Does BYOD Solve or Worsen K-12 Tech Woes?

Over the weekend, educator and journalist Gary Stager penned a fiery blog post calling BYOD (“bring your own device”) the “worst idea of the 21st century.” Stager’s post is a response to the increasing popularity among K-12 schools to allow students to bring their own computers to schools, whether they’re laptops, netbooks, iPads, or cellphones.

Stager, who has been an advocate for one-to-one computing initiatives for about as long as the concept has been around, argues that by opting to support BYOD, schools are eschewing their responsibilities to provide students with equitable access to technology. Among his complaints: BYOD “enshrines inequality” by allowing affluent classmates to have better tools than others. Furthermore, it reduces the potential of computers in the classroom to the lowest common denominator — or lowest common technology specifications — present. In other words, if you have a classroom that’s a mix of iPads, laptops, and clamshell mobile phones, he argues, you’re going to devise activities for the “weakest device.” And oftentimes that’ll mean using these devices solely for information retrieval — “looking stuff up on the Internet.”

BYOD, Stager contends, “contributes to the growing narrative that education is not worthy of investment.” Recognizing that making the pitch for buying “one of something for every student” is challenging, Stager argues that that’s the pitch that educators must make, rather than simply relying on parents to fund the purchase of their children’s technology in the classroom.

No doubt, allowing students to bring their own devices to school does highlight income inequalities (of course, there are a myriad of ways in which income inequalities manifest themselves based on what’s in a student’s backpack — or even what that backpack looks like). Seeing the range of devices that students can and do bring to school is certainly a good reminder that the digital divide remains. (Of course, seeing the ancient PCs in some schools’ computer labs is a depressing exercise as well.) And while it’s easy, perhaps, to peg schools’ embrace of BYOD as a sly move to offload technology hardware procurement onto parents, I’m not sure that’s an adequate or complete assessment of what’s actually happening.

I don’t actually think that schools are trying to implement one-to-one programs without buying the necessary tech. I think there’s a difference — one not just of technology but of pedagogy — between one-to-one programs and between crafting more lenient policies about which personal computing devices students are allowed to bring to school.

That being said, once we have opened the doors to BYOD, there are a lot of important considerations, some of which Stager alludes to. How will we make sure that students with “inferior” devices don’t suffer? And I don’t just mean suffer ridicule. How will we tackle that very thorny problem of making sure that all lessons, projects, assignments, e-textbooks and so on are accessible across platforms, across devices?

In fact, I’d say that could be one of the major side effects of BYOD, and a benefit at that. I’m hopeful BYOD can help challenge some of the vendor lock-in with software that, say, only works on Windows, or only works on iPads. I hope this is something that will drive schools to the Web versus native apps.

Of course, I think this is also the thing that causes schools balk at BYOD more than any promise of saving money on buying hardware: allowing BYOD gives students an element of personal control and responsibility they don’t often feel with the equipment — digital or print — that’s assigned them by schools. How do you handle what software they use? How do you handle which browser they use? Students own these devices — they aren’t handed back at the end of the day; they aren’t checked in and out for the weekend; they aren’t returned at the end of the school year.

I tend to think, as more K-12 students own some sort of mobile computing device, that BYOD will be an inevitability. I’m not sure it’ll be the laptop or the netbook that students will bring to school either. I think it’ll be a cellphone (a device that Stager views as vastly inferior to the laptop or netbook). After all, last year’s Speak Up 2010 report pegged cellphone ownership of middle schoolers at over 50%. An additional 34% said they own a smartphone. Both figures are sure to rise, but it’s the latter I think that will seal the deal for BYOD. While true, many might look at the small screen, the lack of keyboard and peripheries on an iPhone and say, “This will never work for schoolwork!”, I’ve seen Arduino devices running on iPhones. I’ve seen Androids used — via App Inventor — to teach basic programming. I think we’re still just beginning to see innovation around mobile devices.

Nevertheless, some of the challenges that Stager point out ring true. And they’re the challenges, I think, that face almost every one-to-one program. They’re challenges that exist whether students own or “rent” their hardware from districts for the duration of the school year. How do we effectively bring technology into the classroom? How do we use it to enable learning, inquisitiveness, curiosity, problem-solving? How do we weigh schools’ desire for centralized control with the fact that these are personal computing devices? And, of course, how do we make sure that everyone — from school districts to families — can have access to high-quality technology and to high-speed Internet?

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About Audrey Watters

Audrey Watters is a writer and rabble-rouser. Her work appears in O'Reilly Radar, KQED's MindShift, and Inside Higher Ed, as well as on her own blog Hack Education. For more information, see her profile page.
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5 Responses to Does BYOD Solve or Worsen K-12 Tech Woes?

  1. Gary Stager says:

    We don’t disagree on the large points and I said over and over again that kids bringing their own computer is inevitable.

    That said, policy is a different kettle of fish and setting policy that enshrines inequity and teacher frustration is wrong-headed.

  2. Richard from Cygnus says:

    I don’t think there should be an issue with BYOD. Most computing devices are very personal affairs. We shouldn’t be using this initiative to create some kind of electronic communism where everyone is forced to use a device that may be in appropriate.

    That being said, every device that is brought in should conform to a minimum feature set. Smartphones aren’t going to allow kids to make presentations effectively, although PCs, Macs and iPads will.

    In addition, schools should be in a position to either subsidize the cost of buying material, or loaning out material to families who either can’t afford it or are not willing to purchase such devices for school use.

  3. I have removed a comment because it was a blatant product pitch, which I consider to be spam. I tend to be relatively permissive in terms of vendor comments that are topical, but when half the post is on the specs of the solution, that is too much.

  4. Pingback: Five Signals | Scott's Workblog

  5. Tom Metge says:

    There are two principle concerns around which both this and the originating post revolve: inequality and pedagogy as they relate to technology.

    Actions taken to address inequality should stem from a desire to raise the lowest common denominator and put in students hands the tools they need to succeed. This is a discussion that goes well beyond technology, as Audrey mentioned. I can’t help but also wonder if this is more a matter of philosophy than pedagogy.

    The thorniest issue of all is the place of technology in learning environments. It is a question of pedagogy. The very term “devices” detracts from this question. Gary, in his original post, is right to distinguish between a full computer and a so-called smart phone or “device”. As right as it is to consider the capabilities of a device or platform, the real question, the problem we must solve, is how and even if technology aids in teaching and learning.

    I think we tend to go about this the wrong way. We see an iPad and get lost in its magical capabilities (and marketing message). We try and adapt the way we teach and the way we interact with students to accommodate this shiny new device. Too few of us take technology on its genuine merits.

    This is understandable; to effectively augment teaching and learning with technology, our teachers must be technologists in their own right. This can be very far from their own personal expertise and interests. This, I think, is the real problem with BYOD: it simply requires too much of our teachers.

    This is an excellent conversation to have but the real concern is pedagogical: we must decide how or if technology should be used in teaching. We can’t expect our teachers to know the ins and outs of every device on the market and how to improve their teaching accordingly. The policy nightmare that faces us is one that, in the end, should help teachers with this very thorny problem.

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