Law & Courts

Districts Tackle Questions Surrounding BYOT Policy

By Ian Quillen — October 17, 2011 5 min read
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For the small but passionate minority of school districts that are opening doors to student-owned mobile devices, there’s a lot riding on how effective the policy shift turns out to be in improving teaching and learning.

And whether a district or school is pushing instructors to use those devices educationally, or just curbing discipline issues by removing consequences for use, experts say making the new policy approach work requires much more than simply lifting a cellphone ban.

Districts wading into the “bring-your-own-technology,” or BYOT, waters are wrangling with which issues should be tackled through districtwide policy, and which should fall under school-level procedural codes. In the process, they’re trying to leave room to solve unanswered legal questions about Internet security and privacy.

All the while, colleagues in other districts that are interested in heading in this policy direction, but are wary of the possible complications, are closely watching the successes and failures of those that are already doing it.

“This is a thing you can’t really let blow up in your face, because if it goes bad, you’re never going to get it back,” says Kyle Menchhofer, the technology coordinator for the 2,200-student St. Marys city school district in St. Marys, Ohio, which will be piloting a BYOT program with 11 teachers in grades 8-12 later this fall. The district has issued school-owned mobile devices to students in grades 3-6 since 2008, but doesn’t have the financial resources to extend the program to the upper grades.

“You need to make sure you can take it at a pace you can handle,” Menchhofer adds.

Kayla Boone, a sophomore at Oak Hills High School, in suburban Cincinatti, and her classmates use their cellphones to text answers to questions during an English class. The answers are displayed on a class whiteboard.

At the same time, technology leaders at BYOT schools say, a fear of problems such as access to inappropriate online content, digitally enhanced cheating, and rampant classroom distractions can lead districts to overthink, and worse, overwrite corresponding policy adjustments to stifle creative implementation of the devices.

Early reports from the field suggest that the simpler approach is more successful. Districts that appear to be experiencing the smoothest transitions from banning mobile devices to welcoming them have undergone as little policy change as possible, striking or heavily revising only obvious barriers such as districtwide cellphone bans. They then issue school-level acceptable-use guidelines that reflect individual campus cultures and treat violations of those guidelines like other behavioral issues.

It’s more about making sure policies are worded in a way that takes into account the various uses of technology in schools, says Todd Yohey, the superintendent of the 8,100-student Oak Hills district in suburban Cincinnati, which is now in its second year of implementing a BYOT policy at the high school level.

“For example,” he says, “your current cheating policy probably covers cheating via a cellphone or a laptop.”

Similarly, disrupting class with a text-message exchange would be treated the same as talking out of turn or passing notes, Yohey says.

‘Be Nimble’

Of course, making such a policy change can get complicated by district politics.

Tips

Expose policymakers to pilots. School board members and other officials who must sign off on policy changes need to understand why they are moving forward with any change. Create a pilot BYOT program in just a few classes in your district, and show policymakers what such a program looks like.

Create flexible policy, specific procedures. Giving individual schools a say in what BYOT looks like in their own buildings is a good way to gain buy-in from teachers and administrators. Meanwhile, districts should try to keep their policies broad to allow schools to adapt procedures when necessary.

Make policy changes relatively quickly. While your current school board, PTA, and staff might support implementing a BYOT policy and related procedures now, unforeseen changes in that support can occur.

Crosswalk BYOT measures with other policies. Implementing a new BYOT policy by itself will be futile if you don’t also remove other policy barriers—particularly, campus cellphone bans that may date from the 1990s.

That was the case in the 11,000-student Eau Claire Area School District in western Wisconsin, whose bring-your-own-technology program was delayed for nearly a year after it was first proposed, says Director of Technology Robert Scidmore. New school board members initially rejected policy changes that former board members had promised to approve.

For more nuanced adjustments, individual schools may be more equipped to find the right solutions through the trial and error allowed by a district policy with relatively few restrictions.

“We learned early on, … when you’d have your do’s and your don’ts lists, that they had to be somewhat fluid because there would be things that come up,” says Bailey Mitchell, the chief technology officer for the Forsyth County, Ga., school district, north of Atlanta, and the chairman of the board of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN.

“We’re learning a lot about how that plays out,” says Mitchell, whose 37,000-student district began phasing in BYOT campuses in 2007.

Perhaps the biggest issue BYOT districts and schools are still sorting out, Mitchell says, is how to address students who access inappropriate content from school but via nonschool Internet networks. In particular, students may have smartphones or tablets equipped with data plans that allow them to connect to 3G or 4G Internet networks that don’t run through a school filter.

Mitchell, Menchhofer, and other district technology officials say that by writing policy or procedures prohibiting students from using outside networks, they can comply with the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act. That law mandates that schools prevent students and staff members from accessing material that is obscene, pornographic, or harmful to minors, in order to receive federal aid for technology projects and purchases.

But Frank Kemerer, a professor-in-residence at the University of San Diego’s Center for Education Policy and Law, who last November headed the design of a framework to guide schools in crafting policies for mobile-device use, says there’s no legal precedent for whether a school would be liable for the material a student accesses through his or her own network. (“Framework Crafted for Student Use of Computing Devices,” November 10, 2010.)

Joe Stacey, a freshman at Oak Hills High School in suburban Cincinnati, uses his iPod touch to find a flower on the Internet to draw for an art class.

Still, while the BYOT movement is gaining momentum, concerns about Internet safety and security may be one reason it hasn’t yet entered the mainstream.

According to research by Project Tomorrow, an Irvine, Calif.-based nonprofit education research group, fewer than a quarter of K-12 school administrators who took the group’s annual Speak Up survey in fall 2010 said they would “likely” allow students to use their own devices for instructional purposes, compared with nearly two-thirds who said they were “unlikely” to allow such use.

In some cases, opposition is so strong, says Project Tomorrow’s chief executive officer, Julie Evans, that she has even been heckled when discussing the idea during presentations to school administrators.

While Menchhofer, of the St. Marys district in Ohio, says many of his neighboring districts are in a wait-and-see mode to determine if the new policy is effective, Evans suggests that the real division between apprehension and enthusiasm for BYOT is not difficulty creating effective policy, but familiarity with the devices.

“Increasingly, administrators are becoming mobile-device users themselves,” says Evans, who adds that she expects warming to BYOT to continue at a gradual rate.

“My gut tells me that we’re going to see a softening of that [resistance] out of the administrators’ side,” she says, “but not that much.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2011 edition of Digital Directions as Crafting Your BYOT Policy

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