How to make BYOD work for your schools


One of the largest challenges in a BYOD initiative is meeting the needs of students who don’t own a mobile device, or who don’t have internet access at home.

“Bring your own device” (BYOD) initiatives are relatively new in education, cropping up in the last few years as schools—under tight budget constraints—seek ways to leverage student-owned devices for learning.

Supporters of the BYOD movement say students are instantly more attentive and better behaved when they are encouraged to use their own mobile devices in the classroom, but educators face a number of challenges in making BYOD work in their schools.

For instance, what if some students don’t bring a smart phone, laptop, or tablet computer of their own? How can educators make sure that students use their mobile devices only for educational purposes, or that these devices won’t compromise the district’s network security? How can school leaders address the concerns of parents?

We’ve talked with ed-tech leaders in a number of districts with BYOD initiatives, and here’s how they’re meeting these challenges in their schools.

A ‘coalition of the willing’

Jill Hobson, instructional technology director for the Forsyth County Schools in Georgia, said her district’s BYOD initiative is a “coalition of the willing.”

Now in its fourth year, the initiative began with seven schools and 40 teachers who realized they didn’t have all the answers to questions that a BYOD initiative would raise, Hobson said.

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“We would share ideas, but we expected that we would be learning from the teachers as they were going to be trying things in the classroom,” she said. “It was messy, and we were prepared for that.”

In the initiative’s second year, the district’s technology team told school principals that the infrastructure to support BYOD existed, but that district leaders did not mandate participation. Still, last year 100 percent of the district’s schools participated.

“I’m under no illusion—that doesn’t mean every classroom was doing it,” Hobson said. “We’re not mandating it. But certainly, the capacity is there to do it.”

All five of the district’s high schools have amended their procedures to let students have personal access to their own devices in between classes, during lunch, and at other “free” times throughout the day. Hobson said administrators deal with problems as they arise, but discipline problems have almost disappeared since the rules were implemented, down to between two and four from 400.

“I’ve said before that every school is doing BYOD—it’s just a matter of whether you’re ready to admit it or not,” she said.

Forsyth County still maintains 24,000 of its own computer devices—mostly desktops and laptops—that require network support, but Hobson said that in the future, she does not think schools will be outfitted with devices as they are now.

Classroom computers have seen increased use since the district’s BYOD initiative launched, because teachers and students carry content or ideas over from smaller personal devices and use computers to support certain applications or functionality that smaller mobile devices do not support. Classroom computers also are available for students who don’t have their own device.

District policy is designed so that IT staff do not touch, troubleshoot, or offer technical support for student-owned devices.

To address security, district officials have set up a separate BYOD network that is “segmented off” from more secure areas. Hobson likened it to a concrete wall 25 feet wide and 25 feet tall; students on the BYOD network cannot access student information, financial information, and so on.

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Wireless experts: Time to move beyond the device

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In fact, the network is set up like free Wi-Fi networks found in restaurants and coffee shops across the country. Students connect to the network via a secure access point, and they get the same filtered internet access they would find on any school-owned laptop or desktop.

One of the largest challenges in a BYOD initiative is meeting the needs of students who don’t own a mobile device, or who don’t have internet access at home. While Forsyth County is an affluent area, the district currently has a task force examining equity issues that accompany BOYD. Some possible solutions include:

  • Mapping every single public Wi-Fi access point within the school district to help students who have a device, but whose families can’t afford the ongoing cost of internet access.
  • Examining company partnerships that would finance the district’s purchase of “My-Fi” hotspot-type devices available for checkout through school media centers. The district would pay for data plans within reason. This solution not only would help the student in question, but it would provide the same filtered internet access within the district’s schools to those near the student’s home, which would help the community at large.

“Infrastructure is a challenge,” Hobson said. “Every district that wants to do this will face that challenge.”

School budgets are already constrained, and district leaders must make sure that enough infrastructure exists to support the number of students who are going to bring their own devices and access the school network.

“When it comes to the teaching and the learning, that’s not a challenge—that’s not hard at all,” Hobson said. “We definitely recommend that schools don’t mandate [BYOD] and try to make everyone do it at once. That’s not going to result in anything positive happening in the classroom. The teachers who are going to have a good comfort level are already comfortable giving up some of the control and letting kids be empowered in their own learning. Those are the teachers you start your program with, and it will spread itself.”

Parents often express concerns that students will use their devices for entertainment, and not for learning—and Hobson said that’s a normal and legitimate worry.

“It’s important to partner with parents and educate [them],” she said. Forsyth County hosts a “curriculum night” and lets parents know ahead of time that the BYOD initiative will be discussed. In fact, parents are able to download some of the same educational apps that their children will be using if they participate in the initiative. During the curriculum night, teachers and IT staff take parents through those apps to demonstrate how students will use their devices to enhance learning.

Students who do not own a device might feel self-conscious, and parents also might worry about bullying. But Hobson said the collaborative nature of technology has lessened those worries.

“We’ve asked kids, ‘If you use one of the school laptops, are others bullying you?’ The kids say that it’s not a problem, and that they simply share when they need to,” Hobson said.

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In fact, Forsyth County educators have come up with a term to describe the collaboration and sharing that occurs in a BYOD classroom—the “BYOD huddle.”

“We know that it changes learning in classrooms,” Hobson said.

Changing policies to accommodate BYOD

A student advisory council in Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) recommended a BYOD initiative, and the district followed suit.

