Technology Integration

Why BYOD Makes Sense: Thinking Beyond a Standardized 1:1

December 11, 2013
Photo credit: lukew via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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.

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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.