Mobility | Feature

Left to Their Own Devices

With cost concerns squeezing districts out of 1-to-1 computing programs, a once unthinkable solution is now in play: allowing students to bring their own laptops, PDAs, and—heaven help us—cell phones.

At Empire High School in Vail, AZ, every student has a laptop, a fully loaded MacBook supplied free of charge—to the student, at least—courtesy of the Vail School District. “We provide the entire experience,” says Vail CIO Matt Federoff.

The 1-to-1 program is a cornerstone of Vail’s Beyond Textbooks initiative, whose goal is an all-digital curriculum. So facing the decision on whether to expand the program to another of its high schools, Cienega, the district made the obvious choice: No way.

“At 900 bucks a pop, we can’t provide a laptop to every kid at every one of our high schools,” Federoff says. “Economically, that’s not sustainable for us. We can do it for 850 kids at Empire. We can’t do it for 2,000 kids at Cienega.”

But the district was in no mood to dial back on its push toward digital content, or widen the hallowed ratio of one computer per student. So Federoff and his group gathered to brainstorm alternatives. “We were thinking, ‘What are some other models?’” Federoff says. “We have a high school that is 1-to-1 where we give you the widget. Well, what if you bring the widget? A lot of our kids have their own laptops. What if we leveraged these devices to see if they can be used for instruction? Is that better or worse, or somewhere in the middle? We chose a handful of classes and a few teachers just to see how it would pan out, if it was a practical solution.”

In July, Vail launched a bring-your-own-laptop program at Cienega High in about a dozen classes. The program, Federoff stresses, is still in its trial phase. “It’s purely an experiment,” he says. “Right now we’re feeling our way through it.”

So far, feedback has been mixed, according to Federoff. Such niggling interferences as scheduling difficulties and getting the students to actually bring the devices to class have muddled the effort.

“I don’t know if it’s better, but the alternative would be nothing,” Federoff says. “We wouldn’t have a device at all. If nothing else, bring-your-own-laptop has enabled dozens and dozens of students access to technology in the classroom they otherwise wouldn’t have.”

It may be an imperfect approach—marked by labor-intensive infrastructural and logistical tasks—but allowing students to bring their own computing devices to class may be the inevitable solution for districts that are under ever-constricting budgets but want to preserve a technology-enhanced education. It’s not just student-owned laptops that schools are opening up to, but any web-enabled device, including PDAs, iPod Touches, and cell phones. Not too long ago this would have struck many educators as a deal with the devil, to invite such potential chaos into the classroom. But now it only seems sensible, or as Don Manderson, technology coordinator of Florida’s Escambia County Schools, says simply, “just the right thing to do.”

“We’d like to have the best student-to-computer ratio that we possibly can,” says Manderson as his district aims for the launch of a student-owned-devices program later this school year. “We certainly can’t afford 1-to-1. Our districtwide ratio is 3-to-1, 4-to-1, but we’d like to do better than that. When there are many devices out there owned by students that could help to fill that void of computers, and they’re perfectly functional and they could be helping the instructional process, I don’t know how much longer it’ll be viable to say no.”

Ready for Rollout

Escambia is now near completing what is the central technical challenge of permitting the use of student-owned computing tools. It has taken the district two years to establish a guest “path” on the district network for student-owned devices that routes them through a web filter and on to the internet for study resources, but keeps them away from sensitive areas on the network meant only for staff and faculty.

“They can’t get to our network operating system or mapped drives, or any other repositories of information that exist inside our firewall,” Manderson says. “They go straight out the firewall, through the content filter, and out to the internet. That’s all they can do.”

The last component of the work has been the installation of FreeRADIUS, an open source RADIUS (remote authentication dial-in user service) server that will act as a gatekeeper to Escambia’s secured network.

“We don’t want a device that a student brings in with who-knows-what kind of hacking materials on it to be able to get to that network,” he says. “Right now it would have access to the network because we don’t have a login requirement. Until that is in place, we’re postponing the rollout of the student appliances in the schools.”

Manderson says that installing the server has been done in tandem with another painstaking procedural step. It took the district two years to craft an addendum to its acceptable use policy (AUP) that lays out the parameters for the use of student-owned devices. “We’ve been very careful to define precisely what the limitations are and what the terms of use are,” he says, “and what the terms of termination of the ability to use them are.”

Manderson says this emphasis on identifying restrictions runs counter to the way acceptable use policies are now generally written. Two years ago he attended a conference session on drafting AUPs and learned that the trend was toward “defining expectations rather than defining what’s not allowed.” He says an orthodox approach suits the conservative community in which the district resides. “The policy may not be progressive, but the initiative is,” he says.

The Escambia policy actually could be seen as a transgression of Florida state law, which Manderson says forbids cell phones from use in school except for emergency purposes. When is a cell phone not a cell phone? According to the Escambia AUP, when it’s being used to get on the internet.

“The acceptable use policy treats the cell phone, if it’s internet enabled, as an internet appliance,” Manderson says. “If you’re using it as an internet appliance and you’re not using Skype or something like that to make a phone call, then I guess that would be acceptable use. But if you begin to use any cellular capabilities, including texting and instant messaging, then you would be in the area of inappropriate conduct.”

Equal Access, Unequal Tools

Crafting a policy to govern student-owned devices shows how troublesome it can be to bring so many disparate appliances under one standard. Things could get even thornier in the classroom, where a teacher may face a class of 30 students in which five have iPod Touches, five have laptops, five have PDAs, and five have old-school clamshell phones.

