Kansas City school allows students to bring laptops, smartphones to class

Kathleen Teel can certainly see why most schools ban students from bringing their iPads and smartphones to class.

All she has to do is look around.

This is what Notre Dame de Sion High School gets for being one of the first to go BYOT, allowing students to “bring your own technology.”

Teel, a biology teacher, ranges among girls clustered in noisy twos and threes around a smorgasbord of computing options.

Some of the girls — either unlucky or purposefully old-fashioned — don’t have their own and have to borrow or look on.

They all seem immersed in a simulated lab on chemical reaction rates, but Teel doesn’t know without circulating whether some might be checking email or venturing off onto the Web.

Here and there a group calls out a technical problem, like an inability to send. Teel, hardly a troubleshooter for so many different computers, usually relies on the girls’ abilities to figure out their own.

And her classroom, because it sits in a reinforced basement, can’t seem to produce enough Wi-Fi to go around. So groups of girls have taken to the hallway, sitting with laptops on their knees to snag better connections.


Certainly not.

This, say administrators, teachers and students at Sion, is the way it should be.

And it will eventually be the way for all schools, BYOT advocates say, ready or not.

“The kids? They love it,” Teel said. “This is the way they learn. They feel comfortable with it. ”

The same can’t be said for most school systems here and around the country. They continue to grapple with significant concerns that allowing students to bring their own digital devices would create too many distractions.

They fear it would exacerbate the gaps between students who have access to technology and those who don’t.

An already troublesome climate for cyberbullying could get worse.

And school systems already lagging behind in devoting financial resources to technology might be tempted to foist that burden on parents.

All very real concerns, says Ellen Carmody, the head of technology for Sion’s high school and elementary school.

But schools like Sion see an opportunity to join the digital invasion and teach students up front how to be responsible and resourceful with the technology they will use in the real world — their personal technology.

“Schools have always gone into airplane mode,” Carmody said, meaning the directive from the cabin to turn off electronic devices. “Then you land and you hear everyone turning on,

boop, boop, boop, boop, boop


“The same thing happens the moment kids get out of class,” she said. “Do we want schools to be so disconnected?”

• • • 

Roughly three-fourths of teachers surveyed nationally by Project Tomorrow of Irvine, Calif., fear students connected to the Internet will be too distracted.

Most fear they won’t be able to control cheating, manage the technology or apply useful curriculum.

But schools that persist in banning personal devices “are kidding themselves,” said Tom Vander Ark, founder of GettingSmart.com and former head of education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“It’s inevitable,” he said. “Schools can’t keep technology out.”

Schools would do better to assert the acceptable-use policies for the Internet that most already have, he said. They should embrace their students’ affinity for technology and make them colleagues — both in teaching and learning.

Students typically respond well when entrusted with responsibility, he said. Those who are adept in technology enjoy being “deputized” to help classmates.

Teachers can keep control of their classes, determining when and how devices are used, because students who abuse the Internet lose their privilege.

And no one wants that, say Sion students.

When senior Mary Hamilton heard she’d be able to use her own computer and phone at school, “I was super-excited,” she said.

She likes being able to have all her notes with her at school or at home, continuing online conversations with classmates and teachers, easily popping up research to get a jump on any homework during the day.

“All my stuff’s right here,” she said. “It eliminates the baggage load.”

While it might be new at Sion, South Forsyth High School in Georgia made the leap to BYOT in 2009 and saw the number of discipline referrals for technology abuse drop dramatically, principal Jason Branch said. In its first year of BYOT, the school had four discipline referrals for technology abuse, after amassing 400 over the previous two years.

Instead of working to subvert tech barriers, students were protecting their privilege with what Branch called a “mutual respect and instructional understanding between teachers and students.”

Sion made its leap trusting students — and trusting teachers.

“We have to change the way we teach,” said Sion world history teacher Beth Ingram. “Our concept of what knowledge is is changing.”

Students who can easily Google one-word answers for multiple-choice questions will need to be measured by harder-to-grade analytical questions and projects.

Teachers accustomed to dictating formats in a common technology system will need to embrace a variety of solutions that students create.

When Ingram had her students create fliers to display what they were learning about Athens, students taught the teacher about some of the applications.

“We’re not experts,” Carmody said. “We’re all information seekers.”

The school launched into the BYOT era knowing it would be an ever-changing journey. It wasn’t perfect. But it was time to get started.

It meant boosting wireless access. It meant tightening its filters.

A few months into the school year, Sion created a “no-tech zone” in the cafeteria to restore lunch as a time for face-to-face interaction.

Carmody regularly adds sites that teachers request be blocked on the school’s server.

YouTube has survived.

Facebook? It’s out.

• • • 

The notion of BYOT grinds against some hard realities where Gayle Lee stands.

She is the principal of DeLaSalle Education Center, a Kansas City public charter school where 84 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and probably two-thirds or more, Lee estimates, don’t have Internet access at home.

Driving her students into the age of digital learning is an exhausting reach for operating funds, grants and donations chasing ever-necessary upgrades and repairs.

“It’s a constant patch job,” she said.

Like most schools, DeLaSalle doesn’t want to see or hear any personal phones or other Internet devices in class. Too distracting, she said. And if they did allow those who have devices to use them, she fears it would embarrass those who are without.

Students could share, but at her school, she said, “that would be a lot of sharing.”

In other words, if schools hope to narrow, rather than widen, the Internet divide between affluent and low-income communities, then a BYOT approach has to be only a starting point.

The Alliance for Excellent Education, which has made Internet access for all students one of its missions, views digital education like a coming wave.

“We have no choice,” said alliance president Bob Wise, former governor of West Virginia.

BYOT can be part of a good education strategy to meet the wave, he said, but unless schools persist in providing uniform access to all children, “low-income students are not going to have the same opportunity to succeed.”

At Sion, the school still upgrades its desktop computers. It still has a computer lab. And the school has a cart of 15 netbooks that teachers can borrow to spread out more personal Internet access when particular lessons demand it.

The influx of personal devices flows into the gaps.

The whole gamut plays out under Teel’s watch as her biology students begin signing off to get to their next class.

There’s little doubt they were engaged in the lesson, sharing and swapping their technology all the way.

It shouldn’t be so frightening, says senior Abbey Jones. Students like the roles they get to play, she said, and teachers can be assured that they’re still in control — mostly.

Jones shows letters for her French class that she’s exchanged with a pen pal in France. Sheets of paper, handwritten, mailed with a stamp — the nostalgic way the French teacher wanted.

The writing experience has been fun, Jones says.

But as for her and her pen pal, she adds slyly:

“We’re on Facebook.”

Related stories from Kansas City Star