Sarah Denniston introduced BYOD into her courses. She was very concerned about equity and her entrepreneuerial skills in securing funding and help from district staff made it possible for her to finesse the technical and practical difficulties usually accompanying such a move. The narrow slice of what I saw was very impressive in demonstrating how BYOD aided her teaching AP European History. She is an advocate of BYOD because she has made it work for her and her students. Every student has equal access to the technology and she believes that her teaching is better and that students learn more in the electronic, nearly paperless, classroom she has created.
When we talked she emphasized how the devices made it possible for her and students to collaborate in doing assignments, writing, and projects. For example, constant use of Google Docs made student cooperation integral to what Denniston sought and aided her monitoring of their writing. As Denniston put it:
The BYOD allows me to be instantly responsive to student’s needs. If there is a problem with the lesson I have, I can instantly correct it and everyone gets the changes right away. It also allows for me to revise lessons with much greater regularity allowing for a better work flow of revision of my curriculum.
There are other pluses beyond what Denniston said. For example, every student has access to a device and can use it at both school and home. Close to one hundred percent of students, she says, have Internet access at home . No digital divide exists at this high school. With each student bringing a tablet or laptop from home, issues of theft decrease as personal responsibility increases. The cost of having BYOD is also much less than a conventional 1:1 laptop or tablet program.
For readers who cast a skeptical eye on BYOD, considering the negatives that accompany any application of technology to classrooms is necessary. Denniston sees a few in her years using BYOD for her history classes.
1. Technical difficulties. Even with all of the help of district tech specialists, the network fails. Denniston says that failures this year are far less than the previous year but they do occur nonetheless.
2. Distractions for students–texting, Facebook, Instagram–are numerous; monitoring students being on task by walking around classroom seeing what students have on their screens and other tricks of the trade are necessary.
3. Copying, i.e., cut-and-paste writing in class, increase unless teachers monitor time stamp of a student’s work and other ways of insuring that students work independently.
Given these pluses and minuses, seeing Denniston teach the AP European History class was, for me, a proof of concept. BYOD worked for Sarah Denniston. But would it work at Glenville and Cardozo high schools in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. where I observed seven history teachers teach last year? Not now.
Both urban high schools are 99 percent minority and poor. Because of persistent low test performance, they have been restructured twice–new principals and staff. Most students have cell phones but each school prohibits their use in class. Carts of laptops are deployed to the media center and selected teachers for use at Cardozo High School while at Glenville a series of computer labs with desktops are distributed throughout the school. Many, perhaps a majority, of Glenville and Cardozo students have access to the Internet at home but not anywhere near Sarah Denniston’s school. When it comes to BYOD, the digital divide looks unbridgeable. Proof of concept does not mean BYOD can be (or should be) put into practice in all U.S. schools (see here and here).
What Doug Johnson calls an “ethical dilemma” shows up most clearly at Glenville and Cardozo High Schools. Advocates of BYOD who ignore the issue of equity in access to technology in schools turn a blind eye to the socioeconomic divide in the U.S. They press a heavy thumb on the scale of fairness when they want all schools to enlist in BYOD.
Finally, the question of whether students learn more, faster, and better with BYOD remains open. Cost-efficient as BYOD may be does not mean that it is cost-effective. Neither Sarah Denniston or other advocates of BYOD can say with any degree of confidence that students learn more by having 1:1 access to their devices. What matters, of course, are all of those crucial factors that come into play in determining whether students have learned: the teacher’s expertise and experience, her pedagogy, the socioeconomic background of students, the culture of the schooland a handful of other influences. 1:1 laptops and tablets hardly determine what and how students learn.