Making the case for student-controlled devices

It’s time to let go of the notion that we need to control student behavior, Gliksman writes.

One of the benefits of getting older is that you can reflect back on a time when things were done differently. Similarly, you can also clearly see when other things are essentially the same. Although the world around our schools is dramatically different, many of the pillars of our educational systems remain unchanged. Given the dramatic and accelerating transformation in the world around us, it’s certainly time to reflect upon how we conduct the business of schooling.

Many have already started down this path. We acknowledge the clear need to move from “sage on the stage” teaching to student-empowered learning. We realize that our old content delivery models of education need to be replaced with more experiential and discovery based processes. We understand the limitations of a text-only approach and try to integrate different forms of media. Now, it’s time to revise another sacred cow that has been symptomatic of institutional education since its inception.

It’s time to let go of the notion that we need to control student behavior. It’s time to realize that we cannot, and should not, dictate the manner in which students learn. One area where the desire for control is clearly manifested is our use of technology in school.

Now, before you fire up that impassioned response, let me clarify that I’m not advocating a complete hands-off policy that gives students the freedom to do whatever they desire. There’s a clear distinction between “protection” and “control.” Protecting students from accidentally getting a computer virus or being routed to a pornography website is important. Deciding what apps they use; preventing them from managing their devices; undue censorship of internet activity—these are control issues.

(Next page: Seven recommendations for school leaders)

It’s ironic that we insist on censoring and controlling technology use. Outside school, technology is characterized by freedom and empowerment—the ability for anyone to easily access or publish information, connect with people across the world, and utilize media for new forms of creative expression and knowledge expansion. Innovation leads to new technologies, which in turn can nurture further innovation. However, that can only occur if we allow it:

  • Technology empowers students to explore and create. In schools, however, it’s often used in the pursuit of efficiency, where we require students to use technology in the same manner and with the intent that they produce similar results.
  • We understand that students have vastly different talents and distinctive learning preferences. At home, some use technology in more structured, logical ways, while others gravitate to more visual or creative pursuits. Technology empowers them to find their own space as learners. In school, we decide what applications they must use, and we dictate exactly how they will use them—step by step—even in the face of our full understanding that students are far more expert at learning and using technology than teachers.
  • The internet has enabled the democratization of information—publish, discover, and learn anything. Anyone can publish. Everything is available. In schools, we attempt to strictly control what they can see and do (yes, I used the word “attempt”—try Googling “ways to get around school web filters” and see what you get).

Technology is a product of change; however, we often design our implementations in manners that latch onto the comfortable old structures we’ve always used. Teachers control the class, and it’s always been heretical to suggest otherwise. We therefore decide what technology students use and, more importantly, how they will use it—even though they represent the first generations in history that are mastering many of the essential tools of everyday life before the adults who came before them.

If we know anything about the world outside school, it’s that it requires an ability to adapt to change. We insist that modern life requires graduates who are experienced, independent learners. School is the time to start developing those skills. When we enable the use of technology in school, we should also grant students the independence and freedom to use it their own way.

  • We can, and should, allow students to manage their own devices. Help them learn the relevant technical and organizational skills, especially as this has become a vital part of life outside school.
  • Loosen the Parental Controls. Allow them the freedom and responsibility to manage their school apps, set up their school eMail, and more. Have someone instruct them on best practices.
  • Allow them the freedom to find and use other apps as appropriate to their activities in class.
  • You can purchase some apps centrally, but otherwise ask parents to purchase the apps. There is an abundance of inexpensive choices.
  • A “Responsible Use” policy should clearly state what is allowed and disallowed. The policy should be signed by child and parent alike.
  • Freedom and responsibility come with consequences. Define a clear outcome for inappropriate use, and act upon it as required.
  • Use a web filter, but set restrictions loosely—and only block categories of sites that are potentially harmful. Ensure you have monitoring in place, so you can track web usage if needed. The only skill strict filtering develops is the ability to find ways to work around it … and students do. Rather than acting as “Big Brother,” set an expectation of personal responsibility and take action when the standards aren’t met.

Most importantly, school leaders should encourage creative, independent, and innovative use of technology.

(Next page: Three ways to encourage creative tech use—and why the desire to control students’ use of technology is symptomatic of a larger problem)

  • Allow students the latitude to express their knowledge in different ways and with different tools wherever possible—and subject to your prior approval. The process of learning should be more personally meaningful and motivational.
  • Let them find and bring tools that they are most comfortable using.
  • Give them the latitude to be teachers as well as learners. When they invent, discover, or master something new, have them teach others and create tutorials that you post online.

Our desire for controlling the use of technology is emblematic of a deeper problem. Top-down institutional control isn’t a workable model in an era where the marketplace requires graduates to have skills for learning anything, anywhere, and at any time. Following instruction is important, but there’s also an urgent need to develop personal innovation—the sort of flexible, creative thought and action that’s required to deal with a world of tumultuous change.

Innovation requires that we open the metaphorical classroom windows and doors. Instead, we still feel more comfortable keeping them closed. Is it about control, or are we more concerned with efficiency? Are we making decisions based on their needs or ours?

Whenever I discuss iPad or BYOD implementations in schools, one of the first issues raised usually revolves around problems associated with management and control. iPads are difficult to manage on an institutional level. That could be a blessing in disguise. Maybe it presents us with the right timing and opportunity to finally allow students to manage their devices and develop their skills as independent and responsible learners.

Sam Gliksman is the author of “iPad in Education for Dummies.” Sam can be reached via eMail at; follow him on Twitter at @samgliksman.

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