“If a teacher sends out a PDF study sheet, there may be kids with [appliances] that don’t support PDFs as attachments,” says Richard Doherty, co-founder and director of Envisioneering, a technology consulting group based in Seaford, NY. “Until issues like that are resolved, teachers and IT directors will be learning as they go, sending out two different formats of a file if necessary.”

That scenario is also imagined by Karen Greenwood Henke, a Pasadena, CA-based ed tech consultant. “It would be frustrating for a teacher to find an amazing video on the internet that kids could see on their smartphones, but only half the students have phones that can play video,” she says. “And of those, five need instruction on how to make their media player work.”

So how can a consistent lesson be devised that allows every make and model of machine to participate? It’s a top-of-mind concern for Vail’s Federoff, who worries that the need to accommodate the capabilities of every device will force the teacher to simplify a lesson.

“The primary problem is, What does the teacher aim for?” he says, noting that this is one area where district-supplied machines have an advantage. “At Empire, if you provide the laptops, you know what applications [are installed], you know what the kids are capable of doing—you can ask everyone to make a movie. If the students bring the laptops, it gets trickier because you don’t have a consistent tool set to aim for. My fear is you begin to go for the lowest common denominator: What do I know all the kids can do consistently? That actually isn’t terribly exciting.”

Vail’s technology coordinator, Kevin Steeves, who also teaches ecology at Cienega High School, says Microsoft Excel, for example, isn’t feasible because teachers have no assurance that every student will bring a laptop loaded with Excel. One application they can count on and therefore use liberally is the content management tool Moodle.

“That’s a resource that no matter what laptop you have, you can access it,” Steeves says. “The other thing we use a lot of is Google Apps. If teachers have a writing assignment, they’ll focus on using Google Apps because they know all students have access to it.”

One universal solution may have just entered North America six months ago. Norway-based ed tech provider It’s Learning has just introduced to the US market a learning platform by the same name that can deliver educational materials for use on any web-enabled computing device, according to company president Jon Bower.

“It runs on the browser—it’s not an app,” he explains. “It runs beautifully on a Palm. It runs fine on a BlackBerry. It runs on an iPod. It runs on a PC, it runs on a Mac. It runs happily on an Xbox 360—in the browser. It is broadly device-independent, and it allows you to deliver content from just about any publisher.”

The “real magic” of the platform, Bower believes, is its integration into a learning management system, which allows teachers to create their own learning materials that can then be delivered “seamlessly” with published third-party content to the students via their mobile devices. “That’s how you get to really individualize the instruction process,” he says.

Bower adds that It’s Learning is well established abroad, used by more than 20 publishers to deliver their materials to European primary and higher education students. He says that in its short time in the US, the product is finding its target audience: “It’s concentrated in schools that are highly focused on improving outcomes.”

Are Netbooks the Answer?

Even if a cross-device platform makes its way into the classroom, that still doesn’t resolve the question of what to do with those left out: the five kids in the class who have neither a Palm, an iPod Touch, a laptop, nor any web-enabled device whatsoever.

One answer is to keep spares on hand. Virginia’s Hampton City Schools is currently conducting an experimental program at some of its middle schools in which students are creating videos with the use of their own video cameras. Any student who doesn’t own a camera can check out one of the new video-enabled iPod Nanos the district has purchased. According to Director of Technology Georgianna Skinner, the district is hoping to have the same kind of store of reserve machines on hand when it implements a bring-your-own-devices initiative in the 2010-2011 school year.

The program comes on the heels of the termination of the district’s 1-to-1 laptop plan, which Skinner says had to be scrapped because maintenance on the machines had become too pricey. “We had come to the point where we either had to refresh the laptops or we had to stop it,” she says. “We had good results, but it was so expensive that we had to back off it. It was very disappointing.”

Providing spares, though, for even just a portion of a 22,000-student enrollment won’t come all that cheap. “Surveys have told us that about 80 percent of our homes have internet access, so we’re looking to fill in the 20 percent that don’t,” Skinner says. “What we’re looking for is the least expensive device that will do what we need it to do.”

Netbooks would seem to best fit that description; at around $400, they’re cheaper than issuing textbooks to a student, which runs more toward $600 to $1,000 for four years of high school. Vail’s Federoff, however, thinks the device that will erase the digital divide is still out there. “Netbooks are close,” he says. “There’s some middle ground between an iPod Touch and a laptop. Somebody’s going to create that device and that’s going to be a transformative moment.”

Federoff ultimately sees a solution he compares to “a school-bus model,” where the school offers a baseline machine but allows students to bring their own if they wish. “At some point we’re going to provide a device that lets kids get to digital content, and it will have a consistent tool set and a consistent experience. We don’t know what that device is; it hasn’t been invented yet. What we’ll say to the kids is, ‘Okay, that’s what you get.’ If a kid’s got a box that can do better, the kid can bring it. Kind of like, if you can drive yourself to school, you can—or you can ride the bus.”

Until that day arrives, Manderson says that the availability of student-owned devices actually helps equalize the classroom experience for all by freeing up whatever amount of school-owned devices there are. “For every child who is able to bring a device to school, it makes another device available that the district provides,” he says, noting that his district has a large number of economically disadvantaged students who don’t own computing devices.

“They’re going to benefit by more technology being available, or perhaps benefit by being in a group of four or five students where somebody brought their own device,” he says. “Perhaps that device could potentially act as the conduit out to the web at large to get information for a group. So it could benefit more than just the owner of the piece of equipment.

“I just don’t see how we can, for a whole lot longer, simply deny the presence of a device that could enhance and expand the instructional process for no real good reason, other than we’re just not sure about what would happen. And I think we owe it to ourselves to at least try it.”   

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of THE Journal.

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