Should Schools Offer Device Choice To Students?

Increasingly, workers expect to have their own choice of devices when they go to the office. What would happen if the same approach was applied in schools?

Last week, I visited Debney Park Secondary College in Melbourne to check out its classroom PC implementation. Dell has donated $50,000 to the school to help it develop a full "connected classroom" system, and Victorian minister of education Martin Dixon was on hand to launch the facility.

One aspect that Dixon was keen to emphasise was that rather than having a set model of notebook to be used across the state education system, Victoria was largely leaving those kinds of decisions to individual schools. "The driver should come from the school and partnerships with local businesses and the local community," he said.

The logical conclusion of such an approach would be one where pupils could use more or less any device provided it met basic requirements. I asked Dixon if he could see that happening, and he was open to the possibility:

I think that's a natural progression. There are economies of scale in a large system being able to buy a job lot of computers of one sort so that's something that we can do as a department, but if the school has a strong bent towards Mac or Dell or whatever it might be and they've got a good case for it, you've got to trust them to make that education decision. That would probably be the end result of that.

Obviously, the constraints which apply in schools are very different to commercial environments. In many areas, it would be unreasonable to assume that parents could afford devices for their children, and in that context having a single standard model has obvious financial and organisational benefits. However, if most content is being delivered via a browser, individual machine models might not matter so much.

How much flexibility do you think schools should have in computer selection? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Angus Kidman travelled to Melbourne as a guest of Dell.


    As a sysadmin in a school with a 1:1 notebook program, I know too well the pains of having various models. We offer two different notebook models each year; a PC and a MacBook Pro. These are purchased by the students (their parents, obviously). This control allows us to develop one standard image for all the notebooks, and to ensure that all curriculum software will run correctly.

    Until application delivery and virtualisation is affordable and flexible enough to work in a school environment, this is the way it will be. Unfortunately, to provide students with the level of control they desire would put us as support and service delivery staff in a difficult position. We cannot possibly support a few hundred different models of computer.

      Surely you could offer a lower level of support for students not using approved devices?

        Depends a lot on the school. Some Victorian schools spend a lot of money on ICT. Most don't.
        All Victorian schools get a technician assigned to them via the technical support to schools program but depending on enrolments the amount of hours that the tech is there is very limited. Some primary schools will only see them for 2-3 hours a week.
        I'm a sys-admin in a high school in Victoria for about 900 students and 100 staff. Each staff member has a laptop and we have about 300 desktops and 2 net-book trolleys. so that's about 450 devices.
        We just got some $$ from the government for more devices to head towards 1:1 ratio. By the end of the year we will have about 260 new devices added to that. That's about 710 devices. now if even one quarter of the kids bring their own laptops that's another 225 devices that need support.
        I'm the only technician at the school. There is no way its possible to support that much without there being a standard that is kept to.

        I'm all for there being choice! We have both mac and pc labs in the school. But there needs to be support for it if the kids are to bring their own stuff.

    I think it's perfectly reasonable to leave the decision of device type to individual schools, but I can't see any good reason for allowing individual students/families that sort of choice (regardless of whether they're paying for it or not).

      Mike, surely if a student can get a good deal on a laptop himself, or his parent has a relatively new one to hand-down to him, that the student (or his parents') should not be forced to pay for another laptop?

      Pretty good reason to allow the student that choice. Understandable that student wouldn't get support for their laptop choice though.

      I understand that system administrators wouldn't be happy with that, because it's more work for them, but they can't expect to have everything their way at the expense of the students. Some schools can afford virtualisation, so the school's environment will run inside whatever OS/machine the student wants.

    Interesting approach. I know here in WA that the school that I used to work at is going for macs and will provide no support what so ever opposed to my current school that though we do not participate in the 1:1 laptop program we still offer documentation and support for connecting nearly any device as long as it actually supports our enterprise level security.

    The only reason i could see is an OS choice, at least OSX and Windows, if not a Linux option as well. Other than that, what benefits would different devices provide? really, that's all the choice they need, any extra makes the whole thing overly complicated.

    From the schools point of view, maintaining a common platform seriously saves money on hardware purchasing, maintenance, and IT staff. The wider the install base, the cheaper it is in terms of support and repair.

    In terms of education, ideally each school would have a real mix of hardware/OS. Students would be more familiar with different environments and would probably learn more of the underlying method instead of rote actions.

    What I'd do?
    At a state level, don't mandate a particular system but still have a 'recommended' system with the hardware/software/support as always. Make as many 'mandatory' services (internal databases, email, User management) web based or based on open and widely-used protocols. Legacy software is tricky, but if it has limited users you could run it off a terminal server.
    The schools without strong IT skills/dept would stick with the default and benefit from it, because of the shared burden. The schools that want to branch out can do so a bit more easily, though there'll always be plenty of compatibility issues.

    For individual students, I'd give the same rules I do at work: You can use your personally owned device, but you'll get more limited tech support, you may not be able to all the tools we have available, and you're still bound by the same network rules as on trusted devices. At the first sign something is wrong (infection, illegal activity, etc) the MAC address will be blocked from the entire network until you sort it out and ask to be let back on.

    Dangerous. I can see numerous issues. From parents complaining because the school won't support X device, to legal issues of children understanding that it's a binding contract when IT will not support your laptop.

    Sure, it'd be nice if you could bring your own. But only if IT could take it, reimage it, and charge you for making sure it's up to spec.

    I have been involved in assisting schools in administering laptop programs since 1998. Over the years I have heard this argument going back and forth countless times. Technicians at schools have limited time to support hundreds of devices. They do a great job however in an environment where you have standard fleets of only a few selected models of laptops, a single technician would struggle to support more than about 350 devices at the very most. If you allow parents and students to bring to school any model of device, it would create an enormous amount of extra work which school technicians would just simply not cope with. In order to cope with this type of situation, you would certainly need to employ many more technicians which only adds costs to schools fees. The final outcome from a financial perspective is that parents end up paying extra for the privilege of their children choosing their own device. The other major factor is getting the various school selected applications to run on every device and configuring it. Without going on and on with more detail, you get the picture. The benefits of a school choosing a preferred device(s) is that it works our more cost effective, it is far easier to support, it also makes administering the program far easier and students will have supported devices that will just work. At the end of the day, the program must run smoothly to ensure that learning happens effectively without the technology getting in the way.

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