Sunday, 24 March 2013

Baby Steps to BYOT

So you are letting your students use their devices in class. You are moving beyond relegating the smartphone to act simply as a calculator or a timer and letting students really BYO Technology.  It is a big paradigm shift.  One that could change the look, feel, and sense of control of your class.  Before you take the plunge (or as you are taking the plunge), I hope you reflect on the possibilities and pitfalls that may come your way. Here are a few thoughts to ponder as you breach this brave new world.

1) Know why your doing it
BYOT isn't the answer to behaviour problems or lack of motivation in students. It's not the answer to education, either.  In fact, it raises a lot more questions than it answers.  And because of that, you really need to know why you're allowing idevices become a bigger part of your classroom.

Some of the reasons I think that might hold water are:
- a desire to add another effective tool to your students' toolbox
- a passion to encourage students to become full life learners--having a love of learning invade all parts of their life, including device use
- to effectively utilize a tool that students might bring to school yet be told to leave in their lockers
- to experiment with what might seem as the way of the future 

Either way, BYOT is not all pretty.  You'll be inputting wifi passwords, answering endless questions about apps you've never used, and giving students a little more ability to be out of your control. A realistic view of what is coming your way is paramount.  And if you really believe in what you are doing, you'll be able to work through the difficulties. 

2) Build a PLN
It would be ironic for BYOT to be done in isolation. The most dangerous aspect of the smartphone is its connectability. Facebook status updates, texting, tweeting: these are the power, beauty and the danger of the idevice. And your going to ignore all that and go it alone when it comes to teaching kids how to use them for school? It wouldn't make any sense. 

Before I had my first BYOT session with my classroom, I stumbled on a group that "meets" Thursday nights at 6pm PST.  All you need to join in the conversation is knowing this simple secret handshake: the #byotchat hashtag.  Just introduce yourself to the group on twitter. That is all I did.  Immediately, I was embraced as a newbie and accepted as one of the gang. My question of "what should be my first activity" was answered by a veteran and confirmed by several others who were at the time hundreds of kilometres away.  And their suggestions were awesome. 

I am learning that a Personal Learning Network is very important. Before I began blogging and using twitter, my own network was dependant on who happened to be physically around me.  And life at Middle School is so busy, working on an idea becomes buried in a forest of meetings and marking. But with social media, you can follow, share, ask, and hear from a specific group selected from millions. They might teach in the classroom next door. They might teach in another continent. A world of possibilities is opened up. 

3) Have a sitdown with your admin
BYOT opens doors to all sorts of things. And you may find that you become a pioneer of sorts. As a courtesy, you will want to let admin know what is going on in your classroom. You might also find that you need some support, some help setting up the infrastructure.  That is where admin come in. Likely they will be happy to hear that you are addressing the issue of technology in your class. Some of them might even be relieved that they have something to say when the superintendent asks how they are addressing technology in their school.  And whenever you have a "guest" in the school (some "other" who is connecting with the students through something like Skype chats or back channelling) Admin should know. 

Also, you also might find that you need help clarifying the lines: what students are allowed to do and what they aren't. Policy questions always need admin input. 
4) Get parent buy in
Hey. They're bank rolling this endeavour.  They should also be kept in the know. I send home a parent permission form for my grade 7 class before the devices come in.  It lets the parents know what I am doing, helps me get parents to fill out the "Privately Owned Devices" eform, and clarifies that this endeavour is not to be used for leverage for birthday and Christmas presents.  And although students are bringing devices to school anyway, it clarifies who is responsible for them. And who is 

5) Make a plan for the have-notsAlthough you will get a high percentage of students who have devices already, there will be some who either don't have a phone that is "smart" enough or don't have anything at all. You may have a little leverage to get a few devices that can be available for those who have nothing. Many schools are experimenting with Ipads.  See if you can book a few of those.  And make sure you have an extra for someone who just can't get theirs to work. 

If you can't get some extra devices, make a plan to share. Build into your lessons a pair/share component to keep all engaged. Though devices are very personal, the students are used to staring at someone else's screen in the hallway so this will not be new.  A little thought ahead of time will save some headaches later on. 

6) Plan how you connect
On a very pragmatic level, book into your lessons some time to get students on the network. Recently I was on a trip to Disneyland with some teenagers and the constant talk was wifi.  They were desperate for it, checking every place they went to get their wifi fix. In my neck of the woods, most teens don't have a data plan. They'll need a connection to:
- discover new ideas
- share how these ideas jive with themselves. and...
- show their learning so far to you

Learning is all about allowing students to discover, share, and show.  Getting students connected up takes this into the electronic realm.  So make sure you have the network passwords ready and possibly someone to help enter them into your students devices.  But make sure the whole first lesson isn't taken up with getting students on.  What is the fun in that?
So here are six thoughts as you take your baby steps into the BYOT world.  And don't be ashamed that you are going slowly and reflecting all the while.  The baby analogy works very well as babies embrace the new with wonder and appreciation.  They soak up experiences without the baggage of the jaded veteran.  And the learning just naturally comes.