Over the past 13 years, I have overseen one-to-one computing programs, two of which I launched myself, at three different schools. At Washington, D.C.'s Sidwell Friends School, my current employer, 70 percent of the students in grades 9 through 12 already have a mobile-computing device available to them. Generally, I've been opposed to "bring your own device" (BYOD) programs in our schools, given my concerns about whether providing consistent service would be possible and whether educators would be comfortable teaching in an environment that includes multiple platforms.
But it's fiscally irresponsible to ignore the potential savings that a school can reap by not having to purchase and support a computer for each student. Every school IT leader should at least consider the pros and cons of BYOD before developing a program or ruling it out altogether.
Over the past year, I challenged myself to learn what I could about BYOD in schools. I was surprised by what I found. In fact, I've changed my mind about BYOD. Here's why.
As is the case with traditional one-to-one initiatives, some schools' BYOD programs are good and some are less so.
When program communications (and financial support) are all about the technology, then the program, too, becomes all about the tech. BYOD programs that focus too heavily on the technology at the expense of teaching and learning goals fail to really get off the ground. In these cases, device integration into the curriculum remains shallow, tends to focus more on "whiz-bang" outcomes than educational processes and is quickly superseded by non-tech-driven activities.
In my experience, one-to-one schools that clarify their goals, that collaboratively figure out how to assess their program and that commit to professional development focused on learning outcomes are vastly more successful than those that don't.
Schools often slash training in the face of unexpected costs associated with one-to-one. But some BYOD schools are bucking this trend. The Trinity Preparatory School in Winter Park, Fla., for example, took the time to calculate the savings of BYOD devices and pumped as much of that money as possible into its professional development and planning efforts.
Many schools look at BYOD as a cheaper way to do one-to-one. This is true. But without proper planning, BYOD is doomed to fail.
A one-to-one environment can be intimidating to teachers who have taught for years without the benefit of computers and other technologies. But some IT leaders say that's not a good enough reason to avoid it.
"One-to-one is hard for some teachers no matter what the computer looks like," insists Daniel Hudkins, director of instructional technology and of information system technology service and support at The Harker School in San Jose, Calif. "BYOD actually helps teachers integrate faster, keeping them focused on the classroom activity in which students are using their devices." Indeed, BYOD can help students take greater ownership over their devices and how they leverage those tools to advance their learning.
Do This, Not That
During my year of investigation, I asked BYOD program leaders to share their best tips for running a successful program, as well as some traps to avoid. They recommended that BYOD schools do the following:
Shift the technical support burden to students. Jim Gerry, innovation and entrepreneurship director of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, recommends having students help each other when their personal devices have technical issues (rather than making it the responsibility of school IT staff). This is especially important for schools that welcome an array of devices that carry unique support requirements.
Ensure equal access. It's critical for BYOD schools to offer a robust pool of loaner devices — both to ensure that usable devices are available to students when their own malfunction and to guarantee that students who don't own mobile computing devices have the same access to such technology. Be sure to budget for more spares than you think you will need.
Look to the cloud. Denise Musselwhite, Trinity Prep's technology director, says schools should rely heavily on cloud-based resources, such as Google Apps for Education and Evernote, so users have the same access to content no matter which device they are using.
Another common platform, favored by BYOD program leaders such as Mariano Marin-Gomez, director of technology for Lindbergh Schools in St. Louis, is Stoneware's webNetwork software, which allows schools to create their own private and hybrid clouds. Once deployed, school users can share programs and files via their personal devices.
Don't neglect infrastructure. The high volume of personal devices searching for online access on any given school day makes a robust wireless network a must for BYOD schools. "You can never have too much bandwidth," Hudkins says.
All of the IT leaders I reached out to stressed the importance of schools finding their own comfort zones when it comes to BYOD. I was impressed that each of them interpreted the approach a bit differently and tailored their programs accordingly.
Some set limits on which types or brands of personal devices students can bring. Others welcome devices running every mobile operating system currently available but require that these devices meet certain baseline specs so they can handle specific software that will be used in class. And still others require that students buy and use the same type of school-provided device. I was pleased to discover that all have worked hard to create equitable conditions for students. Some even offer financial assistance to families who can't otherwise afford such purchases.
A year after starting my BYOD research, I've concluded that a BYOD program can be just as successful as a traditional one-to-one program in which schools are supplying computers to students. No matter which version of one-to-one you choose, don't forget the basic rules of any effective technology initiative: Plan carefully, get your stakeholders on the same page, conduct regular assessments and provide lots of professional development.
At Sidwell Friends School, we've now begun the process of planning for these critical success factors as we develop a high school BYOD program that will ultimately be as successful as the examples cited here. We'll see where it takes us.