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Should Students Bring Their Own Technology Devices to School?

I am at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in my capacity as a Classroom Fellow with the US Department of Education. At our exhibitor booth, we are discussing the National Education Technology Plan and the Connected Online Community of Practice.

While it's important to examine technology from a national and policy perspective, from my school based experience, I'm still thinking about the recent regulations that my large, forward thinking, school district has released for students to bring their own technology devices to school.

These district guidelines are essential for educators who advocate for more technology integration in classrooms because the nitty gritty technology infrastructure and legal details are addressed. For example, does a school have adequate bandwidth capacity and access points for all the potential hundreds or thousands of devices to hit the network? How will the students access the Internet? What regulations guide their use of the Internet and other technology resources? What exactly are the student's and school's responsibility for personally owned devices?

These are the kinds of details that ensure that technology is maximized for student learning. Too often, some educators promote technology policies without thinking about the details, which potentially result in confusion, failure, and frustration.

A lot of work from a lot of different specialists must have gone into these district guidelines for students to bring their own technologies, but I think the harder work is ahead of us.

As much as I've discussed the potential of more technology in classrooms (such as the ideal technology device, promoting choice, and technology use), as a technology specialist at the school based level, I wonder what will happen if such policies became commonplace in schools.

Here are some hypothetical scenarios based on some experiences:

The Wealthy Private School
My first teaching experience was as a high school English literature teacher at an elite international private school. If students could bring their own technology, hypothetically, I would still be fair in my technology expectations and request that all the students have a first generation iPad for class. However, upon hearing these out-of-date requirements, my bright, intelligent, motivated, and privileged students would show up to class with the iPad 2 and Macbook Airs. The parents would also donate a MacPro for classroom and student use to create content for the iPads. (This is not wishful technology dreaming- anyone who has worked at these elite schools understands the level of parent support.) This could all be lot of fun!

Potential Result: Our classes will continue to be on the fast track of all the learning and creative opportunities that these devices could offer.

The Well-Funded and Well-Led Public School
As a new special education teacher in public school many years ago, my principal took all the new teachers to a bookstore at the beginning of the school year and told us to buy whatever we needed. In all, about a half dozen of us spent over $10,000 in books. My principal remarked, "We have a supportive PTA and excellent business partnerships!"

If students could bring their own technology, many could bring some level of technologies through cell phones, iPods, etc. There would be a wide range in the power and capacity of these technologies.

But, to ensure a minimum level of equity, the wise, savvy, and well-connected principal would form multiple partnerships with local businesses, the PTA, and write grants to ensure that every student had access to a minimum level of technology.

Potential Result: Our classes will be on their way to the learning and creative opportunities that these devices could offer.

The Diverse Socio-Economic Public School

I've also taught at these types of schools:

High Level Free & Reduced Lunch Student Population: Many of these families and students lack technology at home, and certainly do not have the discretionary funds to buy technologies for school use. As a teacher, even with a district policy of allowing student technology, I could not have any expectation of students bringing any devices to school.

Potential Result: A policy of allowing student technology would have no effect.

Mid Level Free & Reduced Lunch Student Population: This type of population is the most challenging. Why? Because these schools serve both the wealthy and needy student population in the same building, and teachers in these schools must have the instructional expertise to meet all levels student challenges. If students could bring their own technology in this type of school, the results could be all over the place. Some students might bring various brands of cell phones and MP3 players. Some students may bring old laptops. Some students with more family resources may bring netbooks or iPads. And, some students won't bring anything.

And, to further complicate this understanding of how student devices could impact learning, we have to remember that public schools are evaluated on test scores. So, another level of analysis would be to understand if student technology would be used for test preparation or for projects that require real world problem solving and creativity... Of course, the answer is "yes", but that's too much to talk about in this post...

Potential Result: A policy of allowing student technology would have multiple results and technological support challenges.

So, in this potential era of student devices, we could see classes in some schools where all students are focused on a single platform and organized for using technology for higher levels of thinking. We could see mixed classrooms with hodgepodges of technology where a teacher could potentially struggle to support multiple devices and software/operating system formats. And, we could see classrooms not using technology at all.

What happens next once students start bringing their technology to schools?

I think a little of everything. This will be painful progress. The ubiquitous access and power of these devices in the classrooms will force us to address the difficult questions of what a quality education should look like in this century. These devices will force us to re-examine the definitions of teaching and learning and interactions between student and teacher.

And, perhaps, these devices will force us to confront the impact of inequity in these times.

So are we ready for some students to start bringing their technology to our schools and classrooms?

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