Should Schools Embrace "Bring Your Own Device"?

Ushering classrooms into the 21st century is an expensive undertaking, but painful budget cuts have made purchasing tablet computers, iPod Touches, Kindles and other devices unfeasible, say district officials. So schools are asking students to “BYOD,” or Bring Your Own Device. Over the past year, BYOD or BYOT (Bring Your Own Technology) programs have been piloted in Ohio, Minnesota, Texas and Georgia, with more states possibly on the way.

Although some BYOD programs have been successful and district officials insist that they are the best and only available option, many teachers and public education advocates are left wondering, where will BYOD lead? As schools across the country lose potentially more funding, are students and their families now supposed to make up the difference? How will the prevalence of these devices affect the classroom?

Shelly Gould Burgess, a physics teacher in Avon Lake, Ohio, says the BYOD program at her school has been very successful.

“Until that point, educators said ‘you can’t use your phones, you can’t use these things,” she said. “But now we’re using them for education.”

Gould Burgess said the administration was very open to comments from teachers about how BYOD would work in their classrooms, and they were happy to work with them. The technology director trained teachers on using the devices and installed wireless networks, and teachers who had expertise with a particular device or technology hosted workshops to show other teachers how to use the device.

Gould Burgess teaches in a “flipped classroom,” so students do what she calls their “lower-level thinking” for homework, and come to school prepared to start problem solving. She records her lectures as podcasts, and students listen to them as homework. When they come to class, they’re ready to start working on their physics exercises. Gould Burgess helps them with their assignments, and if one group of students needs her help but she’s busy with another group, she can tell them to pull up the lecture on their iPad or other device until she’s available.

“There’s never an excuse to be idle,” Gould Burgess said, “because there’s always information available.”

In most BYOD pilot programs, students have to sign some sort of agreement to only use the device during class time for specific projects. Students can sometimes log on to “guest” wireless networks to get around website blocks, and teachers still need to be present in the classroom to help students learn from the new technology.

“Kids can watch my podcast online, but they’ll still have questions,” Gould Burgess said. “If I’m not there to answer them, then learning stops.”

In the Avon Lake district, Gould Burgess said their technology director helped teachers learn how to use the devices. Then, teachers who had expertise in certain devices, websites or technologies would host workshops for other teachers. Not every school has these resources, and Gould Burgess said she is extremely lucky to work in an environment where there is so much collaboration between teachers and administrators.

Not every district has the resources to properly train teachers to use the devices students will bring in, especially those that have already faced large budget cuts. A BYOD program could save money if implemented properly, but tossing teachers into a BYOD environment without any training wouldn’t be very effective.

“Without proper planning, implementation and professional development,” explained Andrea Prejean, associate director of the National Education Association’s education policy and practice department, “BYOD may not work as people had hoped. And guess what? The teacher will probably get blamed. It’s not fair that schools invite students to bring these devices and expect student achievement to improve just because these technologies are in the classroom.”

In addition, BYOD programs could increase the digital divide that earlier one-to-one initiatives were meant to narrow. Students who need to borrow a device from the school should be able to do so without facing any kind of stigma.

“Forget being teased for clothing choices, now, perhaps it is because the child cannot afford the next-gen iPad, or the phone they have is only an old Nokia,” said Charlie Osborne, a writer for iGeneration and ZDNet.

BYOD could present other hazards as well. When students bring their own devices, cyberbullying and other problems associated with social media may come with them. Many students, for example, don’t understand how much they should share online, and they could end up posting information that could jeopardize their academic, or even professional, futures.

These and other pitfalls highlight the importance of a careful and thorough review of schools’ acceptable use policies – one of the critical steps districts must take if they are to open their school doors to mobile devices and social media. Jim Bosco and Keith Krueger of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) recommend schools devise a “responsible use policy” that treats the student as a person responsible for ethical and healthy use of online content. “Included in this education process is gaining a disposition to avoid inappropriate and malicious sites,” Bosco and Krueger recently wrote in Education Week, “as well as the skill to assess the validity of information found on the Internet or passed along by others via social networking.”

But that is just one step. A 2012 CoSN report (which included contributions by NEA) urged schools to take the opportunity presented by greater access to mobile devices to educate students about online safety and security. This can succeed when partnered with robust professional development for teachers that extends beyond technical skills to encompass critical thinking and digital literacy.

With the proper policies and ground rules in place – and the program doesn’t exist merely to cut costs and corners – BYOD can work for educators and students. If banning mobile devices increasingly becomes an outdated option, districts must ensure that schools have the tools and resources to create safe and constructive learning environments.