A History Class Using Bring-Your-Own-Devices (BYOD)

A few years ago, there was much hype about BYOD. At the time, I had dismissed BYOD for a number of reasons. First, there were the technical difficulties (bandwidth issues and managing different platforms). Second, there were pedagogical constraints that accompany programs where each student has a device (e.g., distraction and off-task behavior, classroom management). Third, there was the equity issue. But BYOD’s appeal continued to spread. I wondered why.

Recently, I heard of a history teacher who implemented a BYOD in her courses. I contacted Sarah Denniston (fictitious name) and she invited me to visit her Northern California high school. Her high school has nearly 1800 students divided about half white and half minority (Asian and Latino). Nearly 20 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced lunch–a measure of poverty used in U.S. public schools. Over 95 percent attend college after graduation. About one-third of the students take Advanced Placement exams with well over 80 percent of test-takers qualifying for college credit. One of those Advanced Placement teachers is Denniston who teaches AP European history. A graduate (and track star) of the high school in which she now teaches, Denniston has been teaching 10 years. About her students, she says:

“I really like [high schoolers’] energy, especially the freshmen and sophomores.” At [that]level, the verbal filter is not as developed and students are willing to ask any and all questions. It’s great to see students’ intellectual level advance, I love the spastic energy of the freshmen and sophomores, that kind of goofiness.”

Denniston uses BYOD in all five of her classes–she sees well over 150 students a day.

I visited her second period AP European history class recently. There are 26 students in the class. Desks are arranged in pods of three. All of the 10th grade students have their tablets and laptops open. For those students (less than 10 percent in the school) who do not have devices, the school issued them tablets for school and home use. On the white board is an announcement: “18 days to AP test. What are you doing to review?” A list of study sessions with day and time are listed for the next two weeks. On the front wall above the whiteboards is a chart entitled “Costa’s Levels of Questions.”

Denniston is in the midst of a unit on “Conservatism, Liberalism, Nationalism, and Romanticism,” specifically the mid-19th century reign of Napoleon III in France. She has multiple activities in play during the 50 minute period. Standing at a podium with her open laptop, Denniston banters with various students on their “Oldcast”–see below. She then launches into a 25-minute illustrated lecture using slides projected on the front screen covering key events in these years (e.g., attempted assassination of Napoleon III, Crimean War, Paris Commune). For unfamiliar words she leaves the podium and adds words to a running list on front board. She spices up lecture with anecdotes (e.g., in 1870, hungry Parisians under siege from German army break into the city zoo and eat the animals). At one point says to class, “I have been kicked offline, the Internet is not working.” A moment later, she is back online and continues the lecture. Students listen and click away.

During the lecture, Denniston reminds students to complete the review worksheet that she gave them earlier on mid-19th century conservatism, liberalism, and nationalism. Students near me whose screens I can see are taking notes on their devices. Some pull down the worksheet on their screen to fill in the blank spaces as she lectures. Four students ask different questions to get facts straight. At the end of the lecture on France’s Third Republic, Denniston announces that the class will return to working on the “Oldcast.” Groans and murmurs course through the room.

The assignment is for students to pair up and use a TV “newscast” format to create a stories about mid-19th century France based on topics in their textbook, what they found on the Internet, or from Denniston’s lectures. Thus, an “Oldcast.” Two students volunteer to give their “Oldcast” in the form of an interview between a mid-19th century factory owner and a worker. The two students carry their open tablets to the front of the room and read from their screens the scripted dialogue they had written. Their “Oldcast” lasts less than five minutes. Class applauds the two students. Denniston then asks students to work in pairs and finish the worksheet or continue working on their “Oldcast.” A moment before the bell rings, as students put away devices, Denniston reminds students of homework; they exit as period ends.


In Denniston’s AP class, BYOD worked. The school’s technical capacity to accommodate different devices–except for the brief moment the teacher went offline–was in place during the period I was there. The familiar flow of an AP class’s activities (or most history classes for that matter)–short lecture, whole group Q & A, students taking notes, filling in blanks on the worksheet, students participating in pairs to do “Oldcast”–was seamless for the 50 minute period. I did not note any students who were off-task. Denniston was using the technology to enhance her lesson.

In Part 2, I discuss the pluses of BYOD that Denniston and others see. There are decided advantages to BYOD. And disadvantages also that, for now, make it unworkable in many other schools.






Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

12 responses to “A History Class Using Bring-Your-Own-Devices (BYOD)

  1. David

    I teach AP Euro (to seniors) and things like “Oldcasts” make me cringe. AP Euro is an opportunity not only to cover content that the students are likely unfamiliar with, but also to have them engage with some of the authors of the periods being covered. Rather than develop some tech-oriented assignment in the name of engagement, how about having the student wrestle with Goethe, Pushkin, Lermontov or Percy Bysshe Shelley? When I got to the period you describe, I covered a number of shorter pieces of literature and philosophy (and yes, we hit Kant, Hegel Schopenhauer and Nietzsche).

    Just to highlight that tech can be useful, one of the poems I chose was Ozymandius–we discussed it within its historical context, but then I showed them a video by Paul Kalanthi, the Standford neurosurgeon who recently passed away. In the clip, Kalanthi talks about his musings on life and death, and then goes into a reading of Ozymandius–started by him but finished by his daughter. Very powerful and created a different way to think about the text. But, the text has to be presented for students to get it…


    • larrycuban

      Neither you or I, David, know what Sarah Denniston (pseudonym) did in her AP European History class since I reported on only the one 50-minute class. She may well have used the sources that you believe essential in such a course. Nice link between Paul Kalanthi and Ozymandias. Thanks for comment.

      • David

        Hi Larry–yes, of course you are right. I suppose I have a visceral reaction nowadays to these sorts of things. What you observed smacks to me of “engagement=learning” or some of the stuff peddled by 21st Century Skills conulstants (we were required last summer to read a loathesome book about how we should all be having students blog, develop youtube videos etc instead of writing papers). It would be interesting for you to follow up with the question of what texts pseudo-Sarah worked with and at what length.

        The Kalanthi video is tough–knowing that he died last month and thinking about his musings makes for powerful stuff. In my eyes, this is the best that technology has to offer–a powerful narrative which can tie together something from our past to the present in a visual manner that keeps students’ atttention and is available to anyone with an internet connection.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for the comment, David.

  2. I cannot talk about BYOD in history but I can talk about BYOD in Math and Programming. In programming if they do not have a laptop I loan them one for the class and I make them administrators on the laptop. They have to install the software for the language we are using and troubleshoot the install (if there is trouble). It does take up some time as opposed to a computer lab but the kids can now work on programming assignment at home. In math full time computer access requires a big shift in what you want the kids to learn. I teach the kids WolframAlpha on day one then try to demonstrate the computer cannot think for them. Factoring trinomials is a minimum wage job, what to do with the factors is where the bucks are.

    Our whole school is BYOD. There are a couple of labs for testing and for the kids that do not own or do not bring a device. As the IT guy I have less problems with the BYOD than I do with the laps. Kids have a tendency to take better care of their own device than the school device.

    When the kids leave high school almost everything will be BYOD. Why would a high school not educate their students for this world?

  3. Wilson Lambert

    Hi Larry, I am anxious to see the disadvantages in Part 2

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