Left to their own devices

BYOD is yielding positive results in schools but, as Paul Dimery explains, there are a couple of hurdles to overcome first…

The Times They Are A-Changin’, sang Bob Dylan in 1964, and that’s certainly true of how our children are being educated. With around 80% of 13–18-year-old phone owners now possessing a smartphone, and around 35% of people in the same age group owning or having access to a tablet, more and more schools and colleges are turning to the BYOD (bring your own device) method of learning, with some even making it compulsory.

In theory, BYOD has a lot going for it. For a start, there’s the financial benefit to the school. By encouraging pupils to bring their smartphones and tablets into the classroom, and to engage with them constructively during lessons, schools are able to save much-needed money that would otherwise have been spent on buying rows of personal computers (not to mention good old-fashioned textbooks). As Peter Twining, a senior lecturer at the Open University, says, “Many schools have realised that they have to be more creative in how they finance their technology. Some see that many students have technology in their pockets and at home, and have started thinking about whether they can use that stuff.”

For the pupils themselves, having ICT at their fingertips provides instant access to the vast resources of the World Wide Web, and the actual process of mining that information – and sharing it among their colleagues and teachers via social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – is equipping them with a whole new skill set.

Hanover Public School District in Pennsylvania is among the bodies that have embraced the BYOD revolution, and it elaborates on the above point in its online manifesto: “[We are] committed to aiding students and staff in creating a 21st-century learning environment. [They] will be able to access our wireless network with their personal devices during the school day.

“We believe that equitable access to technology will aid our students in becoming information producers rather than information consumers, self-directed learners and collaborative team players.”

“People were already trying to hide what they were doing on their smartphones because it was illegal by the school rules. By opening it up, we’ve been given a lot more freedom and things are moving a lot faster,” affirms a student at Katy Independent School District in Texas, which has also adopted the scheme. That’s not to say that Katy has completely let its guard down, though; it insists that calling and texting features are deactivated during lessons, and that phones and smartphones are referred to in the classroom as ‘mobile learning devices’, or MLDs.

It’s a simple swap: if the kids behave responsibly, the school will allow them to learn the fun way – and fun, it can certainly be. “The biggest thing for me [with BYOD] is the engagement,” explains Katy teacher Leona Bernard. “It was instant. We were learning figurative language and looking up lyrics from music, and [the children] became totally interested in words. They were truly pulled into the learning.”

However, if you’re one of those schools that are opening their eyes to the potential of pocket technology, there are a couple of things you should know. Firstly, more than 180,000 computing and communication devices were reported lost or stolen to UK police between March 2013 and February 2014. Secondly, in a recent survey by US IT-solutions company Centrify, as many as 15% of adult employees who use BYOD in their workplace confessed that they felt ‘none to minimal’ responsibility to protect corporate data stored on their personal devices. And that’s adults – the percentage of children who share that attitude could be significantly higher. Add those two statistics together and the result is a potential security disaster. Which is why schools participating in BYOD are taking great measures to protect their interests.

Down High School in County Down, Northern Ireland, is among the institutions that have mapped out strict guidelines for students to adhere to. These are laid out in no uncertain terms on the school’s website: “Students shall make no attempts to circumvent the school’s network security – this includes setting up proxies and downloading programs to bypass security. Students must check their personal ICT device daily to ensure that the device is free from unsuitable material, viruses, etc, before bringing it into school. Students are not permitted to connect to any wireless or networking service while using a personal ICT device in school.”

It may sound like a draconian manifesto, but when breaches in security can have such dire consequences, who can blame them? In April of this year, a former contract worker for the University of Maryland, David Helkowski, managed to hack into the institution’s computer system, whereupon he accessed student grade averages and posted the University president’s private information online. Helkowski later claimed that he’d committed the crime to highlight the importance of installing impenetrable security.

One step towards achieving this is to ensure that pupils keep their devices somewhere safe and secure when they’re not being used, to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands. Helping with this is LapSafe Products, an industry-leading firm with over 10 years’ experience providing storage and charging solutions for computer devices. “With the growth of BYOD, our solutions are in even greater demand,” says a spokesman for the company. “Higher education facilities tend to opt for secure, charging lockers that provide 24/7 self-service access to students. These also have the potential to generate revenue, via the introduction of smartcards and other forms of identification.”

Manchester Medical School, like Down High School, is taking no chances when it comes to BYOD. In a scheme that might be more accurately renamed ‘bring OUR own device’, the school equips all of its Year 3–5 students with iPads, bypassing the need for them to use their own ICT devices. While that might sound a little mistrusting, on the upside, it saves students (or, perhaps more accurately, parents) from having to splash out on the technology themselves – that’s assuming they don’t already own it.

Indeed, it’s the costs associated with BYOD that have drawn the most vocal criticisms among guardians, with the cheapest iPad – the iPad Mini – costing around £250, and higher-spec models considerably more. Southborough High School in Greater London has taken steps to solve this issue, offering a lease scheme – in conjunction with The Stone Group – whereby pupils, or their parents, can hire a range of devices, and with insurance and a warranty thrown in.

For Kenton County School District in Ohio, though, the fact that not all of its pupils can afford smartphones or tablets is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, teachers there have found that creating small groups within classes has encouraged students with ICT devices to work closely with students who don’t have their own equipment. And the impact of this collaborative learning has been remarkable.

“For two weeks, we visited the class on a daily basis,” explains the district’s CIO, Vicki Fields. “By the end, the children were sitting down and teaching us how to use our iPads. What I saw in that two weeks was the fastest bell curve, as far as skill levels, that I’d ever seen.”

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