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?