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Jennifer Johnson, Forum News Service, Published May 02 2014

East Grand Forks teacher's experiment with personal devices produces results

EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. – East Grand Forks student Alex Beauchamp spent most of her history class Thursday glued to her iPad, but she never once got in trouble.

In fact, nearly all of the seventh-graders in her class were using their cellphones or iPads to brainstorm in their groups. But Alex and others said their enjoyment for the class went beyond being able to use technology.

“We get to use our own drawings and stuff,” she said.

In this nine-week experiment, Jim Enright’s students are relying on their personal electronic devices to teach one another and elicit the kind of higher-level learning response students “just can’t Google,” he said.

Largely left on their own, students are happy to help others, keep stragglers in line and take a more disciplined and engaged approach to learning, he said. Even more, the biggest improvements he’s seen have been among the more academically weak students, he said.

“I’ve been very pleased with the results,” he said. “I didn’t know how long this would last.”

Students teach

For each class, students spend the hour tackling a topic by creating activities to understand the material or using their critical thinking skills by devising open-ended questions.

Students still use the textbook, but tend to rely more on their devices to create and expand on test questions like this one: How would you defend Theodore Roosevelt’s decision to add the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine in 1904?

“For all I know, some of them might have Googled the questions,” Enright said. “But they’re still great questions and they’re coming up with the answers.”

Grading is slightly nontraditional. More points are given for effort and participation, and homework is rarely assigned. But students write their own test questions, write the answers and determine how many points will be assigned to each one.

Each student finds a way to contribute, particularly those who normally struggle, Enright said. As they’ve taken more ownership of their learning and routinely present their information in front of the class, they become more engaged and confident in ways they hadn’t before, he and paraprofessional Lisa Kegley said.

“Even students who wouldn’t normally show up with their work completed are showing up,” Kegley said.

Enright first heard of this idea through a professional development workshop. He was initially hesitant to turn over leadership entirely to students, as was suggested, but his fear was unfounded – students have naturally developed their own roles and haven’t required a lot of guidance, he said.

“The good thing with that is that they’re really learning,” he said. “I think it’s been very effective.”

Taking ownership

Students say they’re engaged, entertained and the class gives them a welcome break from standard classes.

When Dominick Poss was asked whether he preferred student-created questions over ones from a teacher, he said he sometimes preferred ones from a teacher. The questions don’t always challenge him, he said.

“Some of them are hard, some of them are easy,” he said.

This newfound freedom is also accompanied by temptation, students said. It’s hard not to use their devices during class time, which is not allowed by the school, and sometimes they stray from discussion, they said. But they’re committed to the new learning method, they said.

“It’s more responsibility,” Dominick said. “But once you’re working, you’re working until the end.”

While it’s still a fledgling program, Enright said he’d like it to continue. However, if he does it again he’d only offer it later in the year, after he can understand individual student boundaries better, he said.

So far, “it’s going better than I ever thought it would,” he said.