How BYOD helped a school district and its 14,000 students improve learning

Using laptops, tablets and other mobile devices, along with a BYOD strategy, school districts can help their students to expand their learning. Credit: Flickr by nist6ss

The BYOD movement in Kentucky's Kenton County School District started by accident, but it has turned out to be a huge motivator for the education of the district's 14,000 students.

Starting in 2004, high school students in the district, which is in northern Kentucky not far from Cincinnati, Ohio, were given the choice of bringing their own laptops to school to do their schoolwork, but few students did so due to concerns about theft and the cost of the machines.

Over the next few years, school district officials discussed how laptops and related technologies could affect the students and their families, particularly how some students bringing in the devices could potentially create an unwanted divide between those who would have access to laptops and those who wouldn't, said Vicki Fields, the district's CIO.

So to promote the use of laptops in the classrooms, some teachers created small groups in their classes, particularly in high school, to encourage students who did bring their laptops in to work on projects in teams with other students who didn't have their own devices, said Fields.

A funny thing happened soon after. "Those other kids went home and said they wanted to have and use laptops, too," she said.

Then in October 2010, a large corporate sponsor, Duke Energy, donated brand new Apple iPads to 28 students in a suburban fourth-grade class in the district as part of a well-meaning experiment to see if using the devices would significantly raise students' science scores.

"It went wonderfully," said Fields. "By the time we saw their scores in the spring, we saw a 15 to 20 percent increase in science scores compared to another classroom in that school."

Six weeks after putting those first iPads into students' hands, school officials realized that more children could be helped by bringing in more such devices, she said.

"We were visiting the class on a daily basis. We were talking to the children. At the end of two weeks the children were sitting down and teaching us how to use our iPads. What I saw in that two weeks was the fastest bell curve, as far as skill levels, that I'd ever seen."

In the spring of 2011, the district began getting iPads for teachers and administrators so they could directly experience what the devices could do for their students, said Fields. Then the teachers and administrators were brought into the initial fourth-grade classroom to see how the iPads were making their mark with the children in that first class.

The difference in the work of the students was palpable, she said. "We realized that we needed to bring every school up to the same level."

It would have been fabulous to buy new iPads for all of the district's 14,000 students but it wasn't feasible financially, said Fields. "We thought we wanted to put one into every child's hand but then we looked at the price and decided we couldn't do it for all of them."

So instead, the district took a different tack. The decision was made to upgrade the wireless capabilities starting at the high school so that more students could begin to bring in their own wireless devices and connect to the district's network so they could do their school work.

That's when the district realized that a BYOD approach could encourage more students to bring in their own devices, which could then spread the use of such technologies to others.

The school district then opened its network to all users and devices using established security and privacy policies and procedures, and waited to see how it would go.

Quickly, students brought in their devices to use on the network for their school work. "It was a race to see if I could stay ahead of them" in providing capacity," said Fields. "It started rapidly moving, particularly at the high school."

In the elementary schools, rolling technology carts were loaded with up to 32 new iPads each so that the devices could be shared between classrooms and checked out by teachers.

The students were excelling and in the high school, six "career academy" tracks were set up to encourage career tracks based on innovation, said Fields.

At that time, about 80 percent of the devices being used on the school district's Avaya network were Apple machines. Gradually, other brands began appearing and growing, such as BlackBerry.

By January 2013, iPads and other Apple devices on the network dropped to 66 percent, while Android devices grew to 23 percent from a previous mark of 12 percent, said Fields. "Now we're starting to see Chrome devices coming in as well. We allow any kind of device."

Today, the district owns about 2,000 wireless devices that are used by students. About 500 were purchased by the district and another 1,500 were donated by social service organizations, parent teacher groups and others. The mix includes iPads, Chromebooks, Kindles and Nooks.

Each day, about 5,000 wireless devices are using the district's network daily, which means that an additional 3,000 personally-owned devices are being brought in and used by students and staff each day.

BYOD has certainly made a difference in improving education in the Kenton County School District, said Fields.

"I see a lot of students who are more engaged in what their assignments are," she said. "I hear and see when I talk to the children that they enjoy coming to school more because it's fun" since the devices and BYOD options were introduced. "That supports their ability to learn. That's a change from the past, particularly in the high school level. All of that has opened up through technology and having access to those devices and being mobile."

At the same time, there is still more to do.

"I'd like to see a device in the hands of every high school student because of the way the content is bring taught," she said. "I would like to see several in every classroom in middle school for collaboration and for teamwork. At the elementary school level, I would like to see more device carts that can be checked out to classrooms."

[Editor's note -- this story was edited May 23 to clarify the location of the school district in Kentucky.]

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