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Building-Owned Device Culture in 'Baby Steps'

Just how do you achieve 1-to-1 computing in a district that's entirely too large to provide all the devices itself?

It's a puzzle the 60,000-student Katy Independent School District, which serves some of Houston's western suburbs, will hope to solve this fall with the introduction of a new public wireless Internet network that will span all of the district's 52 campuses and be used by students in grades 2-12 who bring their own devices. (The district will attempt to provide loaners or allow collaboration for students who don't own devices.)

It's a unique challenge, said Lonnie Owens, Darlene Rankin, and Mindy Dickerson, who all came from the district to inform others about their project Monday at the International Society for Technology in Education's annual conference. But after an initial pilot at an elementary school during the 2009-10 school year, and expansion to 11 schools this past school year, it's a challenge they say they feel prepared for.

"We took baby steps," said Rankin, a project manager for the district, one of many exploring allowing student-owned devices during tough economic times. "Every year we loosened the reigns a little bit."

And they also learned some helpful tips along the way. For example, giving recognition to teachers who did an exceptional job of weaving mobile technology into their classes during the pilot phases proved an effective way of motivating other teachers to follow suit, Rankin said. And it provided ideas for teachers who, despite their proximity, still may be hidden from others teaching methods by cinder block school walls.

"We have one high school that has close to 4,000 students next year," Rankin said. "They often have no idea what's going in the next room, not to mention what's going on in the science department."

Also, because students will be using a wide variety of devices, meaning not all software will be compatible with all devices, the district is trying to run as many of its digital functions as possible through more adaptable cloud-based software, said Owens, the district's director of technical operations.

The district has also boosted bandwidth and increased access points to ensure that its network will be faster than any 3G or 4G connection students may have through their devices. The school wireless network would have the typical filtering of inappropriate content, whereas private 4G networks would not.

And perhaps most importantly, while students will have more access to laptops, netbooks, iPads and smartphones than before, there are still expectations. Before the district commenced the project, it adopted a new responsible use policy for mobile devices. And the devices will still only be used on a teacher-directed basis in grades 2-8.

"We compare it to using scissors," said Dickerson, principal of Cimarron Elementary School, the first pilot campus for the project, which used school-provided devices up to this point. "You would not give a pair of scissors to a kindergartner and let them go. It's the same thing with cell phones."

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