Do you remember the days of film projectors in schools when the teacher would roll this complicated device in, fumble around with the reels of movie tape trying to load it up. There was only one such device in the school and it was shared amongst all the teachers, well at least the ones that could figure out how to use it. Or, how about calculator labs? Calculators used to be “sophisticated” computers that cost hundreds if not a thousand dollars. Kids couldn’t afford to buy and bring these to school. Even if they could, they might lose or damage their calculator, or someone might steal it. So, schools provided it. Today, for $20 kids can buy a really good one or install a full scientific app on their smart phone. For years now, schools have provided computer labs as places to learn about computing, digital information use, etc. Some schools also moved to providing laptops to some, or all their students. But now this is changing. Increasingly we read about schools implementing BYOT (bring-your-own-technology) initiatives.
Digital devices have become smaller, cheaper, wireless, and very powerful. The age at which kids are getting their own smart phone keeps dropping. Even kids that live is poorer neighborhoods seem to have a cell or smart phone. More kids are also getting a tablet or laptop for their own use. Way back in 2004 I started saying publicly that “within 5 years all students will bring their own digital learning device to school”. I’ve been wrong for the past 9 years but am getting closer to being right. I believe there are three roadblocks to the scenario where every student comes to school with their own powerful digital learning device: cost, District/school policy, and teacher readiness.
I liken BYOT to BYOP (bring your own pencil). Imagine if students had to share pencils provided by their school or only had a couple of 40 minute periods per week where they were allowed to use pencils. Maybe if they’re lucky, there’d be pods of pencils in their classroom. Or worse, using pencils became a project, an experiment where the school provides every student with a pencil through a 1:1 pencil initiative and special learning was undertaken to use the pencil as much as possible. The analogy eerily fits what we often do with technology. Somehow it’s still a special tool meant for certain special uses. Hasn’t the time arrived yet where a digital device is an essential tool to support students and adults in diverse and prevalent ways in their learning and work? Having fulltime, anywhere access to a personal device enables learning and work to reach whole new levels. If every student is able to look up any piece of information any time, memorization of facts and figures lose a lot their purpose. Learning would inevitably need to move to a higher and more critical order.
For example, with tools like WolfRam Alpha in every students hand, assigning essay questions like “Find and document on a map all the earthquakes in the past year near Japan that are greater than 5.0 on the Richter scale, and write a definition of earthquake, Richter, and draw a graph ranging 1.0 to 10.0 showing how the scale works” would have little value. Try a question like “Find a few earthquake events in the past 2 months near Japan that are greater than 5.0. Research and document the impacts of the earthquakes on the Japan landmass and the people. Consider how the impacts on the land mass and the people would change for an increase of 0.5, 1.0, 2.0 on the Richter scale. Consider the impacts if the quake occurred 10km closer to Japan. What villages or cities would be impacted most, how, and why?”. With WolfRam Alpha and other Internet tools, getting the core data is easy. This moves the question to a higher order critical thinking level. Students would use their technology to research, gather facts, data, and then creating new scenarios, “what-ifs”, and making predictions. They could do this now without the technology but there wouldn’t be enough time available – it would be too much work. Teachers could redesign their lessons with technology in mind if they could expect most of their students to BYOT. Students could collaborate and share technology, which is perhaps a better practice than working alone. In the “real world”, collaboration is a powerful work practice. It’s time to think outside the box.
Note that I put out a request to the Twitterverse asking for information on BYOT initiatives and received a few good resources that you might find helpful:
- Brebeuf Jesuit BYOT FAQ 1.0
- Forsyth County Schools BYOT FAQ
- 5 Ways to Prepare Schools for Bring Your Own Device
Implementing BYOT in schools involves a change in how classrooms function and teaching occurs. If students bring devices and teachers don’t change how they teach, it will be an exercise in frustration and a classroom management nightmare. It is important to set the right policies as “technology leaders at BYOT schools say, a fear of problems such as access to inappropriate online content, digitally enhanced cheating, and rampant classroom distractions can lead districts to overthink, and worse, overwrite corresponding policy adjustments to stifle creative implementation of the devices” (http://www.edweek.org/dd/articles/2011/10/19/01byot.h05.html, Jan 13, 2013). I think Districts need to signal that BYOT is to become a natural extension of school supplies, and create supportive and helpful guiding policies. Schools need to create opportunities for teachers to work together on how to effectively change how they teach, and how they would manage their classrooms, in the context of students bringing technology. It needs to be purposeful, not adhoc, and not left to chance.
Another benefit often touted for BYOT is cost savings for schools and Districts. Although this would be an outcome – more BYOT, less provided student technology – I don’t think it should be the main reason. Rather, it’s a helpful byproduct where Districts then can invest more in teacher technology and professional learning, software, online services, and infrastructure to support it all. I think that BYOT is an inevitable trajectory and we need to leverage it for it’s learning worth. A sample list of uses might include writing, calculating, graphing, reading, researching, sharing, field trip data gathering, simulations, mathematics, mapping, planning, tracking, note taking, drawing, photography, video production, pre/post testing of understanding, knowledge, and so on. The use of technology should become an integrated extension of social learning, not a replacement for it.
I leave you with this example from my previous District where young students are blogging their journals and essays. In this example, they do this with a couple of trips to the lab per week. Unfortunately since they don’t have fulltime access, they have to write out their work by hand first then they type it in to their blogs. Imagine if they BYOT! They could skip the “make work” step of hand writing (I suspect this hits a sore point for some people). I do believe hand writing should simply be relegated to the role of a basic tool, one of many, and an alternative choice some might make over digital writing. My point is, our tools change over time, and it’s time that technology takes center stage in the transformation of how many learning activities take place. I believe that a purposeful orientation toward BYOT will serve well to make this happen and it needs to be undertaken thoughtfully.