George Lucas Educational Foundation
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I was recently asked, "Why are you giving the teachers choice of a laptop? Why not just go all in with one device?" My answer, simply stated, is that homogenization of any tool is never a good idea in a context that is intended to foster creativity.

The same argument is underway with the Common Core. Many fear that we are homogenizing educational standards and limiting opportunity for creativity, hacking and boundless exploration. That explains the viral popularity of Ethan Young, a Tennessee student who, at a school board meeting, provided an eloquent breakdown of what the Common Core really is and how it is affecting teachers. His points are valid, but the same points have been raised for years in education only to fall upon the deaf ears of bureaucrats.

However, this post is not about Common Core or educational politics. This is about devices that are entering school districts and classrooms at a consistent pace. I've had the opportunity to play a role in two such deployments. The first was a 1:1 iPad launch in Burlington Public Schools in 2011, and the second is Chromebook and iPad deployment at Groton-Dunstable Regional School District. In both experiences, I've seen students and teachers adapt to devices in a variety of ways. However, not all adaptations are positive.

Standardization vs. Real Life

A lot of schools make the mistake of trying to control every aspect of technology integration. Students want to choose their own device and not have something mandated and regulated. When you consider that 38 percent of U.S. children under age two have used an iPad, iPhone or iPod, there is an expectation that as these students move through school, they'll have some type of device in hand. What's more, students will want to use something that they're familiar with, that they own, and that they won't have to change out of once they leave school.

The best analogy is the case for school uniforms, which has always sparked a debate regardless of the decade or century. Schools tell students what they have to wear, and students do it. Research and data drive the decision, and it just happens. However, once students leave school, they want their identity back. The same can be said for technology in schools. Yes, homogenization of devices allows everyone the chance to start out on the same footing, but eventually schools need to open up and let students own the device and, inevitably, own their learning.

As schools plan large-scale technology rollouts, they should begin by considering what would be best for the student population. Standardization happens enough in school systems as it is, and this is an opportunity to provoke real change in education and provide tools that are familiar, linked and accessible. This move also frees schools from the "what device works best?" dilemma and moves the conversation toward "what provides the best impact on teaching and learning?" Brand or design no longer matters. Plus, technology use should not be the banner for any school -- rather, it should be something that just happens every day.

Listening to the Stakeholders

As the director of technology, it is my job to listen to administrators, teachers, students and parents, and find out what system works best for our schools. The conversation started with infrastructure and transitioning to Google Apps for Edu. Along with these changes, we brought in Chromebooks and iPads, as well as some Nexus 7 and Surface tablets. These purchases happened with a generous warrant article passed by the towns of Groton and Dunstable. The ripple effect of this grant had immediate impact throughout the district and will continue to reverberate for some time.

My next challenge will be sustaining this momentum without overwhelming everyone involved. On the table right now is a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) option for high school students. After talking with the aforementioned stakeholders in our school district, it seems like the obvious choice. And the plan will be very simple: give students the opportunity to bring in their own devices (district will support those who don't have their own) and access our network. And that's it. We'll give students and parents a "storefront" that includes educational pricing, payment plans, and minimum specs that we suggest for student devices. Teachers will have that "technology option" at their disposal, but without feeling that it's a district initiative encroaching on their autonomy.

After a good debate with my friend Tony Baldasaro about technology needing to be less of an add-on and more of a constant, I clarified some thoughts that I've discussed here. Technology doesn't need to be involved if a teacher is already flourishing without any device in the classroom. Standardizing a device across an entire school pushes the feeling of an "add-on" and must be used consistently and effectively. Many times that usage is contrived and misses the purpose of the classroom. In short, it becomes technology for technology's sake. In higher education, professors don't contrive technology use, and students can choose whether or not to use a device. The focus is less about the devices and more about the best tool on the menu for learning.

Choice and Trust

And that's where we need to be in K-12. This isn’t to say rolling out a singular device is wrong, but it simply presents another option for schools to consider. If you eliminate the standardization factor, you take the pressure off teachers to use a device they may not need. Plus, a teacher may do really well without any device. And that, in itself, is just as innovative as integrating an iPad or Chromebook. We need to promote more choice in technology usage and trust that students and teachers will work well in any environment. But giving choice makes it less about the device and more about the learning.

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Karen Mahon's picture
Karen Mahon
Founder & President of Balefire Labs

I love the idea of makes sense for so many reasons, not least of which is that so many kids already own these devices. But the big challenge I see in the market is that there are still relatively few apps that are cross-platform, leading to the kind of frustration that Steve expresses, above. It can be very expensive for app developers to build for more than one platform (as it is, they need to sell at huge volumes just to support one platform, given the low price points of apps); given the current smart device penetration in classrooms, many opt just for iOS.

I think before BYOD can be truly successful we need to see the big players in this space (i.e., Apple, Google) agree to a rigorous set of interoperability standards for their platforms so that app devs can build one version of an app that can run in both. Until then, it's just not sustainable for a classroom teacher to manage different platforms and different versions of platforms (as in the case of Android).

Renee Stewart's picture

I am not completely sure about BOYD, it could be very difficult for schools to resource IT support personnel that can cover the possible breadth of devices. Also I think this is even more intimidating for the classroom teacher struggling with IT integration. Perhaps with small devices like smartphones it would be more manageable than with laptops.

