To BYOD or not to BYOD (Eng)

The digitalisation of nearly everything in the last 20 or so years has forced schools to adapt their IT policies. Where 20 years ago, a school could make due with one or two computer rooms that teachers could book to have ‘an internet lesson’ with their classes once in a while, this simply doesn’t cut it anymore. Digital tools are totally intertwined with modern teaching, so a separate ‘internet lesson’ is a thing of the past. It’s more like every lesson has an internet – or more like a ‘connected’ – part.

So what to do? How to make sure teachers and pupils can make use of all these great tools, while at the same time making it accessible and protecting privacy? There are a few different ways in which schools (try to) achieve this.

1. School computers

Some schools invest loads of money into computers owned by the school. This can be desktops, laptops or tablets. But are desktops really still a thing? That would just mean more computer rooms, no mobility, no way of using tools that are meant to be taken outside (for field trips, library work, …). Desktops in schools are a thing of the past, as they are in most households. If schools are to buy their own equipment, they should invest in mobile devices so every pupil has access to the same device the whole schoolyear.

This has a few advantages. Most importantly, the cost of this learning material is not pushed through to the pupils. In that way, it is a very social way of dealing with the digitalisation: all pupils, regardless of their SES (social economic situation) have access to the same device. Another big plus is uniformity: all devices are equal. Teachers know that if a tool or app runs on their own school device, it will run on every other school device. The IT department is in control, using Mobile Device Management.

However the advantages don’t measure up to the downsides. First of all: funding. Schools simply don’t have enough money to make this work. They would not only have to buy all the equipment, but also have staff constantly solving problems and keeping an eye on what is happening with those devices. It’s also a big burden on the administration: checking devices in and out, keeping track of who damaged whose device, etc. Although a great idea in theory, in reality it’s nearly unachievable in public schools without additional funding.

2. 1:1 projects

With 1:1 projects I mean that all pupils have to purchase the same device themselves. The school decides what kind of device (usually an iPad or chromebook of some kind), the same way they decide which school books to use. The devices are managed by the school team, but pupils get to take their own device home after school.

Advantages are that the school doesn’t have to endlessly invest in a stream of new devices every year; IT can control the devices using MDM; there is uniformity; when properly used, the costs of handouts and books can be kept to a minimum, which can make up for part of the pupils’ investment. The way I see it, a 1:1 project has almost all the advantages of the system with school computers without the funding problem.

There is of course a downside, and once again it’s all about the money. The school doesn’t pay for anything (apart from the apps and the MDM system), but the pupils face a big investment. However I think this can be managed by choosing a device that will last for 6 years, that is not overly expensive (€ 500 is the limit) and by cutting other costs (books, handouts, …).

3. BYOD

Some schools practise BYOD – Bring Your Own Device, something used in some companies. In spite of popular belief, BYOD has only one advantage: the school has no responsibility whatsoever. The pupils have to bring a mobile device of their own, and the school offers no support: no MDM, no uniformity, nothing.

Allow me to dispel a few rumours that are sometimes used to defend BYOD:

  • “Pupils work more efficiently when they are allowed to use their own devices”. Wrong. The idea behind BYOD in companies is indeed that people are most comfortable using their own devices and that letting them use their own devices increases their efficiency. That may well be the case with professional adults, but it doesn’t apply to pupils, who still have to learn how to use their device responsibly and efficiently. But how will we teach them that if we, the teachers, don’t know the devices they use?
  • “BYOD is social: nobody is forced to buy a device, they can bring their own.” Quoting Luke Skywalker in ‘the Last Jedi’: “Amazing. Every word you just said, was a lie.” First of all: BYOD is not social, far from it. If every pupils bring his/her own device, the difference between the haves and the have nots becomes painfully visible. Secondly, ‘nobody is forced to buy a device’? Well, if you are a 12 year old with your own device at home, that you don’t need to share with parents or siblings, and that fits the requirements, then no, you are not forced to buy a device. In all other cases, you do have to buy one. And without the school to advise you, or to make the decision for you (the school being well placed to make suggestions), chances are you buy a device that is not as durable or fit for school as you would like it to be. And last but not least: ‘pupils can bring their own’? Not my kids, I assure you. Bringing their own device, with their personal information (photos, access codes to social media, may be even bank accounts) is a privacy disaster waiting to happen. Bringing their own device, with their own games, Netflix accounts, Spotify music etc is an educational disaster waiting to happen. So, in short: BYOD is NOT social, a lot of people WILL be forced to buy a device, and bringing all your personal stuff on your device with you to school is something that I, as a father, teacher ànd IT teacher strongly advise against (as do my IT-colleagues, by the way).
  • “BYOD works if teachers get behind it.” No. No, it doesn’t. Teachers will try, but it won’t work. So this English teacher wants his pupils to bring their device to write an email in class as an assignment? Let’s be optimistic and state that only 2 out of 20 pupils forgot their device, so the teacher sends them to IT to fetch a spare one (if there still is IT in a BYOD-school). Out of the 18 other pupils, 4 report that their battery is dead, so the teacher has to go and look for chargers. Once that is OK and all the devices are up and running, it turns out that 5 pupils do not have an app installed that they can use to type in (Word, Pages, or something else). Since the teacher does not know the devices the pupils bring, he cannot help them. So back to IT. Meanwhile, since BYOD does not allow for MDM, the teacher has no way of checking what the other pupils are doing. Are they really doing the assignment, or are they playing games, watching movies, browsing social media? Using MDM, the teacher could have a look at their screens from his own device. In a BYOD context, he has to walk around. However, since it’s their own device, pupils will be able to swiftly swipe away when they see the teacher approaching. After a few such lessons, the teacher will give up, and turn to pen and paper again. To write an email. Welcome to the 21st century.
  • “BYOD doesn’t force pupils to pick a certain platform (iOS, Windows, Chrome, Linux).” No, indeed it doesn’t. However, the school will have a clear preference that the pupils are not yet aware of when enrolling. So they could have bought a brand new Chromebook, but be forced into a mainly PC-oriented environment. Or even worse: they could have bought a brand new windows-laptop, only to find out that they cannot participate in some lessons because some teachers rely heavily on apps only available for iPad. Or iPad users who find out everything runs on Google (which an iPad can handle, but for which a Chromebook would be the cheaper option).
  • “BYOD is a universal system: all devices are good, we don’t discriminate.” Yes, we do. Because if all devices are welcome, then all the apps used have to universally available, for all devices. And good luck finding those. Some of the best apps out there are focussed on one system. So good luck to all teachers finding apps that will run on all devices of all platforms and ages. You won’t find them. Trust me, I am speaking from experience.

In short: choosing BYOD is not a real decision. It is deciding not to decide, affecting pupils’ digital skills and teachers’ ability to fully embrace apps in class. I came across this article on LinkedIn a while back, with the title: ‘BYOD: Bring Your Own Disaster’, and although that was worded strongly I cannot disagree.

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