Muscogee County School District to expand Bring Your Own Device policy system-wide

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comNovember 28, 2013 

ROBIN TRIMARCHI/rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.comSeventh-graders at Aaron Cohn Middle School use laptops and mobile devices to take a quiz online in their Life Sciences class. Clockwise from left are Nate Flowers, Evans Castro, Conner Stanley, Austin Ledford and Ashley Cofer.

ROBIN TRIMARCHI — rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com Buy Photo

It's called BYOD, and it's going system-wide in the Muscogee County School District next semester.

Bring Your Own Device allows students to use their high-tech gadgets in the classroom, as long as the school and teacher permit them.

Four pilot schools started the policy last year -- Eagle Ridge Academy, Midland Middle, Veterans Memorial and Shaw High -- and Aaron Cohn Middle became a BYOD school when it opened in August.

So as the holiday shopping season shifts into overdrive, district officials want to ensure parents are equipped with the information they need to buy the most suitable device for their child. But they also emphasize nobody is required to make such a purchase or bring such technology to class. Schools have electronic devices available for students to use in class when the teacher wants mobile computers to be part of the lesson.

Students who don't bring their own device to school might have to share one, but they won't be excluded and won't fall behind academically, said Forrest Toelle, the district's chief information office. But if parents do choose to allow their children to bring a high-tech gadget to school, district officials recommend devices that run Microsoft software because they will provide the best integration with the school system's wireless network.

"We are aware that other computer operating systems will work," Toelle said, "but we cannot guarantee as good of a user experience or how well a non-Microsoft OS will work in the MCSD environment."

Toelle said the BYOD policy has worked well at the pilot schools. Usage is centrally monitored, inappropriate websites are blocked, and parents must opt in by signing a permission form for their child.

"We haven't had any feedback with complaints," he said. "In our pilots, since it's so limited, they aren't taxing the network. We feel good about that. Once we get to one-fourth of the teachers using it at the same time, then we're going to probably hear some pain points."

All MCSD are 100 percent wireless, but that doesn't mean they can accommodate everyone who wants to use the network at the same time and expect fast service.

"We're in the stages of planning," Toelle said. "Right now, it looks like we plan to roll out the high schools first. Then middle schools and elementary. Right now, the capacity at the middle schools is about a third of the kids can get on at once, wireless, and have a good experience. At the high schools, it's about half, and at elementary, it's about a fourth of the kids.

"We're diligently working, and we want to find out, because maybe our network is more robust. But you're limited with wireless. Wireless is slower than plugging it into the wall."

In the classroom

During a visit to one of Lynn Robertson's seventh-grade life science classes at Aaron Cohn Middle School last week, about half of the 26 students had brought their own device to school. The rest used one of the 29 netbooks from a cart supplied by the district.

The students took a quiz about the different body systems by logging on to Robertson's account at www.socrative.com, which automatically sends her the results and instantly lets her students know whether they answered correctly.

"I've got 137 students," Roberston said, "so when I sit down and grade papers, it takes me all night. This is immediate feedback for them."

Robertson then instructed her students to use their devices to map the parts of the brain.

"I don't have a lot of kids that bring laptops," she said. "They bring tablets, phones or iPod Touches."

Aaron Cohn seventh-grader Arie Phillips brought a laptop to school last year, when she attended Middle Middle School, "but it was kind of big," she said, "so I didn't want to bring it this year."

Instead, she brings her iPod 5. She convinced her parents to buy it for her birthday Aug. 3, just in time for the start of the school year.

"They were nervous about me breaking it or someone stealing it," said Arie, 12. "I just told them I would keep it safe and keep it in my bag when I'm not using it."

For the first month of this school year, Aaron Cohn seventh-grader Jacob Allen used one of the district-supplied netbooks or shared the device a classmate brought. But since September, when he got an iPhone 5S to call his mother after football practice, he has his own device in class.

Jacob, 12, chose the iPhone 5S "because it was the newest and best thing out there and it has the fingerprint scanner for security. I have an iPad, but it's just a hassle to keep up with at school. I brought it once, but it was just too hard to carry it around."

He admitted it would be easy to break the rules and text somebody during class, "but I can withstand the temptation," he said with a smile.

The students are instructed to keep their devices out of sight or turned down on the corner of their desk until the teacher declares it's time to use them, Robertson said.

Asked how many times the devices have led to a discipline issue, Roberston said, "In the first month, quite a bit. But after that, they've gotten used to it, and they know that if they don't follow it, they will lose the privilege. And if they lose the privilege, they can get the same information out of those horrible books back there, but that's no fun."

Robertson added with a laugh, "I want them to have the devices, because when they don't, it punishes me too."

The high-tech transformation of Muscogee County classrooms still has remnants of a simpler time. Robertson helped a student struggling to sharpen his pencil with a hand-crank machine and exclaimed, "Look at that! It works awesome. Isn't that amazing? Another form of technology."FREE MICROSOFT OFFICE SOFTWARE

In a Nov. 21 email, Forrest Toelle, the Muscogee County School District's chief information officer, asked the system's principals to have teachers show their students a 2-minute video before the Thanksgiving break to promote free downloads of the complete Microsoft Office suite.

Because MCSD is a Microsoft district, each student is allowed a free download on as many as five devices, Toelle said in the email. That's why he wants parents to know "not to purchase Microsoft Office, a $399 software package, since they will be able to download it free."

"We will share more details including how to get into Office 365 and how to download this software in December."

The video also promises each student will receive a free email account and the ability to simultaneously work on documents and presentations with someone else on a different computer.

For a link to the video, click on this story at www.ledger-enquirer.com.MCSD COMPUTER RECOMMENDATIONS FOR STUDENTSFor grades K-12, MCSD recommends Microsoft Windows OS tablets, ultrabooks or netbooks. Deciding which operating system, Windows 8 or Windows RT, can be based on several factors. Here's what MCSD recommends for each priority:

Cheaper price: Windows RT

Best integration with MCSD network: Windows 8

Battery life: either

Advance features: Windows 8

Size and weight: either

SPECIFICATIONS

MCSD recommends the following specifications:

For tablets or ultrabooks

Operating system: Windows RT or Windows 8

Screen: 10 inches or larger

Keyboard: Strongly recommended

Software: Current IE, Chrome and Firefox

Weight: 5.5 pounds or less

Connection: USB

Brands: Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo, Microsoft, Samsung or Sony

For netbooks

Operating system: Windows 8

Screen: 10-14 inches

Keyboard: Built in

Software: Current IE, Chrome and Firefox

Weight: 5.5 pounds or less

Connection: USB

Brands: Acer, Asus, Dell, Fujitsu, HP, Lenovo, Microsoft, Samsung, Sony or Toshiba.

BOTTOM LINE

"If price is a factor, or if you are planning to use the tablet to augment rather than replace your Windows PC, a Windows RT tablet makes sense," said Forrest Toelle, MCSD's chief information officer. "If you are looking at a Windows tablet as a replacement for the student's desktop or laptop PC to become the student's primary computing device, you need to consider the broader picture and select Windows 8."

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