Networking & Wireless

6 IT Solutions to BYOD Challenges

Letting students bring their own devices to class can present IT and classroom-management difficulties. Here's how districts around the country are overcoming them.

BYOD: Students at Derry Township High School are taught to troubleshoot their own technology.

Students at Derry Township High School are taught to troubleshoot their own technology.

In the Derry Township School District in Hershey, PA, students as young as the fourth grade are allowed to bring their own devices to class to support their learning, at the discretion of their teacher. David Sweigert, director of infrastructure technology for the district, has a warning for those who want to adopt a similar policy in their schools. "It can derail a good lesson if something goes wrong. If I'm an AP teacher, I don't have a day to waste."

Teachers need time to experiment so they can figure out how to deliver lessons, manage presentations and foster collaboration when students are using a wide range of devices in class, Sweigert said. He added, "BYOD will never truly work unless you have teacher adoption," and that won't happen unless educators feel comfortable teaching in a mixed-device environment.

The challenges involved in letting students bring their own devices for use in class aren't just instructional in nature. They also include IT challenges such as providing secure network access while making sure students' online activities are visible to IT administrators. Ed tech leaders in districts around the country have found solutions to these challenges. Here are some of the lessons they've learned from supporting BYOD environments.

Controlling and Monitoring Network Access
Schools adopting BYOD policies need an easy way for students to log onto the network with their personal devices and receive appropriate access without compromising security. Fortunately, many wireless networking companies have developed automated tools to help with this process.

Derry Township uses a product called ZoneDirector from Ruckus Wireless for its network authentication. When students bring in a device from home, they can choose to connect to one of two wireless networks, Sweigert said: the main district network (DTSD) or a separate guest network.

"The guest network is an open network, but we're throttling the speed, and it's heavily filtered," he said. "We tell students, 'If you want to get on a faster network, then use the DTSD network.'"

If students try to connect to DTSD, they are asked for their user name and password. ZoneDirector checks this information against the Active Directory profiles stored in the district's authentication, authorization and accounting (AAA) server and then delivers a certificate to the students' devices. This certificate is good for 60 months, so the network will associate a particular device with a student for up to five years. Once students are authenticated on the network, their Internet access is filtered according to the rules established for their group profile.

Connecticut's Stonington Public Schools also lets students bring in their own devices, beginning in middle school. Like Derry Township, Stonington offers both a guest network and a district network, and it uses the NetSight wireless management system from Extreme Networks to authenticate users and give them network privileges based on their Active Directory profile.

According to Director of Technology Jason Jones, with NetSight, "Once students enter their credentials, there are a few security checks that are run on their machine. Then, students must agree to our policy terms — and they are given Internet access."

Both ZoneDirector and NetSight also provide insight into a district's wireless network use, such as which users are connected and what devices they are using. Sweigert said, "It's nice to be able to see what kind of devices students are bringing to class," so teachers and administrators can plan accordingly.

Using Device-Agnostic Software
BYOD environments also pose challenges for classroom teachers, especially when students are sharing resources or working together on projects. In Stonington, teachers have found that using browser-based software can address these concerns, Jones said. With tools such as Google Apps for Education, students and teachers can access the same files as long as they are using a device with a Web browser.

Shaelynn Farnsworth, a school improvement consultant for Area Education Agency 267 in Iowa, said she agrees that using cloud-based services "alleviates many of the issues that arise" in BYOD classrooms. Farnsworth said she likes using Google Apps and other browser-based tools because they're compatible with any device and can be accessed from anywhere students have Internet access.

In Derry Township, Sweigert's instructional technology colleagues have shared a number of "device-agnostic" tools with the district's teachers, he said. For instance, to check for understanding during lessons, many teachers are using Socrative, which is available as a browser-based application as well as a native app for iOS, Android, Windows and Kindle devices.

Socrative is "a good, no-fail tool for teachers to get their feet wet with formative assessment," Sweigert said — regardless of what devices their students might be using.

3 More Keys to BYOD Success

Here are three additional best practices for supporting BYOD, according to district technology leaders.

1) Providing plenty of bandwidth
The more devices schools allow on their networks, the more bandwidth they'll need — and they should be prepared for a large spike in use. "You have to have the pipeline to carry all of the traffic," said Jason Jones, director of technology for the Stonington Public Schools (CT) "Your network infrastructure has to be battle-tested and ready for the challenge of delivering 21st century curriculum."

2) Communicating with parents
Getting parents involved and making sure they understand classroom expectations and minimum device requirements is "essential," said Shaelynn Farnsworth, a school improvement consultant for Area Education Agency 267 (IA). She suggested holding open house nights to discuss your BYOD plans and using social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to set well-defined expectations and clear up any misunderstandings.

3) Offering recharging stations
The batteries in students' devices might not stay charged for the entire school day, so schools should do their best to provide charging options. David Sweigert, director of infrastructure technology for Pennsylvania's Derry Township School District, said,  "We've transformed our high school library into a learning commons, and it has a place for students to charge their devices. And some teachers have docking stations in the back of their classroom to let students recharge as well."

Sharing Screens for Presentations
Presentations in a BYOD classroom can be challenging, especially when teachers want to display a student's screen for the class. Sweigert said that one of Derry Township's solutions is to have students upload their work to Google Drive and then present it from their own device. He said the district's high school also is trying out a wireless presentation and collaboration system called NovoConnect. Made by Vivitek, it allows up to four users to project content simultaneously through a shared projector using any device.

In Briana Crowley's freshman English classes at Derry Township High School, students learn presentation skills as part of the curriculum. "I very rarely dictate the tool that students have to use for their projects," she said. "I tend to let them choose the tool that works best for them."

Often, this requires Crowley and her students to do some troubleshooting so they can share their projects with the class. "One of the skills in presenting is doing a run-through and understanding that your technology works," she said. "Students either have to use a tool that is easily shareable with a link that I can open on my computer, or they have to make sure their device can connect to the other technology in the room. And so I put that back on them as part of the process."

It's important for teachers to have a few versatile applications in mind that will work on multiple platforms and that they can models for students to use, Crowley said. At the same time, she added, giving students a choice of what tools they use for assignments helps them develop ownership of their projects. "You have to be comfortable with not being the problem-solver in the room all the time," she said. "You have to be confident that you are going to be able to help a student work through the problem, but you are not just going to have the answer."

She concluded, "The reality is that we are all learning together. Technology is changing so fast, and people are using different tools so often, that we have to be learners together. Approaching BYOD with that mindset will help quell the frustration for teachers, while also empowering students to be the experts sometimes."