what happens to the students who do not have their own devices.  As I travel around the district, I find very few students above third or fourth grade who do not have their own devices, even in our schools who receive Title I assistance.  Generally, many of the students who do not have their own devices are students in the primary grades who have yet to start asking their parents for more technology.

Moving Into the Future
I now see more use of the student desktop computers and laptops in the school which are available for all students, especially those who don’t have their own devices.  I have seen 1 to 1 initiatives in other places, but after experiencing BYOT I prefer the differentiated, flexibility, and empowerment that is comes from using different devices.  

Forsyth County Schools are  just logging on to the future by embracing BYOT.  It is a developing and encouraging process for us.  We are aware of the possible pitfalls and difficulties, but we choose to focus on the possible potentialities and capabilities for effective change.  It is futile and detrimental to try to ban the wave of personal technology devices from entering our schools; instead, we realize it is more beneficial to utilize these communication tools for designing innovative strategies that engage and empower students to learn effectively with the tools they own and love.  

As a fourth grade student recently told me, “As you work with other students with your own devices, you are able to build upon what you know with their ideas, and they learn more from yours.  Together, you make something new that no one even thought about before.”

For more information about the BYOT initiative of Forsyth County Schools, visit www.forsyth.k12.ga.us/byot.

About Tim Clark
Tim Clark is the District Instructional Technology Specialist (ITS) for Forsyth County Schools.. He has been a teacher for over twenty years.  He is currently pursuing his Doctor of Education at Kennesaw State University.  As an ITS, one of his goals is to work effectively with teachers and students through various forms of technology in order to increase achievement and motivation, to encourage collaboration, to facilitate problem-solving, and to construct innovative ways of presenting information.


  1. You guys always amaze me in how you push the envelope. My daughter is even attending school there virtually (we don't live in the district!) Here's another blog about BYOT you might want to share with others.


  2. I know you addressed equity but it truly surprises me that all students have access to their own technology. Are you just including all cell phones, even if they aren't smart phones? I recognize you can still participate through texting options but that seems pretty limited when the student is next to someone with an iPhone or an iPad or even just an iTouch.

  3. @GCfLearnFree.org, I feel like you just gave me a lay up to share that my new book coming out this fall provides educators with ways they can use a basic, text-enabled dumb phone to bridge the digital divide. I write about it a lot in my blog, but the book has it all nicely packaged together. You can order your copy now :-p

    The other part to this equation is that schools need to figure out how to provide access for those who don't have it. We don't tell students we won't teach reading because not everyone has a home library do we?

    We need to teach agency for students and educators to think outside the box and ensure all kids have access to technology. I was doing this when I started teaching more than a decade ago. I spoke to people and told them what my students needed. I got a lot of stuff on Craigslist. I partnered with businesses to get donations. I helped develop mentorships with folks that could connect students with access. I also reached out to the community and identified places where students could have access to technology and the internet.

    Today I have seen students use social media to get the technology they need to learn. This is not very difficult to do and empowering students with self agency to get what they need is quite powerful in school and in life.

  4. Re: equity...
    When I was in high school, students who didn't have an encyclopedia at home went to the library when they needed an encyclopedia. No one worried about not asking students to use an encyclopedia because some students didn't have one at home. Today not every student has the internet in their pocket, but that doesn't mean we can't use tech in class: it just means the library needs to have the internet!

  5. This is a very interesting initiative. If schools do not open themselves to this sort of thinking within a generation or less the idea of schools as we know it will be an anathema - kids will be learning despite being at school

  6. Excerpt of my response at Bibliotech.me :
    Our BYOD/T approach [at New Canaan Public Schools] embeds 21st century skills instruction in completely new ways. With this model, kids are required to assess their workload and time constraints, evaluate the merits of the wide range of tools and resources for the task at hand, factor in learning styles, decide how to proceed, and get the job done efficiently. True differentiation occurs when students have ownership of, if not their learning (we’re still working on that one, Lisa!), at least their learning tools!

  7. Right on! If you have not already seen my post, there are some interesting things going on in SF to bring BYOT closer to a reality for the schools that see it as contraband.. http://bit.ly/pNoSnk

  8. It's very important using the educational possibilites of the free software (linux...)

  9. Could not agree more, I face many of the same issues in my current district as well as my previous one, though I see signs of change.

    The number one question I get is equity and what to do if kids do not have a device. I see the same thing, most, if not all at my high school, have them. Worst case, I have the kids share, but they all have them in some form.

    Great post!

  10. Great post that challenges us to experiment, take risks, innovate.