Tech Leadership

Applying Students’ Own Devices in the Classroom

by Jim Hirsch

Each school year brings new opportunities to engage students more completely in their learning experiences with the use of technology-based tools and techniques. Unfortunately, each school year also seems to bring new accountability mandates and budget shortfalls.

This combination leaves schools in a difficult position of trying to provide funding for current technology resources and training while also trying to fund new mandates. More than any other single factor, the lack of sustained capacity to see long-term technology change supported, contributes a less-than-stellar impact on student engagement and achievement.

Public school advocates point to a need for transformative change within the system to ensure the learning environment will become more relevant for our students today. As a start, consider the use of student-based technology to be a transformer you can put in place quickly at minimal cost.

Student-based technology means devices and applications that students may own themselves or those techniques that students use often to assist in their own learning outside of school. Examples include cell phones, portable music players and handheld game systems. Typical applications include Wikipedia and instant messaging.

A New Attitude

To allow these applications, school staff, school board members and parents will need to shift their thinking from the concept that schools must “protect” students by restricting access to commonly used devices to the idea that schools have to “educate” students to use these devices and tools responsibly while in and out of school. Federal mandates tying technology-protection measures to funding speak primarily to the use of Internet content managers for students and don’t target specific devices or applications. The latter are local decisions that can be the critical factor in how well or poorly technology resources transform today’s classrooms.

Perhaps the most common technology resource for use in student learning is the cell phone. While not all cell phones and service plans provide Internet browsing, most provide some option for text messaging. A service like Homework Now ( gives teachers the opportunity to build web-based pages to support classroom activities and provides a way to send message alerts via cell phone.

In addition, cell phone messaging could provide valuable information for students in keeping track of class requirements while providing parents with the same information, thus keeping them inside the teaching and learning loop. Similarly, services like or offer even more flexibility for educators to create cell phone-based learning activities.

Students quickly will realize that these are legitimate and responsible uses of cell phones in the school setting, while taking photos of classmates or text messaging during exams would be expressly prohibited. The challenge of putting policies in place that enable transformative uses of technology while ensuring appropriate use is significant, but that should not stop innovative school systems from inventing promising practices in this area.

Another technology in common use by students is portable music players, such as the Apple iPod. Podcasting is a method of publishing audio broadcasts via the Internet, which then are loaded onto portable music players.

It doesn’t take much of a stretch in one’s imagination to see how students could provide similar audio recordings from their ad-hoc study groups and allow other students to benefit from their insights. Are there opportunities for misuse of this technology by students? Of course. Again, students realize what are appropriate and inappropriate uses of this type of technology and your policy needs to speak to both.

Services such as The Education Arcade are just beginning to produce educational resources for handheld game systems, such as the Sony PSP. In addition, these game systems have built-in wireless networking capability that can access school networks in a secure fashion to provide Internet connectivity to websites offering instructional resources. You can allow students to access services such as netTrekker via their game system on your school network and not have to worry about security breaches.

Affordable Price

Finally, emerging technologies, such as the Nokia 770 Internet tablet, are coming rapidly to market at prices that allow students to own these devices personally. This newly designed tablet offers Internet browsing and e-mail services via industry-standard wireless networking. In addition, because it is based on a Linux operating system, the opportunities for open source software development will be widely available.

Providing opportunities for students fortunate enough to own technology devices to use them in the school setting may enable districts to find enough funding to place similar units into the hands of those who cannot afford to purchase their own, effectively providing a 1:1 computing scenario but at a smaller percentage of the total cost. In addition, demonstrating that student achievement increases with the use of personal computing provides grant opportunities to offset much of the cost.

Placing truly transformative technology use into public schools is not without risk, but the possible rewards are so great that it’s imperative for school leaders to consider methods by which these and other resources can be embedded into existing curriculum and technology systems.

Jim Hirsch is associate superintendent of technology in the Plano Independent School District, 2700 W. 15th St., Plano, TX 75075. E-mail: