What Schools Can Teach Us About BYOD

Bring your own device (BYOD) poses support and finance challenges for any organisation, but those challenges are magnified when your “workers” are school students who sometimes treat laptops as if they were footballs. How does the education sector deal with the BYOD trend?

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Last week, I attended a media roundtable hosted by Dell to release the results of an IBRS study into how BYOD is impacting the education sector. Also in attendance were representatives of several schools, both private and public, who freely discussed how they had implemented BYOD systems within their environment. School policies on BYOD run the gamut from “you must purchase a specific model” to “the school will supply laptops but they can’t leave the premises” to “you can bring whatever you like”. Regardless of the approach, those experiences offer lessons which any business considering BYOD should take into consideration.

Define requirements clearly: In interviewing schools for the white paper, IBRS researcher Joseph Sweeney found that definitions of what BYOD was varied widely, even though most schools actually had broadly similar requirements. “Those differences weren’t because there were massively different requirements,” he said. “There was just a lot of confusion. There was a lack of decision making in educational organisations because different philosophies come into play.”

Needs will differ: While all schools have the same broad aims — educating pupils in line with a defined curriculum — that doesn’t mean that a single approach to choosing devices and management software will work for every institution. “The idea that one size fits all simply isn’t the case,” Sweeney said.

It’s not an easy way to save money. Many schools have examined BYOD policies as a means of ensuring ongoing funding for computer systems. In practice, however, that hasn’t proved to be a useful strategy. “BYOD brings you more flexibility, but it doesn’t save you money,” Sweeney said.

Platform management is a major issue. In private schools where particular laptop models are specified, there was a trend some years ago to mandate the use of Macs, which were seen as a “sexy” option that would appeal to parents and help differentiate schools. However, that trend has dropped off for two reasons: firstly, management systems for Macs remain less well-developed. Secondly, once multiple schools had adopted that approach, it was less of a differentiator. Macs remain widely used in the education sector, but in many schools the focus has shifted to iPads.

Examine licensing issues. A major challenge for schools is how to pay for licensing, especially when education-specific deals sometimes hinge on the school (rather than the pupil) owning the device. While some companies have improved their approach — Apple now offers volume licensing for iTunes App Store purchases — others still cause problems. Adobe was repeatedly mentioned as a problematic company to deal with, which isn’t surprising.

Focus on battery life. Schools which do allow pupils to bring their own devices will generally set minimum specifications in terms of performance. Of these, by far the most important is battery life. Charging cables all over the classroom are an OH&S nightmare, so virtually all schools ban them when laptops are used. That means batteries need to run for the length of the school day. Schools also favour devices with removable batteries, since that makes it easier to replace batteries when performance inevitably degrades.

Use pen and paper as a punishment. Despite those policies, pupils inevitably end up with uncharged laptops or forget to bring them. The most effective strategy to deal with that? Telling students they have to work with pen and paper. Given the drop in productivity, the mistake isn’t often repeated.

Recognise people need training. Just because people choose their own devices doesn’t mean they know how to use them. It’s often assumed that because kids are confident with computers, they’re also competent. “There’s a lot of crazy rhetoric around ‘digital natives’,” one teacher at the roundtable noted. “Those of us who work with the kids know that’s not true.” While pupils will know how to launch a browser and install apps, their basic skills in productivity applications are often lacking. Time still needs to be spent on those basics — a lesson any business would do well to heed.

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