Next semester, Bellefonte Area High School students will be allowed to use their personal cellphones, tablets or laptops in class.
The Bring Your Own Device pilot program will make it easier for students to use their devices at school — for educational purposes — by providing them with Internet access through the district’s Wi-Fi network, said instructional technology specialist Arlin Roth.
The program was developed in collaboration with administration, teachers and the district’s technology department.
“We’re moving ahead with this for a couple reasons,” Roth said. “First, it will help the students organize their work, and secondly, it will provide them with access to different work they wouldn’t otherwise get in the classroom.”
While teachers said the program will enhance curriculum, it also opens the door for personal Web use by students.
To target that issue, Roth said the district denied access to some websites and is requiring students to register their device so use can be monitored.
“We have struggled with that issue, and issues this fall with students who misused social media on their own devices that rolled over into school,” Roth said. “That’s been a concern, but we’re telling them this program is a privilege.”
A glitch in the system allowed some students access to the district’s Wi-Fi prior to the announcement of the program. When the district found a way to prevent the loophole, “students noticed and requested it back,” Roth said.
“We didn’t want that to happen, but didn’t have a way to stop it,” Roth said about the premature access to the network. “We then found a way to stop it, and it got the students’ attention. The district has been working on this for about two years to provide more accessibility to students in a way that will benefit learning.”
The program tentatively will begin Jan. 26, with informational sessions Jan. 7 and 14 for students to register a device. If students don’t attend the sessions, they will have to wait to register their device, Roth said. He called it a “first come, first served” operation.
On Nov. 25, permission slips were distributed to students to register their laptop, tablet or cellphone, but they’re not required to purchase or use personal devices, Roth said.
He said students are also allowed one “device switch” a year; for example, they later might want to use a laptop instead of a tablet that was originally registered.
In the classroom
Students have a Google Drive account that provides free online storage for homework and research information, plus access to other Google-based software.
High school physics teacher and technology coordinator Kevin Harman said he hopes his students will download science-based apps that will help with class research projects.
The apps allow students to “initiate their own learning” and enable quick investigations and research, he said. “If we don’t have those apps that allow them to do that, then we don’t have classroom access to manipulate the different variables we’re discussing.”
To avoid cheating, Harman said he won’t allow students to use their devices on tests that require factual answers, but they can be used with open-ended questions to create “robust conversation.”
“The idea is to provide access to information that anyone could get in the workforce, and find that information and do something with it,” Harman said.
At least two concerns were addressed by the school board at a meeting earlier this month.
Board member George Stone questioned how much money the district would spend to provide adequate bandwidth for demand.
“We can’t just say, ‘do it,’ and then not support it financially,” Stone said.
According to the district’s tech department, about 1,800 people can access the network at a time.
Roth said he is confident the network capacity will be able to handle additional usage but has plans to expand it in the future.
Another board member, Robert Lumley-Sapanski, said he’s worried the program will increase the gap between students who have mobile devices and those who don’t.
Roth said the district provides some computers and tablets for limited use that will be available for students.
Chromebooks are provided for students in English and history classes at the high school, along with computer labs in each school, Roth said.
Harman added that district research showed that a majority of high school students have personal devices — enough where “only a few kids” would have to double up to share those devices.
Roth also said that by introducing the program, it will save the district money by not having to purchase devices for each student.
Ken Bean, the district’s director of fiscal affairs, said it’s hard to predict how much money would be saved. For the past few years, the district has leased the computers that are already available to students.
“We know it’s going to save money, but we don’t have a figure of how much,” he said. “It gives us the opportunity to put the money saved toward different technology.”