Over the past couple of years I’ve noticed the edtech community getting caught up in a number of different issues that, at least from my point of view, aren’t issues at all – at least not in the way most school leaders think anyway. Last year the most prominent concern was internet filtering and debates about duty of care and online safety and what-not. What an absurd idea that you can filter the internet in 2012 (or 2011 for that matter). How about we think about our duty to educate and work to develop the moral compass young people need to navigate the wholly unfiltered big bad world we live in instead?
This year the bee in people’s collective bonnet is BYOD (or BYOT if you prefer) – bring your own device. Similar to those who think they can filter the internet (ever heard of phone tethering?), schools which believe they can “introduce” a BYOD program are living in another time. The majority of secondary students carry a smartphone of some description whether the school “allows” them to or not, so the notion that a school could somehow stop this (or indeed introduce it) is just a bit silly.
What is a device anyway?
Is it a laptop or Tablet PC? Or perhaps a phone or iPod touch or maybe it’s an iPad or an Android tablet? Some have the opinion that these devices are interchangeable and that a BYOD iPad or Android tablet program is a replacement for a laptop program. From the outset it is important to state that I am not one of these people and as much as I see the iPad (and devices like it) have their place, they just aren’t quite the creative enabler that laptops are – at least not yet.
Thinking about why we have a 1:1 program helps flesh this out. We see presentation, word processing, spread sheeting, web browsing, communicating, email and calendar handling as basic functionality which would be reasonably adequately met with an iPad or similar (some of those functions would require the addition of a bluetooth keyboard to be really viable though – hang on, isn’t that a netbook?). The addition of a myriad of apps available offer a breadth of other functionality of varying levels of suitability and significance, but the iPad and other capacitive touch tablets and devices fall short in a number of significant areas. I don’t think we should compromise curriculum with an “almost good enough” computer even if it is the right weight and price.
Having a computer to yourself – 1:1 as it has become called – helps ensure you are empowered to follow many more paths than you might otherwise have been able to had you not had the computer at the moment you needed it.
To help contextualise this for adults who more often than not enjoy access to a variety of devices, imagine having to do *all* of what you have to do on a smartphone or an iPad/Android tablet style of device. For most this would be a source of frustration – many basic needs are met, but a computer like an iPad is actually engineered for specific tasks and make other tasks more difficult or not possible. Why is this device OK for students if it is difficult or impossible to carry out tasks required by the curriculum (or the learner’s imagination)? It isn’t OK. Schools need to ensure that students have their own PC or Mac which can meet all of the needs of the curriculum as a minimum – hopefully this is a minimum.
BYOD – it just doesn’t work for learning
Straight up, from a learning and teaching point of view, BYOD is a bad idea. I can say this with conviction because my school has been running a “student owned program” since 1993. We are currently two years into a transition away from the BYOD model we’ve had for nearly 20 years. Here’s why:
Since 1993 our school has recommended machines which meet the academic needs of the school curriculum. Around 85% (±5%) of families opt for this machine and purchase the recommended model from the recommended supplier. This allows us to formulate a standard software load and to manage and support these machines efficiently – important with only a small staff (3 – 2 technical, one administrative) and more than 1300 computers to maintain. The other 15% buy/bring all sorts of computers which we are unable to support (see disproportionate labour sink below) beyond initial connection and configuration.
The impact of this in the classroom is roughly 3-4 kids with a machine which may or may not have the software needed and may or may not actually be working when needed. Experience has shown that “non-standard” machines take longer to be repaired (recommended model machines are serviced same day on site with loan machines available while non-standard machine service times can range from a couple of days to many weeks) and as a result are more often the machines which aren’t at the ready when needed. There are a variety of reasons for this (return to base service models, insurance claims, apathy, etc.), but the impact on the student is the same: a compromised academic program and more work for teaching staff to compensate.
It would be remiss of me to suggest that this is the case for all students. There have been many students/families that have used non-standard computers and support arrangements at our school with no perceptible difference in their learning experience. It is important to note however that these students were organised and motivated – they wanted it to work and took steps to ensure that it did.
Having a working machine is a big deal and the best way to ensure machines are working as often as possible is to localise support and standardise the model.
Students have to largely manage themselves with a BYOD model and they often find themselves caught in a support limbo. Many of those who opt for a non-standard device in our environment do so because they believe they can get the same result for less money. At buying time insurance and support just don’t seem to factor into some people’s thinking and when something goes wrong the student finds themselves negotiating with their parents to pay for the repair or buy a replacement computer. This process is often laboured as the cause of the damage or problem is usually as a result of poor management (whether real or perceived) and parents are often slow to respond. Reading this you may think that this is a rare occurrence, but time and time again we have come up against this problem with the consequence usually being a distressed student caught between his parents making a point and the school attempting to resolve this nuts and bolts problem so it can get on with the business of teaching and learning – in short, it is distraction.
I repeat, having a working machine is a big deal and the best way to ensure machines are working as often as possible is to localise support and standardise the model.
As non-standard machines all require individual attention, they represent a significant and disproportionate volume of work carried out by school support staff, particularly at high stress times of the year. The efficiencies of a standard device allows support staff to streamline processes and which ultimately lead to a reduced support overhead.
Software licensing is not always possible
I’ve written about this before, but in brief, software vendors (at least for the time being) often won’t license software for machines not managed by the school and often charge much more for devices owned by students. There are ways around this with application virtualisation or by using alternate software titles, but frankly the best way to keep costs down and to minimise tiresome software management red tape is to standardise the computer model.
BYOOD – a common sense approach
So what is the answer? As I said above, I think schools need to go into bat for students and ensure they have the right tool to meet the broad needs of modern learners (and dreamers). So a Mac or PC sourced and serviced centrally by the school for all the reasons outlined above will ensure the technology is going to work when needed.
But what of the other devices which populate the lives and pockets of an ever increasing number amongst us? iPads and Android tablets, smartphones and iPod touches etc. all have a lot to offer in an educational context, but schools persist with banning them or restricting their use. These other devices are what I would think would be best be brought and managed by students and teachers – like I said in the second paragraph of this post, they already are. A change of policy enables these devices and to my way of thinking is just a common sense approach.
Bring Your Own *Other* Device ensures students have the tools they need for the job at hand.