It was at the South By Southwest Edu conference in Austin earlier this month that I first heard the term B.Y.O.D. or B.Y.O.T.–”Bring Your Own Device” or “Bring Your Own Technology.” The idea is deceptively simple–instead of school districts spending money to outfit classrooms with the latest tablet or laptop, which will be outdated in six months, they will instead have students access web-based programs and cloud-based content, in the classroom, with the devices they already have and are familiar with. This idea parallels what is already happening in the workplace, where company-supplied Blackberries are giving way to iPhones that employees purchase themselves.
On the website BYOTnetwork, maintained by the Coordinator of Instructional Technology for Forsyth County, GA, teachers share the strong impetus behind BYOT: the chance to differentiate instruction while engaging all students. There’s a sense of glee at the idea of hijacking students’ distraction devices to instead enhance the classroom experience, enlisting students as collaborators in trying new content and apps, and powering up instead of powering down. Writes one teacher:
“As teachers, we have two choices. Embrace the distractions or fight them. Our county decided to embrace the only thing that seemed to be holding ALL kids’ attention. If these devices could hold the focus of any type of learner, why would we fight it? Why not learn to use this for good?…My classroom had evolved from direct instruction with me leading every angle to a fresh, new student centered place my kids wanted to be. The answer to my never-ending question of “how” to reach every learner was unfolding right before my eyes. I was changing…one website and one app at a time.”
Over the weekend the New York Times covered this story, noting the emergence of several large school districts in Florida, Georgia and Texas that are pursuing B.Y.O.T. policies. They discussed the budget realities behind B.Y.O.T.:
“’The schools are hoping, hoping there’s going to be a for-free solution because they don’t have any money,’ said Elliot Soloway, a computer science professor at the University of Michigan who consults with many school districts about the use of computers to promote learning.”
The article also raised pedagogical questions when teachers have to choose educational software and content based on what works with all the different devices, “ in effect, subverting curriculum to technology.”
But the Times brushed by what seems like an obvious objection to B.Y.O.T.: inequality of access to tech tools, and especially broadband and data services, on the basis of income. The Times reported, anecdotally, that poverty did not seem to adversely affect students’ access to mobile devices.
A recent national teacher survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project presented a different picture. First, B.Y.O.T. is clearly happening, maybe even faster than we realize. Fully 73% of the middle and high school teachers surveyed said their students use their cell phones on task in the classroom or to complete assignments.
But the digital divide also seems alive and well. Teachers of the lowest income students were more than twice as likely as teachers of the highest income students (56% v. 21%) to say that students’ lack of access to digital technologies is a “major challenge” to incorporating more digital tools into their teaching. And, teachers of the lowest income students were the least likely to report that their students have sufficient access to the digital tools they need, both in school and at home.
According to other recent Pew research, cell phone penetration is indeed pretty high among teenagers of all income brackets–62% of those from families earning less than $30,000 a year still have their own phones, compared to 91% among families earning over $75,000. But only one in four teenagers, regardless of income, owns a smartphone. (Lower-income and Latino students were more unsure as to whether their phone qualified as a smartphone.) Trying to watch Khan Academy videos or even access Wikipedia on a flip phone or an older generation smartphone is a recipe for frustration.
There is a federal effort to provide low-cost broadband and PCs at home to students eligible for federal and reduced lunch programs. B.Y.O.T. shouldn’t be used to excuse school districts from the responsibility to provide equal access and opportunity for participation in learning innovations for all students from all backgrounds.