As millions of kids head back to school, some backpacks will be weighed down not by just textbooks but also a laptop, tablet or smartphone as the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend that started in the workplace spreads to the classroom.
In 2011, Forsyth County, Ga., became one of the first school systems in the country to introduce a BYOD policy. This year, Nevada’s Clark County School District School Board unanimously voted to allow students to bring their own devices starting next year.
The shift to BYOD has been both quick and pervasive. A recent survey by Bradford Networks found 44 percent of K-12 school districts in the United States and United Kingdom allow students to use their own devices on school networks.
The move toward BYOD policies has been driven by economics and evolving teaching practices. School systems have been battered by shrinking local and state education budgets, leaving little money to equip classrooms with the latest teaching technologies and tools. And since many students already use the highly portable devices at home, teachers can easily incorporate their use into coursework.
Not long ago, most schools were banning cell phones. Now that many are letting students plug in, there are significant implications for school administrators who draft the policies and manage the networks needed to support the mobile devices. One of the biggest concerns is the fairness factor: Not all students have or can afford a mobile device. Forsyth County Schools, however, found that students who don’t have their own device actually have more access to school-owned technology when BYOD policies are in place because there’s less competition for space in the tech labs or for the tech tools owned by the school.
Then there are the issues of privacy and security. Most schools already have cyberbullying policies in place, but they may need further clarification. As for security, some schools have set up separate networks—one for teachers and another, more restricted network for students—to use. Security policies also have to consider the devices themselves. Who’s responsible if a student’s device is stolen while he or she is at school?
From a technology perspective, schools face an array of challenges, but most education CIOs and administrators say they can be overcome with proper planning. The most significant might be the network itself, which all those student devices will be accessing during school hours. Forsyth County had to triple its network capacity to handle the surge in demand and make sure each school’s network operated with the most up-to-date protocols to ensure the newest tablets and smartphones could connect properly. In addition, viruses that could be passed along by student devices and filtering capabilities to make sure students (and teachers) don’t access inappropriate websites all must be addressed.
But the biggest unanswered question surrounding the BYOD trend is the concern that laptops, tablets or smartphones are more of a distraction than a viable learning tool in the classroom. Last year, a report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project contained contradictory findings on the issue. “Three-quarters of Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers say the Internet and digital research tools have had a ‘mostly positive’ impact on their students’ research habits, but 87 percent say these technologies are creating an ‘easily distracted generation with short attention spans’ and 64 percent say today’s digital technologies ‘do more to distract students than help them academically.’”
Quite a few teachers—and parents—worry that the devices are leading to shorter attention spans, which could affect the ability of students to master core topics. But others argue that what appears to be a distraction to one generation not used to mobile devices is just a judgment not backed by rigorous data. Kristen Purcell, the associate director at Pew, told The New York Times that the study’s findings could show that the education system must adjust to the way students learn.
“What we’re labeling as ‘distraction’ some see as a failure of adults to see how these kids process information.” Education systems must adjust to better accommodate the way students learn today, she said.