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March 11, 2013

Lewis Cass practicing smart learning

Lewis Cass senior Kirsten Dollar, 18, carries an iPhone 4 everywhere with her — even to class.

“I don’t know what I’d do without it,” she said last week. And she’s not alone.

In a school where about half the student body has a smartphone — including most of the senior class — two teachers this year have piloted an approach to technology that harnesses students’ own devices.

Matt Carver, head of the social studies department and seven-year Lewis Cass teacher, said his students use a variety of devices — iPhones, Android smartphones, iPads, laptops, even iPod Touches with Wi-Fi connectivity.

He had students track stock prices using their phones or other devices last semester in an annual statewide competition the school doesn’t usually do extremely well in.

They placed first in the state this year. It helped that he wasn’t restricted to borrowing the school computer lab once a week to update the team’s stock picks, he added.

Students were more excited about tracking stocks, he said — they’d even enter the classroom and asked him first if he’d seen the stocks’ changes that boded well or ill for one of his 14 teams.

“They’re really, really much more excited, more motivated,” Carver said.

Not every student has a smartphone, he said, “but the majority of them have a smartphone or a device they can bring to class.” Carver teaches high school economics, government, current events and seventh grade social studies.

Students who don’t have their own devices can use one of the laptops on the school’s single wireless cart, he said. And he’ll often assign small-group activities where groups of three or four students need only one device between them to participate.

“You just have to be a little more flexible,” Carver said. “The biggest thing is that if the kids enjoy it this way... I’m all for it.”

Spanish teacher Philina Martinez added that students who don’t have a device “just say, ‘hey, can I borrow your phone real quick?’”

Martinez, a nine-year veteran teacher who was hired at Lewis Cass in August, has her students leave voice messages at an Internet number that sends the messages to her email, she said — a way she’s found to help students develop verbal skills without making them stand up and speak in front of the class all the time.

Foreign language learning websites come in handy during class, too — she uses some that are accessible both on a laptop and by smartphone.

“When we have the lab activities, they prefer their own devices because they’re used to them,” Martinez said.

Grant Maxwell, an 18-year-old Galveston student in his senior year at Lewis Cass, said he’d rather use his iPhone 4S because the computers that the school provides are “slow” and require one to log in first.

He and other students say they use their devices in various classes to access word definitions, mathematical equations and the news.

Each student has a login for the school’s social network, MyBigCampus, that they use to access assignments and assessments that teachers upload. MyBigCampus — described as “a safe social learning platform” that’s part social network, part learning management and part professional development — visually resembles Facebook and comes with apps for Apple and Android devices as well as a web version for a regular Internet browser.

Starting to use MyBigCampus to its full extent almost makes teachers feel like they’re in their first year all over again, Carver said — retyping quizzes into the system or converting worksheets to the online format.

That amount of work isn’t required to use MyBigCampus, Carver said — teachers can simply upload documents as attachments if they prefer, using what they already have stored on their computer.

“I tell teachers, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel — you can use what you have,” said Carver. But if they do “reinvent” their teaching, he said it’s a huge benefit down the road.

Carver admitted that even for him, it took some time to get used to using the network and implementing the online worksheets and quizzes

“I’m very comfortable with technology,” he said.

He and Martinez have begun showing other Lewis Cass teachers how they’ve integrated wireless devices and MyBigCampus into their classes.

Interacting with students’ work the social network “breeds more conversation, more depth,” Carver said. He’s used it to cultivate stronger thinking skills in his students.

Martinez’s students like knowing immediately what they’ve answered right or wrong on a quiz.

“What they love most about the online quizzes and things is the immediate feedback,” she said.

He and Martinez also use MyBigCampus to share information and resources with other teachers.

“I can share bundles of videos or information I’ve collected” with another Spanish teacher at Lewis Cass, “or vice versa.”

While Carver’s and Martinez’s classrooms are the only ones where teachers have thoroughly integrated wireless technology and social networking so far, principal Mark Karmel said he’s aware of several other teachers that have dipped their toes into the MyBigCampus waters.

“I think teachers are using it across the board,” he said, including for art, German and industrial technology classes. Some fourth- through sixth-grade teachers have even ventured into it, he said.

However, he added one caveat.

“You can do a lot of really good things with bring-your-own technology,” Karmel said. “But if you don’t think about the kids’ thinking,” its purpose is lost.

Teachers have to be vigilant to maintain discipline while students have access to their phones, he said, and must structure classes such that students without a wireless device aren’t shortchanged.

“We do always make sure that the kids who don’t have a device still have access,” Martinez said.

That often means printing a few copies of the assignments, worksheets and quizzes uploaded to MyBigCampus. Still, Carver said he makes about a quarter of the amount of copies he used to need.

Bring-your-own tech is still in its infancy, according to Carver and Karmel. Karmel has even told some parents who’ve asked him what device to buy for their children’s schooling that at this point they need “nothing.”

Before going all in, teachers have to figure out how they’re going to make good on the technology that’s available, and administrators have to figure out how they’re going to provide access for students who don’t have their own devices.

Most of the physical infrastructure, at least, is in place, after about $100,000 was invested in blanketing the elementary schools in Wi-Fi and another almost $80,000 spent last summer to upgrade the high school wireless.

It’s all in preparation for what Karmel described as “the way of the future,” requiring teachers to leave their comfort zone.

Martinez agrees.

“These kids are digital natives,” Martinez said. “If we aren’t keeping up with it, we may as well be teaching in a foreign language.”

Sarah Einselen is news editor for the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at or 574-732-5151.

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