“Students in Fairfax County have been bringing their devices to school for years but in most cases were told to turn them off or to put them away during the school day,” said district spokesman John Torre. “To support the need for increased access to … digital instructional resources and to create a 21st-century learning environment, a Bring Your Own Device pilot program was developed last year to embrace and manage the use of personally-owned devices throughout FCPS. Seventy-nine schools have already participated, and we expect many more to do so this year.”

Torre said the district encourages parents to let students bring personal devices such as laptops, netbooks, smart phones, and tablets to school. Students use their devices to take notes, complete assignments, create study tools, and work in collaboration with peers and teachers.

“With classroom teacher approval, students may register and use their own devices to access the internet and collaborate with other students,” according to the district’s BYOD website. “By allowing students to use their own technology on campus, we are hoping to increase the access all students have to the technology they need to succeed.”

The district’s four-page BYOD acceptable use policy and permission form outlines expected student behavior associated with bringing personally owned devices to school.

Once students and their parents complete the form, Torre said, students can register their device at their school, where it will be approved for use on the district’s network during the school day. Students are allowed to register up to three devices.

“Personally owned devices supplement FCPS-owned laptops and electronic resources.  Students who don’t have their own device or choose not to bring one to school can use school-provided devices, ensuring everyone has the same access in the classroom,” Torre said. “Technology is a part of every student’s life, and this is a new way to extend the learning environment.”

George C. Marshall High School in Falls Church, Va., operates on a “Color Code Usage System” for student devices.

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A red zone indicates that all electronic devices are prohibited, and students found with devices in this zone, such as during tests, will have test results voided with no makeup opportunity.

The yellow zone means that students can have possession of their devices, but they must be silent and out of sight. Blue zones mean that devices are permitted for specific instructional use, and green zones indicate general and open use of devices, such as in the cafeteria.

Additionally, school officials decided that teachers and other staff will not store or hold onto student devices. School IT staff do not support, repair, or troubleshoot student devices, and students are encouraged to charge their devices fully before school, because the school does not guarantee the necessary time or power to charge the device during the day.

Students receive school-issued stickers for each approved device, and they must display those stickers on their devices at all times when they are in use.

The Klein Independent School District in Texas devotes a specific portion of its BOYD policy to staff-student communication. The policy says:

“Communication with students through the use of text messaging is permitted only by staff members who have extracurricular responsibilities and the students participating in the extracurricular activity over which the employee is responsible. All communication must comply with the following rules:

  • Prior to the first communication in a school year, the parent must grant written permission for each staff member the parent will allow to communicate via text message with his/her child. A parent must agree that he/she can be copied on all text messages;
  • Be professional and appropriate;
  • Be limited to matter within the scope of the employee’s professional responsibilities;
  • Include the parent in all communication to the students except in the case of a health or safety emergency (change in practice times is not a health or safety emergency);
  • Be limited to the hours of 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. unless addressing a matter of immediate concern;
  • These rules do not apply to the extent an employee has a social or family relationship with a student;
  • All consent forms must be kept at the campus for future reference.”

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The BYOD policy at Pennsylvania’s Plum Borough School District addresses where students may use certain features on their personal devices:

  • Students must be aware of appropriateness of communications when using district or personally owned devices. Inappropriate communication is prohibited in any public messages, private messages, and material posted online by students.
  • The board expressly prohibits use of personally owned devices in locker rooms, restrooms, and nurses offices.
  • Students are not permitted to use any electronic device to record audio or video media or take pictures of any student or staff member without their permission. The distribution of any unauthorized media may result in discipline including but not limited to suspension, criminal charges, and expulsion.
  • Personally owned devices used in school are not permitted to connect to the internet through a 3G, 4G, or other content service providers. Personally owned devices must access the internet via the district’s content filtered wireless network.

Vendors offering solutions

In response to the growing BYOD phenomenon, ed-tech companies are promoting software-based solutions for helping districts manage BYOD challenges.

Timothy Till, sales manager at Identity Automation, said the company’s identity management (IDM) and single sign-on (SSO) solutions dovetail with BYOD initiatives.

IDM helps IT administrators control the view, access, and permissions of accounts on a school’s network. This process occurs from the minute a school employee is hired or as soon as a student is enrolled and follows the account holder as he or she changes campuses, advances through grade levels, and leaves the school system or graduates.

SSO aims to simplify the number of account credentials that users in a school district must keep track of and use daily to execute different tasks or processes.

BYOD programs pose a challenge to school IT staff because districts experience a growth in the number of accounts they must manage and in the number of resources those accounts need access to, Till said. This leads to schools operating like large enterprise businesses, with thousands of employees and accounts—but with a fraction of the funding to support these.

“BYOD means schools are not managing devices, but managing content and having a mechanism to deliver content to that device in a secure way,” Till said.

Many companies are offering specific BYOD solutions for their education customers, because they recognize BYOD’s growing popularity, as well as the need for school IT staff to manage such initiatives.

ClassLink offers a free BYOD guidebook for schools that are thinking of implementing a BYOD initiative. The guide focuses on school infrastructure, equity, curriculum, instruction, policy, and communication. ClassLink also offers a BYOD library with samples to help educators and IT staff.

Other companies focusing on BYOD for schools include ADTRAN, Aerohive NetworksAirWatch, Absolute Software, Parallels, and Cisco.

See also:

Wireless experts: Time to move beyond the device

With mobile device management, schools can rest easier

Laura Ascione

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