Their own devices: Fifth-graders bring electronics to school

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Frank Schultz
Saturday, December 14, 2013

JANESVILLE—The Tech Squad was chosen from a long line of applicants.

“There was a line outside the door,” Kaja Perisic said of the day kids lined up to interview for the job.

“It was almost the whole fifth grade,” David Lette said.

David and Kaja, along with Sami Toczynski, Lexi Thommesen, Cody Kaas and Zoe Williams were chosen.

They're part of a pilot project that could affect the entire Janesville School District. For now, they keep Harrison Elementary School's BYOD program going.

BYOD stands for Bring Your Own Device. Most students in Harrison's two fifth-grade classrooms bring their own tablets or smart phones from home. Those who don't have their own Internet-ready, touch-screen devices get some from the school.

“We didn't want any undue pressure that parents had to go out and purchase a device if they didn't have one,” Principal Jessica Grandt-Turke said.

The result is one device for each student.

After two months, students and school officials said the experiment is working smoothly, and the two teachers said it has changed and improved their teaching.

“It's definitely a model we're going to look to replicate,” said Robert Smiley, the district's chief information officer, who came up with the idea of the Tech Squad.

Other schools have come up with the money to buy one Internet-ready device for each student. That's not in the budget for the Janesville School District, at least not yet.

The smoothness of the transition to BYOD is due in part to the Tech Squad, whose members help fellow students when something doesn't work as it should.

“They go to us,” David said.

“It's kind of fun to be like one of the head people of the program,” Kaja added.

The students believe they're doing something important.

“They're going to be using technology for the rest of their lives, so they might as well get used to it early,” Kaja said.

District leaders agree.

“The future of education is access to information in the moment,” Smiley said.

“Do you really need to memorize the Gettysburg Address? You can always look it up,” Smiley said. “Wouldn't it be more important to understand the impact of it and why it's become an iconic speech?”

The question, Smiley said, is how to provide that instant access.


The students use apps to access interactive communication tools. Sometimes, an app will disappear.

“We usually can fix that,” Sami said confidently.

If not, the teacher might step in, or the students call district tech support specialist Brent Williams.

Devices sometimes freeze up, or the district's Wi-Fi access point won't let a student in.

Improving Wi-Fi access is high on Smiley's agenda. Most of the district has Wi-Fi access points, but each point can handle only so many devices at once.

When the Wi-Fi is overloaded at Harrison, a student sometimes has to go to the other end of the open-pod school or work with a partner, students said.

The Wi-Fi access is crucial because it channels access to the district's web portal, which filters out troublesome sites and allows teachers to track what students are doing.

The rules for students include no text messaging, although students are encouraged to share their thoughts about reading assignments or responses to a teachers' question on the Facebook-like Edmodo program. And they can do it at school or at home. Parents can log on and see what their children are writing.


Some of the technology was new to the teachers, so it took extra time to prepare lessons and to think about the different ways to present lessons that the devices allow, said Grandt-Turke, who credited teachers Chris Kohn and Tami Burke for their hard work.

The devices make it easier to teach to multiple levels of understanding, Kohn said. In math class, he can help the students who are struggling while those who have grasped the concept can move ahead to new material with a variety of online math games.

A site called IXL provides math practice in the form of games, and it gives students feedback on how they're doing.

“It puts kids more in charge of their learning, and it keeps them engaged and excited,” Burke said.

One of the most common uses for the devices is following along with the teacher's work on another digital device, the SMART Board, with DisplayNote.

All the students have downloaded the DisplayNote app, so their devices record the material the teacher presents on the board, such as the model of a skeleton in a recent science unit. Students can take their own notes on the presentation, and they can access the whole thing later.

“It's so much nicer,” Burke said. “You have your notes, it's in color, and it's just like you had it in class.”

Students can respond to Burke's questions by labeling parts of the skeleton, for example, and everyone can follow along, either by watching on the SMART Board or on their own small screens.

Teachers are careful to have the devices locked up when students aren't using them, and there have been no problems with theft, Grandt-Turke said.

Students have forgotten devices at home, but the school has enough spares to tide them over.


Harrison and the 11 other district elementary schools have had Internet-capable devices, such as iPads and Netbook computers for some time, but not nearly enough for every student to have one all day.

“The Netbooks were super slow,” Kaja said. “I like our own devices better.”

The devices take the place of notebooks and dictionaries.

“It takes less time” than a traditional dictionary, David said.

“And the dictionary might be outdated,” Kaja added.

The devices also function as hand-held libraries. On a recent visit, students were researching explorers to make slide-show presentations with software known as Prezi.

Kohn has not taught them how to use Prezi. “They figure it out,” he said. “Their brain is trained for that, already.”

Burke and Kohn seem almost as pleased with the change as their students.

“It took some getting used to, but honestly, fifth-graders love helping out their teachers,” Burke said. “… We just have to accept this is the wave of the future.”

The teachers use an app called DisplayNote, which has a variety of interactive functions. Burke can ask students to rate their understanding of a topic, on a scale of 1 to 5. She gets an instant readout of their understanding, and responses are anonymous.

Immediately, she knows whether she needs to teach more or move on to the next topic.

It's different from asking for a show of hands because some kids would never admit they don't get it, Burke said.

Teachers can pose a question that instantly appears on every student's device, as well as on the SMART Board at the front of the class. Again, there's an instant readout of right and wrong answers.


The Tech Squad meets twice a week with tech specialist Williams. They discuss problems students have with their devices. Mostly, solutions involve re-loading an app, they said.

The Tech Squad lets the teachers teach instead of dealing with tech issues, and it helps the Tech Squad members develop leadership skills, said Principal Grandt-Turke.

“I love it,” Burke said, “because I can say, 'Check with somebody on the Tech Squad first.'”

Lately, Williams and the Tech Squad haven't had a lot to talk about.

“A lot of people who were having difficulty in the beginning are doing much better,” Kaja said.

The school set standards for use of the devices, and students are motivated to follow those rules because the alternative is having the privilege taken away, Grandt-Turke said.

“They want to be on that device,” she said.

“And because it's their own, they take care of it,” Smiley added.

The program includes releases that parents sign, allowing their children to bring the devices to school and saying the school is not responsible for damaged devices.

The district has different Internet-access pilots at other schools, where every student has gotten a Chromebook, a laptop loaded with Google software. Those pilots are in the third grade at Lincoln Elementary and with two high school groups: the Janesville Academy for International Studies and the third floor of Rock River Charter School.

Smiley said a decision has not been made whether BYOD is best, or perhaps a BYOD-Chromebook hybrid. 

BYOD's fame has spread. The school has received emails from parents of fourth-graders, wondering what device to buy their kids for Christmas, in preparation for fifth grade, Smiley said.

The motivation factor is not to be underestimated. The Tech Squad was asked to consider what would happen if their devices were taken away.

Lexi's eyes popped in what appeared to be a combination of fear, shock and outrage at the thought.

“I think we would have a mutiny,” their principal said.

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