How Schools are Implementing ‘Bring Your Own Device’
By Martha Beach
As the school bell rings, thirty grade six students settle into their desks for a history class. After a brief overview of last night’s homework, the teacher lets them know they have 30 minutes to work on their group project. Instead of pulling out lined paper and textbooks, they bring out their personal iPads, Netbooks, Tablets, and Chromebooks. A few take out iPods or Galaxy phones. Some groups of two or three students share giant tablet screens, while others use their own pocket devices. The class is almost silent as they open up digital files, shared through the school’s newly installed Wifi network, to collaborate on research and writing, gathering, creating, and sharing a group presentation.
These students are part of a Bring Your Own Device (BOYD) program, a movement that has been gaining popularity over the past few years. Schools allow students to use personal devices for curriculum-related activities. The staff often employ rules regarding when a device can and can not be used, and more often than not, digital citizenship is a hot topic for discussion. Many see the use of technological devices in class as the natural way to move forward and keep up in a tech-dependent world. So far, BYOD seems to be the most cost-effective way for the majority of students to work together using personal tools with which they are already comfortable.
“These devices are so influential in our students lives. It is part of the way they’re being raised,” says Aubrey Dawe, principal at Beachy Cove Elementary in Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s, Newfoundland, whose school recently introduced BYOD. One of the keys to school’s success is the awareness of the need to be on top of tech trends. “We need to tap into that energy and still follow curriculum,” Dawe says. “But to go and source these types of items for 700 learners would be very difficult,” he admits. For Beachy Cove, along with many other schools across Canada, BYOD seems like a great way to use digital tools in the classroom and keep up with the interests of students.
Peter Vogel is the head of the ICT department and physics teacher at Notre Dame Regional Secondary School in Vancouver, British Columbia. He also writes about Internet and technology for B.C. publications. “[BYOD] can save a school money on infrastructure and may foretell the end of dedicated classroom computer labs,” he says. “However, BYOD typically means a major revamping of a school’s Internet delivery technology, specifically advanced wireless capabilities,” Vogel points out. Some critics are wary of investing in a Wifi network because there are few studies and limited research to support the economic and educational benefits of using digital devices in the classroom (BYOD or otherwise). The initial installation costs and upkeep of such networks, however, may prove to be less than those of maintaining and updating a traditional computer lab.
Just as in any other sector or topic, research and review is often the key to success. Peel District School Board in Ontario worked with York University’s Jennifer Jenson, a Professor of Pedagogy and Technology in the Faculty of Education, during 2011 and 2012 to conduct a review of the board’s successes and challenges in integrating digital technology before implementing BYOD. After researching similar programs in other countries and reviewing Peel’s own process, the researchers had some suggestions for the board: allow students to BYOD, provide teacher support and training, and install a board-wide Wifi network. The school board accommodated these suggestions and made many changes to help students and teachers integrate tech in Peel classrooms. “The number one reason we chose BYOD is personalization. It is possible and beneficial to incorporate and allow students to use technology they already know how to use,” says Patrick McQuade, instructional coordinator of instructional technology, business, and computer studies. “Instead of spending valuable class time teaching different programs or tools or platforms, they bring what they are familiar with,” McQuade says. McQuade provides a good example: why would a geography teacher go to the computer lab to teach PowerPoint just so students can create and present a project? The teacher is not assessing PowerPoint; they are assessing the curriculum knowledge and ability to communicate. Students using a familiar device and program can create and communicate in a way that is easy for them. “Yes, it can be challenging for a teacher who can’t just say ‘Open PowerPoint.’ They have to say ‘Open your presentation-creation tool,’” says McQuade, indicating there are a many more options from which students may choose under BYOD.
Teachers can make the most of using handheld technology in the classroom by employing a slightly altered vernacular of verbs instead of nouns, allowing students to bring familiar devices, and learning how to intertwine the tool with the curriculum. Dawe of Beachy Cove explains that he ensured students were aware that devices used in the classroom must have clear learning purposes. Tablets and smartphones for example, “must be used to drive education and curriculum,” he says. Handheld devices are most often used for group research, writing shared documents, and sharing visuals in almost any subject, as long as learners follow the rules. Beachy Cove Elementary, like other schools with BYOD programs, has developed a digital citizenship document that articulates the expected behaviour and social norms of an online society. This helps students understand and regulate online behaviour. Rules for the physical world are also in place. “The kids have been very respectful and understanding of the guidelines,” says Shoemaker. Students can only use hand-held devices in class for curriculum purposes. The use of such devices in places like the schoolyard, halls, and cafeteria are prohibited. Using such devices is routine and commonplace for kids, so setting clear guidelines is important.
While the technology may be easy for students to use, teachers don’t always have the smoothest go of it. “It can be stressful for the individual classroom teacher as they have to grapple with connection issues and charging problems with specific devices,” Vogel says. “No teacher can hope to troubleshoot every machine type and model. My experience is that students are really good with this.” Shoemaker says something along the same lines: “There is a steep learning curve for me. The kids are digital natives. We come across problems and the kids figure out the solution, often before I do.” McQuade also points out that we often only hear the success stories, but it’s not always so simple. “It’s a new world so it’s no wonder students and teachers are grappling with issues as we move forward,” says McQuade. “We are on a learning continuum. We are in a transitional period.”
The unknown and transitional aspects of BYOD bring us back to research, and the fact that some educators are still hoping for much more fact-finding and analysis. “We’re all embracing technology. It’s very exciting, there is huge potential—but the theory has outstripped the real impact. I think it needs some scientific basis,” says Peter Sturrup, headmaster of Pickering College, an independent school in Newmarket, Ontario. Sturrup would ideally like to see a longitudinal study on the long-term impact of the use of technology on student achievement. “We are expanding student interest and understanding of technology, but it is so new we don’t yet have any way to predict the outcome,” he says. Despite the need for more long-term revision, many schools are jumping right in. “We aren’t doing BYOD because it’s a great headline. We’re doing it because we truly believe it will help students,” McQuade says. Plus, Peel offers great support for teachers and schools as they integrate tech into curriculum. There is an entire team dedicated to this task and there are a variety of support models available to teachers, from workshops to in-class help from a specialized educator.
Not all schools boards are currently able to upgrade their Internet networks, and certainly not all students can afford to bring in a device from home. “Schools need to be sensitive to the needs, and ability to afford technology tools, of all families that they serve,” says Vogel. “It is not a good thing when nearly everyone in a given class has a tablet or other mobile device and a few others in the class have no personal technology whatsoever.” He adds: “A school must be an equalizer wherever possible.” Vogel suggests equalizing through 1:1 programs, where students who don’t own a device are able to sign one out from a school’s supply (suggesting that schools should own a small stash of their own devices, perhaps purchased through fundraising). But McQuade says that 1:1 isn’t always necessary. York University’s research on behalf of Peel found that a huge part of student learning is sharing information, so even if a students have a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio with tech tools, they can still easily collaborate and discuss.
Most likely in the future all students will have access to their own curriculum-integrated devices. “We have to move with the times,” Dawe says. “That whole idea of becoming too dependent on technology is a really adult idea. In the future, you probably won’t have to go to a library or write things out by hand,” he adds. Teachers need to dive right into BYOD. Internal revision, some external research, plus teacher support and training will help schools stay on top of the digital world, improving curriculum and benefitting students. For now, McQuade says we are all just starting to learn the new language of tech education. “We are digitally literate, but we are aiming to be fluent.”
Martha Beach is a recent graduate of Ryerson University’s journalism program. Currently, she is a freelance writer and factchecker in Toronto.