“Alright, class. Pull your devices out,” sixth-grade English teacher Jeffrey Nattania announced.
“The magic words,” Seneca Ridge Middle School Principal Mark McDermott said with a smile. “We hear those a lot these days.”
Just two years ago school leaders in Loudoun County Public Schools, one of the fastest growing school divisions in the nation, could not agree on how best to infuse more technology into the classroom, or how to afford it.
Today, digital screens are illuminating students’ faces throughout the county and, by September, every one of the county’s 88 public schools is expected to have a functioning Bring Your Own Technology program.
The turning point for the school division was just more than a year ago, when Superintendent Eric Williams, in his first school year with the Loudoun system, kicked off the BYOT initiative. Before he came to Loudoun, he earned national recognition for rolling out a teaching model in York County that used students’ digital devices in the classroom.
What’s unusual about Loudoun’s BYOT program is it’s voluntary. Williams has left it up to the teachers to decide how they use digital devices in their lesson plans and how often.
“Rather than trying to mandate this, we’re thinking, let’s get out of the way of teachers who want to be early adopters,” he said when he introduced the concept in December 2014. “Just watch. It will pick up momentum.”
He was right.
School system leaders say they’ve been impressed by how many teachers have gravitated toward the BYOT model and how often students, from elementary to high school, are learning with tablets and smart phones in their hands.
“It’s definitely something that they are embracing,” said Adina Popa, Loudoun’s supervisor of Educational Technology and Curricular Innovation. “Everybody has unique implementations, but whenever we go visit a school, we see students highly engaged and highly excited about learning. That’s the whole goal.”
In The Classroom
“Ready, set, action,” Liberty Elementary third-grader John Shilling said, as he hit record on his iPad film app. His classmate Nellia Kakar rattled off what she had learned about ancient Greece while standing in front of a green screen. The students later edited the clip and posted it on the school system’s YouTube channel, Loudoun Creates.
Liberty Elementary technology resource teacher Nichole Thomas said that is the perfect example of how teachers and students are using digital devices to make classroom lessons stick. On any given day, more than half of the teachers at the school are incorporating smart phones, tablets or laptops into their lesson plans.
For a recent biology exercise, students used a 3D printer to create action figures with various adaptations. In an English class, students quizzed one another on a book they read, and used smart phones to scan QR codes to reveal the correct answers.
Having devices in students’ hands has changed how teachers prepare their students for an exam or how they help make chapters in a textbook more memorable. But Courtney Peckham, a fifth-grade teacher at Liberty Elementary, said it’s also made small logistical tasks simpler, like collecting and grading papers. She and her students frequently use Google Docs, which allows documents to be created, edited and stored online.
“Instead of collecting 27 papers, correcting them and handing them back, I can pull up their work at anytime from anywhere, and they can log in and see my comments and their grades,” she said.
The BYOT initiative works in tandem with Superintendent Williams’ One to the World concept, which is meant to give students opportunity to share their work with an audience outside of the school. For example, Seneca Ridge Middle School students recently created flash cards and hand-delivered them to students in nearby elementary schools to help them brush up on their math skills.
“We want them to create for the world,” Seneca Ridge Principal McDermott said. “Kids get so much more into it, and learn more when they have an audience they’re doing the work for.”
Like any new concept, there were some hurdles to get over with BYOT. Some teachers were concerned that smart phones would be a distraction from learning. But Thomas said even teachers who were initial skeptics have been impressed with how students have taken to it.
“We talked about expectations, and we asked the students to treat the devices like their textbook,” she said. “They’ve been very responsible.”
Students must keep their devices in their backpacks when they are not using them in class. Those who don’t have devices at home are provided one that was either purchased by the school system or the schools’ parent-teacher organizations.
Seneca Ridge Middle School sixth-grade teacher Amy Anderson said she’s noticed that many of her students already consider a smart phone or a tablet a tool rather than a toy. Her son, for example, would rather type an essay on a smart phone than a laptop. “They’re used to all this,” she said. “The transition has been remarkably easy.”
The Final Roll Out
Loudoun first set BYOT into motion a year ago at 19 schools. Educators looked at what worked best at those schools and what improvements needed to be made before the initiative was expanded to 30 more schools this year.
Principals and teachers in the last 39 schools are undergoing training via a webinar series now on how best to incorporate digital devices into everyday classroom lessons.
James Dallas, the school system’s director of teaching and learning, said his department is working to give every teacher at least the tools to incorporate BYOT into their daily lesson plans by August.
“The ultimate goal—the big dream—is that every student will have access to a device in every classroom as part of their instructional program,” he said. “That’s what we’re aiming for.”
As more students grab digital devices during class, Dallas, Popa and others have said they want the focus to remain on how to best educate kids.
Williams has said repeatedly throughout the BYOT roll out that, “Technology for technology’s sake is not effective. Technology used right results in long-lasting learning.”
McDermott, who is in his 22nd year as an educator, added that the push to create tech-savvy classrooms is not about clutching onto the latest fad.
“We’re not just doing this because it’s cool,” he said. “It’s a means to an end. If we want students to create for the world, this is the way to do it.”