The Future of Education: BYOD in the Classroom

By: Tim Panagos

AS CHILDREN ACROSS the nation return to school, many are going armed with their own computational tools. From laptops to tablets and smartphones, schools and universities across the globe are testing out a more dynamic learning environment, where students bring and use their choice of technologically assistive devices in the classroom. Despite the obvious benefits, the influx of mobile technology in educational systems has also provoked backlash from parents and teachers alike, similar to the BYOD backlash witnessed within enterprise IT departments in the past few years.

Educational institutions are ultimately presented two options: adopt a BYOD program, embracing the technology trend, encouraging student participation, and expanding curriculum to include BYOD-driven topics, or to impose of a BYOD policy, setting rules to govern the presence and practice of these potentially disruptive devices.

Welcome to the 21st Century, Parents

In the Policy camp, concerned parents site the potential negative impact of allowing unfettered digital connectivity in schools. No parent I know would argue for unrestricted, unmonitored online access for kids of any age – kids will be kids after all. And these concerns are valid. Concerns include:

  • Distractions of games and videos
  • Unmonitored social networking leading to bullying or predation
  • Consumption (and creation) of inappropriate content
  • Social status and stigma of devices

But let’s face it. Personal computing changed the nature of human life forever. It’s latest incarnation in the tablet and smartphone makes the information revolution more personal and ever-present, certainly. The smartphone’s connectedness and portability gives us a glimpse into what life will be like in the middle and end of the 21st Century.

The impact of these devices on the lives of adults and children of today is amazing but it is only the beginning. We are experiencing a wave of innovation in digital assistive devices which has more water ahead of it than behind it. Consider the hints of the next generation that are already coming to life in wearable devices like Google Glass. The end of the wave will leave us in the realm of science fiction, perhaps the direct augmentation of the human form to incorporate computational aids. Exciting. Scary.

OK. Take a step back. You need not be a visionary to grasp the obvious reality that in today’s world people are never without their smartphone and rarely out of range of a network connection. Why? Because the human condition is radically improved by the immediacy of information and social interconnectedness that these devices enable. My smartphone has become a seamless compliment to my human brain. With my brain and my smartphone on, I am more powerful. And being more powerful is naturally addictive. We are all more powerful beings armed with our devices. We can also be more distracted beings but naturally every adaption comes with drawbacks. But asking someone to give up their smartphone is akin to asking a citizen of the 1950’s to surrender their clothing. So, whose responsibility is it to teach our children to leverage these mega powerful tools for their own betterment? Whose responsibility is it to teach responsible use?

BYOD in the Classroom

In this decade, it is no less important to teach children how to use their other technology “brains” as it is to teach them to use their physical brains — to ignore such an obvious and powerful augmentation would be irresponsible. Certainly there are better ways to use digital devices to make us more effective beings. These better ways should be taught.

Consider for a moment that Writing is a technology — an old technology but, at the time of its introduction, a revolutionary one. Written language allowed humans to capture and store knowledge: to disseminate that knowledge beyond the natural boundaries of time and space. And knowledge is power. Today it would be unthinkable not to teach children how to read and to write — to leverage this old technology — in order to expand their horizons beyond the spoken word. By the end of the decade, it will be considered just as unthinkable to deprive children of their computational tools for the very same reasoning as we apply to writing technology.

So how are teachers and administrators to cope with the risks of unfettered online access with the responsibility to teach students how to leverage this irreplaceable technology? Look to lessons learned in the parallel adoption of desktop computers in the educational environments for patterns and best-practices to adapt and adopt. Seek tools to manage content access to block for young users, to advise for older users. Put policy and technology in place that recognizes that the devices will beyond the control of the school today. Surround the access points with security not the devices themselves. Leverage the speed of these new technologies to discover and participate in experiments with pioneering institutions in the digital world.

Beyond the Classroom

And how are parents to cope with the risks of unfettered online access at school and on the bus with the responsibility to teach your children how to safely embrace digital technologies without loosing sight of the real world? Start by supporting your local school in their efforts with BYOD and technology initiatives. Associating technology with learning in the minds of our children is an important psychological link to establish. These are not JUST tools for playing games. When you read to your children, consider doing so with both physical books and ebooks. Help children to expand their association with the devices beyond the short-attention span media that they are encountering in the entertainment arena by exposing them to deeper, calmer sources of interaction like ebooks. Demonstrate that devices can be used for knowledge consumption and knowledge contribution. Show them how you manage your work life and home life with the help of your own devices. Talk about etiquette for email and SMS in the same way that you discuss the polite ways to interact personally.

By acknowledging that smartphones, tablets, and laptops are a factual component in the lives of every human being and by embracing openly and actively in the exploratory use of these tools for both education and entertainment we are opening the door for our students that leads to the heart of the 21st century experience.

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