Bring Your Own Dilemma

December 2011.  I'm in a four-way argument about technology in education.  At this point in history I spend half of every day being called a dangerous lunatic for proposing that iPads are going to take off in public schools.  "They're too expensive.  It'll be the Kindle Fire, or something at that price point."  I'm going to resist the urge to gloat over who was right on that one, because I'm about to say something else that, while I also got it right, I now wish I hadn't.

X: "There's no way schools can come up with the money for this many tablets."

Me: "They won't have to.  Families have already paid for them in the home.  Principals will do the same thing they did with the calculator - they'll stop forbidding them.  And that's it.  One device per child.  Done."

At that point BYOD was a fringe, rather than a core acronym.  We didn't have a word for it.  But that's what we were talking about.  And within three months of that conversation we began to see it happen.  Going on two years later, the "whether" of tablets in schools has quickly been replaced by "when" and "which model" - BYOD or school-owned?

Now let's look at one example: Peel District, just outside of Toronto.  Last year they went heavy into BYOD.  Everyone was excited.  And now, less than a year later, they announce a major initiative (link) to go 1:1 iPad.  They solved the problem.  Why solve it again?

I don't have inside knowledge, but here's an educated guess:  Inequality.  The dark side of BYOD is that, like in so many other things, the quality of your education now relies, even more strongly than before, on how much money your parents have.  It's yet another way for rich kids to have an unfair advantage over poor kids.  Also, it begs the question: what do you do with a kid who has no device to bring?  Doesn't the school need to buy devices for them anyway?

There are also good arguments about the difficulties of deploying software across a heterogenous mess of devices and operating systems, but I doubt that did much to move the needle.  In public institutions we are hyper-sensitive to equality.  I don't think there's anything wrong with that.  If we spend public money we should be spending it on leveling the playing field and, eventually, raising the floor.

I like the idea of BYOD.  I think most people do.  I don't see any problem with allowing it in addition to school-owned devices.  If a school has iPads, and I have an iPad, why not bring my own?  But ultimately, there's got to be a backstop.  If a student doesn't have the right tools, the school should provide them.  That's what the school is there for.  That's why we pay for public education.

If we lived in a world where BYOD created a level playing field, that would mean a world where income disparities had been severely reduced, and every household had the means to provide for itself, and public education was largely unnecessary.  If anyone thinks that describes the world we live in, I have a bridge to sell you.