How Howard County schools are harnessing teens' tech obsessions

Mt. Hebron High School algebra teacher Natalie Rau has flipped her classes. Now students learn at home and do their homework in school. The change is thanks to a “bring your own device” (BYOD) policy that Mt. Hebron and other Howard County high schools are piloting. 

Rau, 25, creates videos of her lessons, between seven and 17 minutes long. Her homework assignments are for students to watch and take notes. Then, in class, they work through the problems, with Rau there to help. 

“I love it. I absolutely love it,” Rau says. She no longer stands in front of the room and delivers a lesson in class after class, year after year. Now each student can learn at his or her own pace. “Students love that they can pause it and rewind it,” says Rau, who notes most students also use the videos to study for tests. “That, to me, is huge,” she says. “They say it feels like a private tutor.”

Bring your own device

River Hill and Long Reach high schools also piloted BYOD in the 2013-2014 school year, and it will likely be expanded to more high schools, perhaps all, this year, says Julie Wray, the school system’s coordinator of instructional technology.

BYOD encourages teachers to incorporate technology into their lessons by allowing students to use their own devices, particularly smartphones, laptops and tablets. The schools can provide technology for students who don’t have them. (Many students think they can do anything on their phones, but laptops and tablets make more sense for essays and other assignments that require a lot of typing.)

BYOD is separate from the school system’s cellphone policy, which was loosened in the 2013-2014 school year to allow students to use the phones in the hallways and at lunchtime. The schools testing BYOD also allow the use of personal phones and other technologies in the classrooms to enhance learning. Principals say the two policies work well together because teens are allowed to check their phones during the school day, making them less likely to misuse the technology during class time. 

Though reviews are still coming in, early reactions to BYOD are positive. “I have been extremely pleased with the BYOD policy and would love to see it expand to other schools,” says River Hill Principal Nicholas Novak. “Teachers had been ‘breaking the rules’ by teaching with technology in ways that encouraged cellphone use or other practices that went against policy, so it’s nice for principals to be able to actively encourage BYOD instead of turning a blind eye to the teachers whose pedagogy outpaced school system policy,” he says.

Making rules, not breaking them

Teachers are finding creative ways to enhance their lessons with technology. Physical education students at River Hill High School are improving their strength-training form by watching videos taken by their peers. Art students are posting work on Instagram. Teachers are blogging, and students are composing essays on laptops they bring to school.

Teachers are also turning to their students for help, recognizing the strong correlation between youth and technological savvy. Collin Sullivan, starting his senior year at Long Reach High School, has been creating online tutorials to help teachers learn useful tips and tricks for digital education tools. Sullivan says teachers are using the tutorials much the same way students in Natalie Rau’s class use her video lessons — on their own schedules. Technology is essential for creating independent learners, he says.

He explains: “When I am 40, and I want to learn about a topic, the likelihood that I am going to sit in a classroom for 50 minutes, take notes, go home, do homework, and repeat five days a week is slim to none. I will have to be able to acquire knowledge independently. Technology does just that.”

When BYOD was introduced early in the 2013-2014 school year, teachers were told to incorporate technology only if they wanted to, and only in ways that made sense for them. Online and in-person training sessions were made available, but there were no set rules. 

“We had to be willing to build the plane as we flew it,” says Shannon Davis, who teaches 11th-grade English at Mt. Hebron. “It became very individualized because we were each allowed to try things in our own content area and in our own grade level.”

For one assignment, Davis, 36, had students write quizzes for one another using an app called Socrative, which is intended for teachers. This helped prepare her students for the Advanced Placement exam, because they gained a better understanding of how the questions are designed. 

Creating a culture shift

Davis, like other teachers and principals, says she had a few concerns about BYOD at the start, but those worries proved unfounded. She thought students might lose their phones, but it turns out teens are glued to them. She thought the policy would not be fair to students who do not have technology, but schools are able to provide what students don’t own.

Another concern is that technology can be distracting. If teens are using their phones in class, will they be able to resist messaging and Snapchatting each other? Students still have to do the assignments, says Davis, and they are often more engaged because they enjoy working on tablets, laptops and phones. Off-task behavior tends to take place after classwork is finished, she says, and is not so different from old-fashioned note passing. 

“There was a lot of apprehension in the beginning, of ‘Are they not going to pay attention?’” says Brandon Lauer, 32, instructional team leader for physical education and health education at River Hill. “But students have been really respectful with it.”

Lauer’s principal, Novak, says the first year of BYOD was the start of something big.“Some people aren’t ready yet to let their kids start taking in tablets or laptops, and some teachers aren’t ready to teach their classes in ways that allow the BYOD initiative to enhance instruction,” he says. “The pilot this year was the beginning of a culture shift in the county regarding instructional technology.”  

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