Is BYOD Fair?

...fairness isn't an objective feature of the universe. It's a concept that was invented so children and idiots can participate in arguments. Scott (Dilbert) Adams

Long before the term BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) became popular, our district permitted personally owned student devices on our wireless networks to give students Internet access. We've never had a district-level policy banning phones, laptops, tablets, or other student technologies. And while our buildings and individual teachers certainly have rules guiding such use, students can use their own equipment on all our campuses.

So an interesting thing happened last year that was at least a partially enabled by this open-access policy. Our student information system, Infinite Campus, released an iOS app so students and parents could get to their information using their iPhones, iPads or iPod Touchs. We put the link and instructions on our portal's website at 11:00AM and by noon, students were already using it to track assignments, grades, attendance, and schedules - and enabling notifications when new data was added by teachers.

I was feeling pretty good about that until reading Gary Stager's post: BYOD – Worst Idea of the 21st Century? in which he laments:

  • The only way to guarantee equitable educational experiences is for each student to have access to the same materials and learning opportunities. BYOD leaves this to chance with more affluent students continuing to have an unfair advantage over their classmates. This is particularly problematic in a society with growing economic disparity, and that
  • Information access, note-taking and communication (presenting, sharing, publishing) are the low-hanging fruit of education and represent the tiniest fraction of what it means to learn. Looking up the answers to someone else’s questions online in order to write an essay or make a PowerPoint presentation reinforces the status quo at best while failing to unlock for children the wondrous opportunities provided by computational thinking.

Stager makes some interesting arguments why schools, not families, should be providing computing devices for students. Read the whole post.

Can these problems of inequity and "lowest common denominator" of technology use be ameliorated by an actual BYOD plan*? Here's what we've been working on:

Determining just how great the digital divide is among families in the district by conducting surveys and then formulating means of providing access to those students without technology access outside of school. Providing ready access to technology in school via computers in open labs, libraries, classrooms, and circulating netbooks.

Defining the capabilities of a student-owned device based on basic tasks it needs to perform - see Specs for Student Devices. I hope we can honor individual preferences of students in type of device. Some may prefer a laptop; others a smartphone.

Using these capabilities as a selection criteria when adopting textbooks with online supplementary materials, other curricular online materials, and classroom activities.

Stager makes some compelling ethical arguments against BYOD. But there are also ethical questions raised when we do not provide all the learning opportunities possible to as many students as possible--realizing some students will not be able to take advantage of them. If the cure rate of a vaccine is 9o%, do we not treat anyone since it would be unfair to the incurable 10%? Do more powerful computers equal more powerful uses of technology in schools, as Stager suggests? Is no computing access at all preferable to access to a less powerful device? When does education become "fair"--when all students in a classroom, a grade level, a school, a district, a state, a nation, or the world have equal access to equal technologies?

If we wait for the perfect conditions to begin anything (100% if students all having access to a powerful portable computer, for example), many of us will be waiting for a very, very long time. Let's work with what we have and continue to work for better access to technologies and more powerful ways of using them.

* I have never quite decided if BYOD is a project, plan, philosophy, policy or just a buzzword.

Read more of Doug Johnson's work on the Blue Skunk blog.