Mobile Computing

9 IT Best Practices for BYOD Districts

Districts with successful bring your own device programs share their key strategies for rolling out and managing student-owned devices in school.

BYOD teaser

Allowing students to bring their own devices into the classroom is a relatively new concept to many U.S. school districts. BYOD can help personalize learning by letting students work on devices that they are very familiar with, but it also creates some key challenges for the IT professionals who have to balance the need for computing power with the resources provided by their districts. Here, a handful of district technology heads discuss their BYOD best practices and suggest how others might adopt them.

1) Don’t substitute a BYOD program for a 1-to-1 computing initiative. While the two concepts may seem similar from the CTO’s perspective, lumping them together can be a mistake. According to Bob Gravina, CIO at Poway Unified School District in San Diego, “We look at BYOD as an addition to our 1-to-1 initiative, and not as a replacement for every student having access to a device while in school.”

2) Invest in wireless networks and the technology infrastructure to support them. Here’s one instance where the “if you build it, they will come” approach actually works. Gravina said, “When we saw the popularity of laptops and mobile devices among students and teachers, we started building out a network to be able to support those devices.”

That effort has been ongoing over the last 10 years at Poway USD, whose goal is to support three to four devices per student. To achieve that mission, the district built a robust wireless network and invested in switches, access points and other infrastructure components to support that network. “You can’t just put a lot of money into wireless without the bandwidth, or vice versa,” said Gravina. “You really need to do both.”

3) Shoot for a K-12 BYOD initiative. When Meriden Public Schools (CT) wrapped up a successful six-week BYOD pilot in 2014, one of the first questions that came up was, “Do we now roll this out to all students in grades K-12, or just some of them?”

Both Barbara Haeffner, director of curriculum and instructional technology for the 9,000-student district, and Superintendent Mark Benigni said they wanted a districtwide initiative. According to Benigni, “We felt that even our K-5 pupils would benefit from the rollout, regardless of whether they were actively using devices daily in class. So while these younger students may not benefit as much from the BYOD as our secondary schools would, we wanted to send a message that they will in time.”

Haeffner said that simple message opened the door for elementary teachers to embrace some level of technology and encourage students to bring devices into the classroom. “We wanted to make sure that everyone saw this as a K-12 transition,” she said, “and not just as a secondary-school initiative.”

4) Develop a robust cloud network that all stakeholders can use to access key materials and applications. As part of its commitment to BYOD, Poway USD rolled out a single-sign-on, cloud-based portal that students, teachers, staff and parents can access online on a 24/7 basis. Users can view attendance records, test scores, grades, homework, digital textbooks and other materials in real time, according to Gravina. The portal also serves as an e-mail exchange and enables single sign-on for Google Docs and Khan Academy curriculum materials and videos. “It’s both a private network and a public cloud,” said Gravina, “where everyone can access all of their resources on a centralized platform.”

5) Closely monitor your network’s bandwidth. Centrally located in Poway USD’s network operation center is a large monitor that allows Gravina and his staff to keep tabs on the district’s bandwidth usage. “We’re always watching our bandwidth,” he said. “As soon as we start to see usage exploding, we can accomplish what we need to do to scale it up.”

Unlike some districts that solve the bandwidth issue by installing 1 GB of bandwidth across campus, Poway USD uses a packet-shaping tool that allows its engineers to assess and specify priorities. If a class of students is taking a math exam online, for example, then that activity would take priority and the student who is streaming MTV or Pandora would have to take the backseat. Gravina said the approach works well for the district, which is currently upgrading its firewall to a platform that also includes a new packet-shaping tool.

6) Work to eliminate any WiFi “dead zones.” Having wireless Internet access in class is one thing, but once students begin roaming around school buildings with their own devices in hand, ubiquitous WiFi access becomes crucial. Benigni said that Meriden Public Schools increased the number of wireless access points in an effort to eliminate the existing dead zones and to put more users on the grid, so to speak. With two high schools currently under construction, he added that the district is fortunate that it can build in WiFi rather than having to retrofit existing structures to accommodate it.

7) Develop and stand by an IT support approach for all devices. If a student brings his or her own device to school, and if that device becomes inoperable, Poway USD’s IT department refers the student to the retailer and/or manufacturer for support. Gravina explained: “The minute we touch a device it causes problems [with the warranty and manufacturer support], even if we’re just downloading the latest Internet browser onto it.” So, he said, “When it comes to personal devices, we don’t touch them.” District-provided devices that are under warranty get treated differently, said Gravina, whose team either enforces the warranties or fixes the devices. With warranty costs rising, he said the district may soon look at items priced at $500 or less as “throwaway” devices. “We’re not going to fix them or buy warranties for them,” he said.

8) Understand that in most cases, enough BYOD oversight really is enough. Jay McPhail, CTO at Fullerton School District (CA), said the IT department shouldn’t overstep its boundaries when it comes to device support and other elements of a BYOD program. McPhail, whose district currently has 3,000 BYOD users in high school and K-4, said, “Apple has specific warranty parameters — with the big one being that it doesn’t fix cracked screens — and districts have budget restrictions.” As a result, he said, “The district IT department can take a more hands-off approach to it and only get involved when it’s really necessary.”

9) When in doubt, start with a manageable pilot project. Both Haeffner and Benigni said that one of their best BYOD strategies was to start with a small pilot project and then expand the initiative from there. Haeffner, whose own third-grade daughter loves it when her teacher asks the class to bring in their own devices for use the following day, recalled, “Once we rolled it out, and once we saw how students embraced it, there was no turning back. Once our students grabbed hold of this idea, we knew we were headed in the right direction. Had we not done a pilot program first, we wouldn’t have had those insights to go on.”

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].