Bring Your Own Context

The gears of change are turning at my school, as we continue moving toward the 2014–2015 school year when all students will be required to have iPads.[1] At a conference this summer with around 500 other teachers at Jesuit schools, seemingly everybody I talked to was at some point on this same path, either their students already had a device or they were moving in that direction. The big question I heard over and over: iPads or BYOD/BYOT (Bring Your Own Device/Tech)?[2]

In those discussions, the individuals pushing for a BYOD deployment had various practical reasons (i.e., projected cost savings by having students bring their own device), but the pedagogical defenses of BYOD almost always boiled down to this: the device doesn’t matter, it’s what you do with it. Or as the staff at one school likes to put it: “It’s about the verbs, not the nouns.” As much as that argument fit how I generally think about education, I found myself unable to really buy into BYOD as a solution.

For a while, I wasn’t able to articulate exactly why that argument didn’t sit well with me. It is about the verbs, the new styles of activities that this technology can enable, more than it is about the technology itself, right? Yet it occurs to me now that it’s precisely because I agree it’s about the verbs not the nouns that I can’t (yet) advocate for a BYOD deployment.

What do I mean? Well, it’s pretty obvious to any teacher who has started to think about these new technologies that once all students have powerful, network-connected devices in their hands at all times, the classroom is going to change. It has to. At many schools, those changes have been underway for a while now–it’s well-documented. For many teachers, that’s a scary prospect. Sure, some are excited by the changes, others are more hesitant, but I think most would admit to at least some fear. We teachers didn’t learn this way, so we have to chart this new course on our own. That’s not a simple task.

Changing our curriculum and pedagogy is a long-term, labor-intensive task. It’s not going to happen overnight, or even over one school year. It will take a lot of time and energy. I’ve only scratched the surface of this, but I’ve talked to enough teachers who are further down this road to know that it’s not a small job. For all those reasons, the actual technology, the hardware, needs to disappear as much as possible, so that teachers and students can focus on those other pieces.

A BYOD program solves this problem by letting everybody, teachers and students, use whichever device with which they are comfortable. In theory, everybody can focus on the learning (the verbs), because they already know how to use the device in front of them. That only works, of course, if most of the faculty and students are already comfortable with some appropriate piece of technology. In my context[3], the school I’m at now, that’s really not the case, either for the students or the faculty.

So, for my school, choosing one device for everybody will, I think, help us focus on the verbs. I happen to think the iPad, for all its flaws (and I’m able to enumerate its flaws better than most), is well-suited for letting the technology get out of the way. But even if the iPad weren’t an option for some reason, I would really push (again, talking only about my context here) for all faculty and students to be on the same device, whatever that may be. And then, in two years or ten, once the faculty and students have all become accustomed to a new way of learning, perhaps the device, the noun, can truly become unimportant.

There are multiple paths to success here. The key is understanding the endpoint–a classroom truly transformed by the new opportunities technology presents. In some contexts, BYOD may be the clearest path to that goal, in others it’s important to choose the correct device. The point is to expend as little energy as possible on the technology in order to focus on the real challenges.

  1. I’m trying to avoid saying “We’re going 1:1 with iPads.” How long before the term “1:1” feels out-of-date? When the printing press was invented, how long did Cambridge brag about going 1:1 with books?  ↩

  2. Interestingly, those were really the only two options a heard. A handful of schools had been using laptops for a while, and were sticking with them, and one school was going with the Microsoft Surface (to the dismay of some of the teachers), but the vast majority saw the choice as iPad or BYOD.  ↩

  3. The other piece that I have come to grips with is as obvious as it is important: my opinion, if it’s valid at all, is based entirely on my own experience and context. There is certainly no one-size-fits-all solution for taking this leap.  ↩