Bringing your own technology to school

On Wednesday afternoon I was invited to a discussion at Dayton Public schools about the idea of letting students (primarily grades 7-12) bring their own laptops, tablets, e-readers to school. Dr. Melson, their head of IT led the presentation where I learned that by Dec. 31st all Dayton Public Schools will be completely wired with fiber and wifi. Fast access with lots of scalable bandwidth. The problem is what will they do with it?

I’ve advocated for a long time that any school in the digital age that hasn’t supplied its students with a computing device is failing to provide students with the most critical tool they will be required to use as a digital global citizen for the rest of their life. I also believe that when implemented correctly, technology in the classroom can provide huge savings in paper, printing, time to grade and of course, in textbooks which are a major cost to all schools.

This idea of letting kids bring their own computing devices to school is a half-assed solution and will cause more troubles than it’s worth for many reasons. But here are my initial concerns:

  • DPS is an urban district with some families struggling to put shoes on their kids. Allowing some to have tech while others don’t can cause even more trouble than allowing kids to wear their own fashion compared to a uniform (I’m a big fan of school uniforms). We’re basically going to create inequity in the classrooms through this policy.
  • The district is proposing all kinds of rules on what you can and can’t do with the technology- things like taking photos of other students is on the no-no list. My question is how do you enforce these rules? And how many forensics people will you need to be able to “prove” a violation? What right does the district have to search and seize and violate the privacy on a privately owned computer?
  • They are also overly concerned with what the students can access via these tools- and want to totally limit to their filtered content system- as if they truly believe that they can protect kids from what they can see at any public library’s computer.
  • Lastly, without standardized machines with standardized tools, how can a teacher be effective in giving assignments and possibly administering tests etc.?

In short, the premise of this “idea” of “BYOT” is a ridiculous stop-gap measure to make up excuses for not providing the proper tools. This is a clear example of where Ohio should be embarrassed about not solving the school-funding equation, but also embarrassed that they are still utilizing the overpriced, Texas school board approved, curriculum from a few monopolistic text book publishers.

Despite the worries of educators everywhere, technology isn’t a bad thing to introduce, and with the costs of tablets/e-readers costing less than what 1 year’s worth of textbooks is costing it’s insane not to be handing out nooks or kindles as fast as possible.

Considering “reading is fundamental” – one should wonder why we aren’t trying to get these devices into the hands of pre-schoolers. Think about it. In homes where there are no books, you can hand a kid a kindle with hundreds of classic books that are in the public domain and let them read to their hearts’ content. Here is a list of 1oo public domain books for every humanities student that are totally free: An entire library for every student on a device that costs $70 or less? In high school I had to buy 6-12 paperbacks a year of “classics” – plus had to have a library stocked with multiple copies, what’s the savings just with an e-reader?

But, let’s move on to what happens when we give them a smart device with web access. All of a sudden, we can put our syllabus online, allow them to type their papers and turn them in electronically, take exams and even read the Dayton Daily News for free (if we give them something that can read the “iPad Edition”). Now, they have access to everything from Wikipedia to their own wikis where they can assemble a body of knowledge working alone- or collaborating with their classmates or even students across the globe. Things change quickly. Judging by the number of “worksheets” and forms and newsletters that my kids bring home, I’m guessing each school goes through a tractor trailer worth of paper a year. How much of that is just garbage? And the costs?

I don’t recall getting worksheets in elementary school at all- sometimes we might get “mimeographed” handouts, but for the most part, we wrote down the questions from the teacher, or worked out of a textbook, and they were used year in, year out. Now, my kids get a single year textbook that’s also a workbook- and probably costs $30+ per copy. Really?

It’s time to reconsider what can and should be done in education. Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, an awesome self-paced online education resource, talks passionately about flipping the classroom- letting kids watch the tutorials/lectures at home at their own pace, and then spending school time working on the homework- with the teacher investing time working one-on-one to help the students overcome obstacles. It’s a fascinating look at the power of data in identifying where kids are stumbling- a kind of data set that the conventional classroom can’t achieve. Watch this TED talk:

After watching the curriculum and methodology offered by Khan Academy, are you wondering why we’re spending money on textbooks at all? Not only is there Khan Academy, there is a whole movement toward “open courseware” at all levels. Why learn physics from Joe Average teacher, when students can watch lessons from an MIT master?

Educational freedom isn’t provided by giving choices between public and charter schools- educational freedom is available now on the Internet- the only thing needed is a device and access. Which brings me to the biggest problem facing the DPS student- internet access is only guaranteed at school. Programs like Khan Academy require a live connection, while access to books do not.  Either we provide the digital infrastructure to narrow the digital divide by somehow putting inexpensive internet access into every school kid’s home- or we restructure the educational rubric of where you do your reading and where you do your math etc. Khan talks about flipping the classroom into the study hall, but, it’s only partially possible until we bridge the access gap.

If we look at all of our very expensive standardized testing and “no child left behind” garbage and compare it with its single point snapshot of student achievement to the dashboard of real-time progress that Khan Academy provides (for free) it should be obvious that we’re missing an amazing opportunity to transform our educational process and systems by giving our students the digital tools to learn at their own pace. Khan has even added gameification to the system to award points and badges for achievement, something our current system of teaching and grading is sorely missing- instead, always telling students where they aren’t proficient and failing.

The crazy part to me is that Nicholas Negroponte at the MIT media lab has been building an inexpensive laptop, the XO, from the One Laptop Per Child non-profit for distribution to every other third world country- and we have nothing like it for our own students. It even provides for it’s own networking system, so students can build ad hoc networks no matter where we are.

I’ve talked about this before on this site- feel free to search: xo laptop for instance. The sad part is DPS is only now starting to catch on, and other school districts, even wealthy ones (Lakota’s policy for BYOT was being passed around as a model) aren’t on board with the savings and value technology can bring to our schools. Yes, voters are correct in voting down school levys- as long as districts are still using dead tree textbooks and not fully utilizing the resources of the internet in the classrooms. It’s time to demand a total re-evaluation of the teaching model at all levels in this country.

The saddest part I heard in the meeting was that school administrators somehow don’t think that iPads are somehow ready to be used in the classroom, or that kids can’t be trusted with them. Somehow I don’t think educators who aren’t using this technology should be trusted with teaching our kids, because we’ve only just seen the beginning of the information revolution and it’s happening too fast to wait to jump in.


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