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Teaching with tech: Teachers, students warm up to devices in the classroom

Callie Jore and Maddie Johnson scan QR codes with their phones during a precalculus assignment on Thursday, Sept 10, 2015, at Red River High School in Grand Forks, N.D. (Logan Werlinger/Grand Forks Herald)1 / 3
Breeanna Barta and Maddie Johnson use their smart phones in class for a precalculus assignment on Thursday, Sept 10, 2015, at Red River High School in Grand Forks, N.D. (Logan Werlinger/Grand Forks Herald)2 / 3
Maddie Anderson (from left), Breeanna Barta, and Maddie Johnson use their smart phones in class for a precalculus assignment on Thursday, Sept 10, 2015, at Red River High School in Grand Forks, N.D. (Logan Werlinger/Grand Forks Herald)3 / 3

Four Red River High School girls huddled around a cellphone Thursday as they tried solving a math question.

Standing in the hallway, the precalculus students conferred with each other to find an average rate of change. One student held a large graphing calculator as others looked on.

"So it's 1,600 minus 400 then divided by six," said junior Maddie Anderson. "Two hundred."

The group raced down the hall to the solve the next problem. Using their phones, they scanned the maze-like image of QR code posted on the wall then read the question that popped up on their screens.

Grand Forks math teacher Allen Janes describes the activity as a "walking quiz," and it's one way the district's Bring Your Own Device policy is working in high school classrooms this fall.

While the policy isn't a big change—teachers already could allow device use at their discretion—it does mark a shift in the district's attitude toward encouraging and incorporating more technology use.

This means more teachers are using more apps and online programs for class, students are registering their devices at schools and some have turned into "tech helpers" who repair equipment for extra credit.

Maddie Anderson (from left), Breeanna Barta, and Maddie Johnson use their smart phones in class for a pre-calculus assignment Scott Conrad, a district technology curriculum partner, said many teachers are on board with the idea, showing excitement and some ingenuity by having students use devices in classes not normally seen as tech-friendly.

A few Red River students said Thursday they embrace the policy and use their devices in many classes. The only drawback they've noticed is an occasionally slow Wi-Fi connection, they said.

Teachers seem to trust students to use their phones more—they can have them in the hallways now, for instance—and they appreciate that, they said.

"I feel like you don't have to have your phone hidden all the time," said one student.

New year, new freedom

Students have been using their phones as pedometers for gym class, to play educational games, take virtual field trips or create virtual science labs, said Conrad and others.

Teachers are using online programs for student assignments, to help grade exams and do other work faster, which Conrad said will "pan out with some huge gains as far as achievement scores, because they'll provide faster results," he said.

Janes said his QR code quiz was a great way to have students practice what they were learning, and also get them engaged and working together at the start of the school year.

"I just wanted to try something and it went very well," he said.

Some teachers are still acclimating to more technology. At training sessions before school began, some said they just started a Twitter account while one admitted to being intimidated by student technology knowledge exceeding their own. Others wondered about how to effectively enforce rules with increased device use.

In one session, Jodi Dodson, a sixth-grade teacher at South Middle School, offered tips she had heard from other teachers, such as having students' desks face the back of the room to offer teachers a better view of computer screens. Teachers can also check Internet search histories to see if students are staying on task and set aside clear times for free use and classroom tasks, she said.

"If I find a kid who is off task, I'm a stickler about it," she said. "I'll close their Chromebook and I'll take it. I'll give them a warning, but I'll take it. Then we have a conversation afterwards: This is your work, this is your job."

Breeanna Barta and Maddie Johnson use their smart phones in class for a pre-calculus assignmentBut students largely abide by the district's "three-strike" policy, which can escalate to parents picking up the device from the school, said Conrad. Teachers also have "cellphone prison" jars on their desks, a place phones can land if a student isn't following an assignment or is texting a friend instead, he said. Most of the time, teachers would just take the phones away for the class, students said.

Technology use has gradually increased within the district. Students in grades five through eight are already paired with devices, and the district purchased 2,383 Chromebooks this fall, 600 of which were bought specifically for supplemental devices to the BYOD program. The district has also piloted the BYOD concept with summer school students in recent years.

For the most part, students are enjoying the new freedom, they said.

"It's so nice," said junior Maddie Johnson.

Jennifer Johnson

Jennifer Johnson is the K-12 education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald.  Contact her if you have any story ideas or tips and visit www.grandforksherald.com. 

(701) 787-6736
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