Jul 10 2011

Look Before You Leap


Schools face a difficult balancing act as they work to improve the learning environment while confined by tight budgets. For some, the answer lies in developing "bring your own technology" (BYOT) programs.

After all, when budgets are so limited that most schools can't afford to give every student access to a computer, it seems logical to have students use their own smartphones, notebooks and tablets for classroom learning activities. But district leaders can't ignore the challenges that arise from allowing students to bring these devices into the classroom.

"For IT administrators, opening the door to the Wild, Wild West and letting students bring their own devices takes a leap of faith," says Bailey Mitchell, chief technology and information officer at Forsyth County (Ga.) Schools.

Security and infrastructure issues seem to be the biggest concern for schools getting BYOT programs off the ground. In some cases, classroom equality can be a challenge if students lack their own technology. But it hasn't been a problem for Forsyth County Schools.

The BYOT program "provides more equality than everything we've ever done," says Tim Clark, the district's instructional technology specialist. The students who lack their own devices "simply use the school computers."

Lenny Schad, the chief information officer for the Katy (Texas) Independent School District, agrees that BYOT "is a great way to leverage the personal investments from parents and offset the district's financial burden to keep technology up to date."

Katy ISD plans to launch a BYOT initiative this fall, but it first spent two years testing smartphones in select classrooms. Schad came up with the idea a few years ago while watching his teenage children use their smartphones to do homework. "I started to think this is one piece of technology that's relatively prevalent to secondary-level students," he says, "and if we could incorporate that into schools, we would hit a home run. There's no question that this is the direction education needs to go."

What's more, Schad continues, "if you [consider] the state of public education funding nationwide, school districts need to look at creative ways to infuse new technology in the education process. We are partnering with the community and parents to ensure that the latest and greatest technology is at students' fingertips – and that it's something we can sustain."

For more about schools' BYOT efforts, read "Open Invitation."

Safety First

Last fall, the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Educational Statistics created the Privacy Technical Assistance Center, which offers everything from advice on how to set up and secure a data warehouse to clarification on what is and isn't permissible in terms of releasing student information. Then, in April, the DOE hired its first chief privacy officer, Kathleen Styles, to lead a new division charged with providing data management guidance at the national, state and local levels.

K–12 schools have a unique responsibility to their "customers" – that is, their students – because those customers are minors, and therefore not old enough to "own" and protect their private information from corruption, misuse and theft. "Handle With Care" outlines the concerns that school officials must address to protect student information and profiles some of the government initiatives that aim to make this process easier to manage.

"We're required to collect a lot of data from schools and districts at an individual student level," says Kathy Gosa, director of IT at the Kansas State Department of Education. "I can't emphasize enough how high of a priority it is to protect that data. It's an ongoing challenge, because technology doesn't sit still."

Ryan Petersen


<p>Matthew Gilson</p>