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Waterford - A year ago, Waterford High School Spanish teacher Elizabeth Cano would regularly set her desk in the hallway to visit with individual students as they spoke to her in Spanish about selected topics, an assignment that went toward students' participation grades.
This year, students still go out into the hallway to complete the assignment, but Cano stays in the classroom. The students call and leave her phone messages that she later listens to as recordings on the smart phone application ipadio.
What's changed is the high school's stance toward devices such as cellphones, tablets and laptops in class. The school is part of a growing number in the nation that have introduced bring your own device or "BYOD" policies that allow students to use the technology they own in the classroom.
Waterford High principal Andre Hauser said at a Board of Education meeting in February that the purpose of implementing BYOD is to teach students how to use devices as tools, not toys, and to prepare them for the work world.
"It's not about the device; it's about how you're learning to adapt to different technology environments," he said.
Change in learning environment
The high school rolled out the policy this fall, after opening its new building last April. The program comes paired with an expansion of technology resources at the school such as the availability of netbooks for checkout at the library and the option for students to install school software on their personal devices for free. Additionally, the school is placing greater emphasis on technology use in home assignments.
Getting the high school "wired" to support student devices and allow for technology use in class is responsible for $2.6 million of the $67 million high school construction cost.
The combined changes have facilitated subtle but marked shifts in how Waterford High teachers teach and how students study. Impacts are visible across academic disciplines.
Marine biology teacher Mike O'Connor hooks microscopes up to the Promethean Board in front of the classroom so that students can see what their classmates are viewing. The board serves as a giant interactive tablet computer and allows O'Connor to write over the image.
"The ability for them to be able to share and go around makes it much easier to put the content in their hands," said O'Connor.
Special Services Director Kathy Vallone said that the district provides special education students with iPads because many iPad applications suit students' needs. She said one application, Proloquo2go, can act as a substitute for the DynoVox speech-generating device used by students who are unable to speak. She said that a single DynoVox device costs between $8,000 and $12,000.
The technology overhaul has also helped the district facilitate "class flipping." In flipped classes, for example, students study the content of a class at home by watching videos about the subject matter. The bulk of exercises, which would normally be reserved for homework, are actually done in class with teacher guidance.
Assistant Superintendent Craig Powers said that 20 district teachers are trained to flip classes.
High school math department Chairman Mike Ellis is among those piloting the method. During an April 1 advanced geometry class, Ellis lectured for 10 minutes of the 90-minute period. The rest of the time, students hunched over their desks, working on problems with pencil and paper.
Technical difficulties at home such as faulty Internet connections and the book website going down sometimes break the flow of things for students. In those situations, Ellis asks students to take screen shots to demonstrate the issue.
Ellis said that class flipping requires more preparation time for him. For students, he said, "It takes a while to get them in the swing of it."
Student response to technology at the high school is mostly positive.
Junior Emily Grout, 16, said that BYOD and online resources make studying "more efficient" for her.
"I don't lose things as often, because I lose papers a lot," she said, adding, "It just makes everything flow a lot."
Still, the program poses challenges.
Senior Jacob Peabody, 18, acknowledged that having a cell phone can be distracting in class, but pointed out that students have always had phones in class and texting is not a new thing at school.
Results from a February survey show that 44 percent of the high school's teachers think devices cause disciplinary issues on a daily basis; 45 percent said that student use of devices is more distracting than other behaviors.
Access can also be an issue, though only one out of 10 survey respondents said fewer than half of their students bring and use devices in class.
Teachers adapt to access issues by providing school-owned devices for classroom activities and splitting students into groups so that those who have the needed tools can share with those who don't.
Students can also use devices kept at the library before and after school to complete assignments, and classes that use electronic textbooks still provide paper versions to students who request them.
Part of a trend
The high school is not alone in its undertaking. In a 2014 survey by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), 51 percent of the 350 school technology leaders who responded said their districts had BYOD programs, and 81 percent said their districts supported or were interested in it.
Other area high schools also have BYOD programs, including East Lyme and Norwich. Norwich Free Academy allows students to use devices in class with teacher permission.
"It is a trend. I can't tell you how many are doing it, certainly not a majority at this point, but there's a greater realization that a very powerful educational tool is in the hands of students," said Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents Executive Director Joseph Cirasuolo. "Waterford is probably out in front of most districts, but I would think that in the next three to five years that will be the norm."
CoSN Senior Consultant Denise Atkinson-Shorey said BYOD may not work in some districts due to issues of access or safety, even though it saves schools money by helping them to avoid the costs of purchasing a device for every student.
But speaking about the use of technology within schools, she said, "It's moving fast."
Staff writers Claire Bessette and Kimberly Drelich contributed to this story.