If your school is like most, your teachers and staff are probably been fighting the influx of student-owned cell phones, tablets, and other devices in the classroom. You’ve likely set firm rules on when and how they can be used. Or maybe you’ve banned them altogether.
You may be surprised to learn, though, that many schools are going in the opposite direction. They’re not just allowing devices; they’re openly encouraging them. In fact, some schools have suggested they may even mandate that students bring their own cell phone or tablet into class.
Why? Given all the potential for distraction that cell phones create, why would schools embrace their presence in the classroom?
Some school leaders view the integration of electronic devices into the classroom as a positive educational tool. Rather than fight it, they’ve accepted it. And they’ve done so with a new policy called BYOD, which stands for “bring your own device.”
BYOD is quickly gaining traction. If your school hasn’t addressed it yet, the odds are good that you will sometime in the near future. If your staff, teachers and parents are asking, "Is it too early for BYOD for schools?" I say the answer is no. It's not too early.
Why BYOD could be a good for your school
There are two major reasons why schools are adopting BYOD policies. The first is purely practical. In recent years, schools have struggled with how to best adopt new mobile technology into the learning environment. For many schools, the default answer has been to hand out laptops, tablets or mini-laptops like Chromebooks.
However, that approach comes with a couple of big challenges. First, it’s costly. Technology changes so fast that many schools find that they constantly buy new devices just to keep up. According to some administrators, handing out devices is an impossible task due to the costs and attendant technical support required.
George Spencer Academy in Nottinghamshire, England has embraced the BYOD approach. According to the school’s vice principal, Paul Hynes, cost was a major factor. He said, “It is not sustainable to keep buying technology and giving it to the students.”
The other obvious major benefit is the pure computing power that many devices offer. Cell phones used to be only distractions. Their only purpose was to make or receive calls or to text. Now, that’s all changed. Students can use to phones to make in-class videos, take shared notes on apps like Evernote, or log-in to school-wide virtual classroom applications.
Teachers and administrators are starting to see that kids can accomplish much more on their own powerful devices than they ever could on the school-provided devices. Roger Broadie is a former teacher and is now a consultant and board member with Naace, which is an IT education association.
He says that student-owned devices offer “hugely more tools, hugely more resources, and hugely more opportunities for collaboration and conversation.” He added that, “If children have a device in their pockets that can add to their learning, it would be a crime not to use it.”
Some have gone so far as to say that schools have an obligation to encourage students to use their devices in the classroom. In a recent article in Wired, Tim Panagos, CTO of technology company point.io, compared electronic learning to reading and writing. He said that writing was at one time a new technology. He correctly points out that it would be unthinkable today to deny a student the opportunity to learn how to write.
Panagos asserts that in as few as 10 years, it will be “considered just as unthinkable to deprive children of their computational tools,” like cell phones and tablets.
I say that may be more like five years. Two, even.
The challenges of BYOD
I think back to just a couple years ago when my son’s school was rumored to have a ‘block’ on all cell activity. In fact, it was just the unfortunate location that put the school in between cell tower range. The students thought big brother was cramping their style.
Now that schools and many others are doing all they can to become wired (and with the new e-rate wi-fi initiative, which we’ll explore in an upcoming article in the Campus Suite blog), mobile devices and accommodating them are transforming school communications.
For all the benefits that BYOD may offer, there are some very real challenges. Teachers are often concerned that the devices will be used for non-learning purposes. Parents may be concerned that students will use their devices to access inappropriate information or to bully each other online. And students may be concerned with digital envy, that is – not every kids will be able to afford the latest and greatest device.
Personally, I subscribe to the theory that a bully in 2014 is no different than a bully from my grandfather's era.
Experts offer some useful suggestions for dealing with these issues. Katie Lepi in her primer on BYOD in the classroom maintains that students are much more engaged when they’re using technology. Educational writer Sarah Tomczyk recently wrote on Blackboard that schools can take a five-step approach to implementing a BYOD program. Those five steps include:
5 steps to getting started with BYOD
- Run a pilot program with a small population set to work out the kinks.
- Give teachers extensive training on how to effectively integrate devices into the classroom.
- Inform parents and students about the policies.
- Track metrics to ensure that you’re meeting goals.
- Don’t be afraid to change.
One of the points that’s repeated in Tomczyk’s article that not all students have the same access to technology. She cited several schools that had set up leasing programs to help those students. Some had even set up funds to provide free devices to students who couldn’t afford their own.
Of course, a big obstacle may be teacher resistance to having a potential distraction in the classroom. Electronic devices can be powerful teaching tools, but only if the teacher knows how to leverage them.
Teacher and blogger Tom Daccord recently wrote on Edudemic that the best way to manage distractions is to have an engaging lesson. He said that it’s possible for teachers and schools to restrict device access and monitor activity. However, he doesn’t recommend that tactic:
I rarely indulge in discussions of “Big Brother” tools and strategies. Instead, I ask teachers to consider the most important truism regarding screen distractions: The best classroom management tool is a good lesson.
If the activity is engaging and challenging, there is an authentic audience, and prescribed time limits, students won’t mess around.
I see it at work regularly in my PD workshops. The more time I spend “teaching” teachers something from the front of the room, the more inclined they are to check email, Facebook, or whatever. The more time they spend learning actively in a challenging and engaging activity, the less they go off task. Add in the possibility that they they’ll have to present to the entire class, or post their creation online, and they’re even more focused.
There is also the very real possibility that students could use the devices to access inappropriate content or even to bully other students. There’s no way to completely eliminate this possibility, but there are ways to manage it.
One of the best methods is to ask students to be accountable and responsible for their online activities. Digital Citizenship recently offered a “Family Digital Contract” that kids should sign before getting the privilege of using an electronic device. That contract could be a model for a similar school-based version. It asks kids to be accountable for their activities and to alert parents or teachers if they notice anything inappropriate.
BYOD and the bigger picture
School administrators need to think strategically about how to incorporate BYOD into their school or district. Learning management, student information and content management systems need to be factored into the mix, along with the IT and hardware requirements to support this integration.
School’s cannot shoulder the cost of keeping each and every student up to date with mobile technology. That’s where parents, individual accountability, and partnerships with the community and business can help. Tandem this student-centered responsibility with the school’s obligation to be ‘wired’ with the right hardware and software, and your school will be equipped to adapt to the ever-changing technological landscape of school digital communications.
I liken these devices to school supplies of yesteryear. The stocking up on No. 2 pencils, notebooks, erasers, rulers was always the responsibility of the student and family, so why shouldn’t students bring the 21st-century supplies to school? BYOD is not only a good thing, it’s going to be a necessary thing. As necessary as the No. 2 pencil was.
The thought of students actively using devices in the classroom may be a bit scary. Many school administrators say, though, that BYOD is inevitable. You can fight it or you can look for ways to embrace it. If you’re not having this conversation, it may be time to consider the possibility.
Marketing director and content strategist for Campus Suite, Jay’s a former school public relations specialist who’s helped businesses, schools and colleges use the power of web communications to improve their image, generate support, and optimize relationships. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him @jay4schools.