Classroom Technology

Schools Set Boundaries for Use of Students’ Digital Devices

By Robin L. Flanigan — February 07, 2013 7 min read
Students at Johns Creek Elementary School in Forsyth County, Ga., are allowed to use their own personal digital devices for classroom learning.
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Administrators in the Forsyth County, Ga., schools say the district’s “bring your own device” initiative, unveiled in spring 2010, has accelerated student learning more than would have been possible with a 1-to-1 computing program alone.

“When you have the same kind of device and software, you wind up with teachers’ doing what they’ve always been doing, except decorating it up with technology,” says Jill Hobson, the director of instructional technology for the 39,000-student district. With BYOD, which encourages students to bring their own technology devices to school, “it’s not really possible to keep doing the same thing,” she explains, “because the technologies aren’t all the same. It requires a change in strategy.”

BYOD initiatives are emerging in an increasing number of school districts around the country. Proponents hail them as an economical way to adopt hardware under tight budget constraints, a gateway to higher and more innovative student achievement, and a better way to serve the individual learning styles of students with special needs.

But the approach raises questions and poses potential problems. What will be the infrastructure upgrades and support necessary to handle multiple points of entry at different access levels with a mix of devices? Will teachers and parents be on board? How do schools deal with equity issues?

Indeed, bring-your-own-device policies in schools have led to an unprecedented number of safety and security challenges for school leaders, according to the Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN, a Washington-based professional association for district technology leaders. The consortium released a report in September titled “Safe and Secure? Managing the Risks of Personal Devices,” which identified top concerns associated with the increasingly popular teaching method. Those concerns include data and network breaches, district liability for theft or damage, legal and regulatory compliance measures, and improper use such as cyberbullying, cheating, and accessing inappropriate websites.

Students at Johns Creek Elementary work on a math problem using a Nintendo DSi, a digital device that is popular among children there.

While some of those issues get addressed through revamped policies on acceptable use, districts in many cases are working overtime to keep up with the latest trends in education, says Brian Lewis, the chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE, a nonprofit organization based in Washington.

“We’re caught in this perfect storm between our human comfort level with the rate of change we’d prefer, and the high-speed rate of change that is being foisted on us by evolutions in technology,” says Lewis. “And this is only going to get increasingly difficult for us as these evolutions happen more and more swiftly.”

Digital Discipline

In Minnesota, the 21,000-student ISD 279-Osseo Area school system is switching its focus from wireless coverage (ensuring that a wireless signal is present throughout a school building) to wireless capacity (the ability of the network to meet the demand of the devices that are using it) to prevent a concentration of devices from causing network overload. Nearly 2,000 wireless devices were used across the district’s three high schools on the first day of the 2012-13 school year, according to Chief Technology Officer Tim Wilson. The district’s BYOD program, dubbed Project Copernicus, uses platform-neutral tools such as Google Apps “to create really powerful collaborations and to get out of the business of worrying about which students have what formats,” he says.

As an accountability measure, the 180,000-student Fairfax County, Va., district requires students and parents to complete an “acceptance of responsibility and device use agreement” form as part of its BYOD program. To reinforce rules at the district’s George C. Marshall High School, where BYOD is in its second year, color-coded signs are posted throughout the school building with concise descriptions of permissible use and potential consequences for disobedience, from loss of network access to “device confiscation, test results voided with no make up.”

A green zone, such as in the cafeteria, indicates general and open use of devices. In blue zones, typically in classrooms, devices are permitted for specific instructional use. A yellow zone, in hallways and during classroom instruction, means devices must be silent and out of sight. Devices are strictly prohibited in red zones, which are usually areas being used during high-stakes testing.

“It’s just created a clearer playing field for kids,” says Principal Jay Pearson. “Are we perfect? No. But this has freed us from a whole lot of energy that was going into suppressing devices, taking them away, and applying consequences. In the end, that was very contradictory to the ultimate goal of taking advantage of what these devices can offer.”

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Though electronic devices are still responsible for the second-highest number of disciplinary infractions at Marshall High, the number dropped from 474 in 2010-11 to 366 so far in 2012-13, the result of a changing culture, Pearson adds.

Meanwhile, device-related infractions at the 2,141-student South Forsyth High School in Georgia have plummeted from around 400 annually to from two to four since the district’s launch of the program three years ago. Every one of the Forsyth County district’s 34 schools are participating to some degree, and at any given moment, approximately 11,000 devices are in use districtwide. To ward off security problems, administrators set up a separate BYOD network that acts as a security wall for student records and other sensitive information.

Though the district is in an affluent area outside Atlanta where most students own digital devices, it set up a task force to examine equity issues for students whose families can’t afford regular Internet access. One solution has been to partner with local businesses to advertise free Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the community. Another approach has developed organically in the classroom, as students who own devices eagerly share them with those who don’t.

Yet Forsyth County is still cautious about mandating BYOD.

“We don’t want to take that approach,” says Hobson. “We want people to come to it when they’re ready and willing.”


1. Be clear about the rules. Have students and parents sign an acceptable-use policy, or post color-coded signs throughout the school that clearly spell out what is expected in each area and the consequences for infractions.

2. Develop a systematic rollout. New BYOD initiatives bring with them a lot of questions, concerns, and fears from the community (including staff and students). Helping people first understand the benefits and risks—through meetings, training sessions, and printed materials—leads to greater acceptance.

3. Address capacity, not just coverage. Adequate coverage ensures there are no dead zones, but addressing capacity is an important step in preventing network overload. Problems typically occur where students or teachers congregate and use their wireless technology simultaneously

4. Teach digital citizenship. Any BYOD initiative should focus as much on behavior as infrastructure, given the trouble students can get into otherwise.

Working systematically, the Katy school district in Texas rolled out its BYOD initiative in 2011-12 after spending the previous two years getting educators and the community first to understand, then to accept, its new focus on Web 2.0 and digital citizenship. The strategy worked: Each year, the number of technology-related calls of concern to district administrators “dropped easily by 50 percent, and we got only three last year,” says Lenny Schad, the former chief information officer for the 65,000-student district who recently moved to a new job as chief information technology officer for the Houston Independent School District, which serves 203,000 students.

Breaking the Rules

Despite the Katy district’s best efforts, some students still break rules. But that’s no reason to abandon the initiative, as districts in other parts of the country have done, says Schad.

“We focus on the fact that these are learning opportunities to help our children understand what it means to live in this digital world they’re going to live in for the rest of their lives,” he says. “Yes, it’s risky, but I think it’s riskier for us not to do this and then have kids try to figure it all out on their own.”

Because technologically savvy students do, as educators know, wind up figuring things out on their own.

When English and history teacher Brook Brayman worked at the 250-student Technology Access Foundation Academy, serving grades 6-12, in Federal Way, Wash., he was startled by the number of students—a couple of them every quarter—who had their computer privileges revoked because they were downloading software, music, even pornography.

Brayman, who transferred this school year to the 1,800-student Todd Beamer High School in Federal Way, points out that BYOD efforts can only exacerbate the problem unless administrators focus less on infrastructure and more on behavior. Beamer High has no official BYOD policy, but allows the use of personal devices in the classroom.

“It just seems like trying to bomb-proof network security is a losing battle,” Brayman says. “That’s why we have to teach digital citizenship and responsibility. It’s better that kids make these mistakes when they’re 15 than when they’re 30 and have a career-level job on the line.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2013 edition of Digital Directions as BYOD Boundaries


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