There's comfort in the familiar. Most of us sleep better at home than we do on the road, and we're just as likely to choose technologies that satisfy our unique personal preferences over standardized ones that restrict what we can do with them.
Not surprisingly, this reality is beginning to play itself out in our schools. As students increasingly acquire their own mobile computing devices, it's becoming harder for administrators and teachers to keep those devices out of the classroom. When budgets are so tight that most schools can't afford to give every student access to a computer, forbidding students from using their own smartphones, netbooks and tablets for classroom learning activities seems unnecessary to some and downright draconian to others.
The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) warns that schools can't ban student-owned devices forever. But allowing students to bring them into the classroom creates its own set of challenges, including possible network stability and security threats and equity issues. How do we mitigate these challenges?
Managing the Menagerie
Several districts around the nation – including Forsyth County Schools in Georgia, the Forest Hills Local School District in Ohio and Edina Public Schools in Minnesota – are piloting "bring your own technology," or BYOT, initiatives and revising their acceptable-use policies to include student-owned or district-provided devices. Many others are considering similar programs. As these districts see it, BYOT is inevitable. And with proper planning, it's also completely manageable.
Begin by building a robust wireless infrastructure that can support the flood of devices that must access network resources if BYOT becomes a standard practice in your school or district. But don't stop there. "It's not good enough just to have wireless access," says CoSN Project Director Rich Kaestner.
Schools must make sure they have enough access points to facilitate seamless communications among the full range of device types that may be accessing the network simultaneously. Take the time to identify possible problem points and use load balancing to distribute the workload evenly. Build a stable backbone of applications that will work on all types of devices with varying screen sizes, operating systems and feature sets.
To keep the network (and its users) safe, install firewalls, antimalware and antivirus software; authenticate users; and use Internet filtering software to ensure compliance with the Children's Internet Protection Act. To address potential lack-of-access concerns, invest in a few (or several dozen) spare mobile computing devices that can be made available to students who don't have their own.
Putting the right technology in place is only half the battle, though. School administrators and IT leaders must collaborate to develop acceptable-use policies that clearly outline what students, teachers, staff and other stakeholders are and are not allowed to do with available IT resources.
Professional development also is key. Teachers must be trained to incorporate mobile devices and Web 2.0 educational resources into their curricula so that technology becomes an essential, rather than supplemental, component of everyday learning.
Ultimately, BYOT is about empowerment. It lets teachers extend beyond the traditional constructs of didactic learning and engage students in collaborative, project-based learning. It lets students learn in the manner that best suits their individual needs. And it lets administrators and IT leaders focus district resources (money and labor among them) on other mission-critical tasks.
Only 5% of the technology leaders surveyed by Project Tomorrow for its Speak Up 2010 National Research Project are currently advancing a BYOT approach in their schools or districts. What's more, 63% of surveyed administrators said they are unlikely to let students use their own mobile devices in the classroom for instructional purposes in 2011.