Thinking about BYOD

In my role as e-Learning Contact I get to see a lot of schools, work with a lot of students and teachers, and discuss technology with people from all over the province. One of the hottest topics is BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) – should students be allowed to bring (and use) their own Internet devices? This issue has been pushed to the front of my mind lately as a result of some conversations and observations in schools.

Recent school visits

I was recently in a computer lab with a group of students and in the last few minutes of our time together, after the work for the day was completed, I noticed some students checking Facebook. Some were bypassing the board’s content filters on the school desktop computers; others were pulling out cell phones. Some of the cell phone users were connected to the school’s guest WiFi network, which is ostensibly for students to use to connect their personal laptop computers to the Internet; others were using their own data plans.

I was in another school recently which did not permit students to have personal electronic devices of any kind at school at all, for any reason. Even during lunch and break times students could not use devices, including MP3 players, cell phones, cameras, and so on. Personal laptops were not explicitly allowed by the “school rule”, but they were in evidence during instructional time.

Elementary (K-8) schools will often permit grade 7/8 students to bring laptops, but not younger students. The allowance for other devices (smartphones, tablets, etc.) depends on the school.

There are a few problems here

First, the spectrum of permissions across a single board is staggering, and the inequities that spectrum represents are troubling. I imagine some parents, in deciding where to send their children to school, have considered the schools’ policies concerning BYOD. And I think that’s appropriate, as much as it’s appropriate to select a school on the basis of the schools’ Specialist High Skills Majors, available extra-curricular opportunities, busing, etc.

Second, some schools have highly restrictive policies that teachers (a) can’t possibly enforce, and (b) often don’t want to enforce.

Third, how is a laptop different from an iPod?

MP3 players and me

Several years ago I taught at a school which did not permit the use of MP3 players during instructional time. I didn’t agree with the rule, and I spoke to my administrator about it, but couldn’t get the rule changed.

So I lived with it. I didn’t permit students to use MP3 players during my class. I wasn’t harsh (I didn’t confiscate them, etc.), but I was firm. I didn’t tell my students that I felt they should be allowed to use their devices because I didn’t want to undermine the authority of the school and my own authority by telling them some rules could be broken.

But I was the bad guy. I was the “only teacher” (according to the kids) who wouldn’t let them use their MP3 players. I don’t think it made a huge difference in my class, but I’ll admit to feeling some resentment at having to choose between enforcing a rule I didn’t agree with and setting a poor example for my students.

Rules should be permissive enough to allow innovation

What I wanted was a school rule that said, “The use of MP3 players during class time will be at the discretion of the classroom teacher” or something to that effect. I wanted to freedom to allow their use, just as I understand another teacher’s desire to deny their use for management, safety, or other reasons.

That’s the way I feel about BYOD. The policies should be permissive enough to give teachers the latitude they need to explore and innovate in their class, but restrictive enough to give teachers the power to manage the use of devices in their classes.

But what about safety, appropriate use, distraction, equity…?

Yup, all big issues. How do we keep a student from sending a nasty text message to another student during class? How do we keep them from passing virtual notes? How do we know they’re doing school work on that device, and not playing Angry Birds? What about the students who don’t have devices; aren’t they at a disadvantage?

Safety

Students have the devices. They use them outside of school, and some of them do inappropriate/mean/illegal things with them. But suggesting that not “allowing” them in school will stop the abuses of the technology? I don’t think so. In the same way that locks keep out honest folks, DBYOD (don’t-bring-your-own-device) rules won’t stop the determined student during the day (and won’t stop anyone at night). It certainly gives a school one form of recourse against the students who get caught, but the school would have recourse anyway if the BYOD policy simply denied nasty uses of devices.

Cheating

Yup, cheating is a problem. Of course, it always has been. It’s more technically sophisticated now, and that’s why there are companies selling sophisticated cheating detection systems, and why teachers are constantly Googling phrases from essays on “To Kill A Mockingbird” to see if they’re original. I don’t see how saying “no” to cell phones but “yes” to laptops helps with this. Bring the devices out into the open. One teacher told me that she asks her students to put their phones on their desks so that she knows where they are. That seems like a good strategy to me.

Distraction

This one is harder, for sure. When Facebook, Twitter, email and Angry Birds are all calling to you at once, how do you resist? Having respect for the teacher/class/learning is one way to resist those “temptations”. Students have responsibilities to look after during the school day. The key is to make the learning as engaging as possible to help temper those other distractions. (Small aside: engagement does not equal entertainment. I love math, but I think it would be pretty challenging to make it more entertaining to search for bias in the design of a survey than it would be to play a game on a phone. That doesn’t mean it can’t engage students, though – it has to pique their interest, challenge them…)

Equity

If a student comes to class without their “tools for learning” (read: pencil and paper), we provide them, particularly if they can’t afford those tools. In the case of BYOD, the devices may not be essential to the learning, and we can’t provide enough for everyone who won’t/can’t bring their own.

There is an inequity there. And we can’t fix it right now. Srsly. But rather than reduce everyone to the greatest common factor, let’s allow the devices into our classrooms. I spoke with a teacher this week who had an iPad in their class for students to use. I was asking about how the LMS worked on it and things like that, but the most significant thing the teacher said was that it was the first time several of the students in the class had ever touched a tablet. Ever. If we want them to develop skills with these devices, but we can’t provide them, we need to let the students bring them.

Content filtering and BYOD

Content filtering is driving everyone crazy. There are good reasons for filtering (keeping pornography out of the hands of 8-year-olds is a good one), but it seems that we’re not very good at it. The primary approach for content filtering is blacklisting, which is an approach that requires a lot of maintenance. As a result, organizations purchase solutions from companies who will categorize websites so that filtering software can allow or disallow traffic based on site category and user role. For example, a school board might allow “Reference” sites (e.g. Wikipedia) for all users, but “Streaming Media” sites (e.g. YouTube) for only teachers.

Unfortunately, these categorizations will change over time, so sites will become blocked or unblocked without warning. The board can whitelist or blacklist sites individually as well if the pre-packaged solution isn’t meeting the local needs, but it’s labour-intensive and therefore impractical.

From the perspective of a low-bandwidth connection, content filtering can be helpful. I think there are better ways to shape traffic, but I don’t know enough about them to say whether they’re feasible in our organization.

From the perspective of keeping inappropriate content out of the hands of students, content filtering does nothing. Students regularly bypass filters using the ever-changing proxies, different protocols, and a dozen other methods I’ll never be aware of. And what’s more, they have no filtering when they’re outside the school. None. So we teach them to be good digital citizens in a heavily insulated environment with no significant challenges and then send them home to the complete, unfiltered Internet.

So what are we gaining? An increasingly frustrated teaching population, for one thing. Possibly fewer classroom management issues (or possibly more… hard to say). And a less relevant classroom experience.

Final thoughts

We can’t afford to provide one-to-one ratios. We want students to be able to use devices and the Internet in the real world, and many teachers want them to use devices in their learning. There are challenges with BYOD. Schooling is less relevant without BYOD. BYOD can make access to Blended Learning more equitable.

I don’t think it’s reasonable to deny access any longer.

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