Really resonated though with the call for the focus to be on learning, technology to be an embedded in its use, a possibility always there but only one of the options. I think we will have achieved this when our students no longer show higher levels of excitement when lessons involve technology; when assignment choices mean as many students choose analog tools as digital tools for both the path of learning and for showcasing.

Chris Stengel's picture
Chris Stengel
Technology Director at Mt. Lebanon School District (Pittsburgh, PA)

Sometimes I think it's refreshing to consider that the teacher doesn't NEED to be conversant in either Movie Maker or iMovie. Rather, the teacher can be responsible for guiding the students' learning with projects that can utilize movie-making or not...and if the students have questions about the particular in's or out's of a software program, there's always better yet, a fellow student who has already figured that question out.

Presto Laptop's picture
Presto Laptop
adult educator (as opposed to simply, "adult")

Schools don't usually have unlimited material resources. BYOD must be run in a way that costs no more or even much less than supplying standard equipment.

If you expect the institution to support and maintain your equipment, have the good grace to accept a degree of standardization. In other words, if you depend on support personnel to keep your rig running, follow their guidance. Supporting myriad different platforms or different versions of a single platform quickly becomes VERY expensive.

If you are going to put a device on the organization's network, you are responsible for licensing ($) and maintaining malware protection software--yes, even if you use a Mac. (Macs are fully capable of carrying malware that threatens Windows computers; some malware threatens iOS devices).

Dennis McElroy's picture

When it was about laptops and desktops I was all about diversity. When it comes to tablets not so much. What the author forgets is the teacher and the students. How? The teacher should be integrating technology as a seamless part of their teaching. It's not only part of our national standards, but it is just good practice. The TPACK model is the perfect example of this integration. With BYOD, staff development becomes much more difficult. Planning curriculum that incorporates BYOD is dumbed down because what might be available in one device isn't available on another. We end up playing to the lowest common denominator. What about the students? It's called opportunity. Many families cannot afford to purchase a device even with financing made available by the school. If it's about saving money for the school then why not pass on other expenses to the parents such as textbooks, athletic uniforms, etc.? Some students will have better devices while others have minimalistic ones. It's not the same situation as it was a decade ago when software was readily available for nearly any OS. Instead, it's hit and miss and that means the workload for teachers having to research what apps are available for 3-4 OS's increases dramatically.

Personally I would much rather work in a BYOD world, but since those worlds are dramtically different, more so than ever before, the 1:1 is still the best decision.

Sue J's picture

You say that uniforms are analogous, but what students wear is not what they use to actively engage in learning, though I would hope that an awful lot of the school day wasn't spent face-to-screen.
I'm missing the part where I hear about just how a whole bunch of different devices can be used in different ways and the teacher can keep track of that. I envision (this going screamingly contrary to the other article recently linked to about " Democratized Entrepreneurship") The Major EduCorporations having the funding to create educational content that can be delivered via their proprietary apps on an assortment of devices. Where a teacher could have found a resource to use... now it's got to be usable on everybody's assorted devices. Flash? Oops, not on those I-things.
Where I work, one of the arguments in favor of ALEKS for math is that students can access it on their phones.
However, having to have content adaptable to a zillion devices has *got* to limit its quality (ALEKS sticks to straight procedural, drill-and-practice stuff). Technology has so much more potential!

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

We've been struggling with this in our district. teh problem is that since macbooks are phased out, the higher point mac book pro isn't sustainable and the mac airs aren't as powerful as needed, so switching to a PC based system for teachers has become a reality. As for students, kids in our district almost all have phones, and many of them are smartphones. Having kids move to tablets and BYOD for classroom work helps with district expenses, but does significantly up the issues if a teacher wanted to work on a particular app, for example, that might not be cross platform.
As a result, what we're trying to do is to move everyone to web-based apps and functions- Google apps, web based services, etc. that are device agnostic. This way, everyone can make their choice about price and interface, and they also take the burden of support, and the District is left with the task of supporting broadband wifi everywhere, a reasonable firewall, and help for teachers when needed, but the web does the rest.
This makes chromebooks, tablets, and even phones usable, although larger screen size is necessary for assessments. We're going to have to get parents involved, and talk to them about minimal device requirements to make this work as well, which ,will be an interesting conversation to have.

MacloviaG's picture
Seventh grade science teacher

I think that allowing students to bring their own devices is a good idea. Our school has very limited resources and cannot provide each student with a device. It will probably take a couple more years until they can make this happen. Meanwhile, I think students should be allowed to bring their own devices in the classroom. Not everyone will have one that is fact. Most definitively, having them work independently would not be possible but the devices could prove useful for collaborative assignments for instance, and probably other kind of projects.

Dennis McElroy's picture

I'm honestly surprised at the view of both the MacBook Pro and Air. The MacBook Pro is a pretty low entry point for a pretty powerful machine and the Air is pretty robust itself. I'm not sure in what area it is underpowered for things K-12 students will be doing.

I'm not sure the move to web based apps is a good solution either. The upside is everyone can use them. The downside is (a) they are very limited in availability, (b) limited functionality versus device based apps, (c) they depend on the internet which increases district costs to have bandwidth capable of handling this traffic, and (d) they limit what we can ask students to do or imagine they can do. In essence making this decision goes against the very argument being made about switching from Mac to PC based systems.

CarolynNicole's picture

I've been using BYOD for a few years in my classroom and have been happy with the results. I do provide my students with options to not use technology as well this way no one can complain.

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