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EdTech Update




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BYOD - an ethical dilemma indeed

Long before the term BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) became popular, our district permitted personally owned student devices on our wireless networks to give students Internet access. We've never had a district-level policy banning phones, laptops or other student technologies. And while our buildings and individual teachers certainly have rules guiding their use, students can use their own equipment on all our campuses.


So an interesting thing happened on Tuesday that was at least a partially enabled by this open-access policy. Our student information system, Infinite Campus, released an iOS app so students and parents could get to their information using their iPhones, iPads or iPod Touchs. We put the link and instructions on our portal's website at 11:00AM and by noon, students were already using it to track assignments, grades, attendance, and schedules - and enabling notifications when new data was added by teachers.

I was feeling pretty good about that until reading Gary Stager's post: BYOD – Worst Idea of the 21st Century? in which he laments:

The only way to guarantee equitable educational experiences is for each student to have access to the same materials and learning opportunities. BYOD leaves this to chance with more affluent students continuing to have an unfair advantage over their classmates. This is particularly problematic in a society with growing economic disparity.

and that

Information access, note-taking and communication (presenting, sharing, publishing) are the low-hanging fruit of education and represent the tiniest fraction of what it means to learn. Looking up the answers to someone else’s questions online in order to write an essay or make a PowerPoint presentation reinforces the status quo at best while failing to unlock for children the wondrous opportunities provided by computational thinking.

Stager makes some interesting argument why schools, not families, should be providing computing devices for students. Read the post ...

Can these problems of inequity and "lowest common denominator" of technology use be ameliorated by an actual BYOD plan*? Here's what we've been working on:

  1. Determining just how great the digital divide is among families in the district by conducting surveys and then formulating means of providing access to those students without technology access outside of school. Providing ready access to technology in school via computers in open labs, libraries, classrooms and circulating netbooks.
  2. Defining the capabilities of a student-owned device based on basic tasks it needs to perform - see Specs for Student Devices. (I hope we can honor individual preferences of students in type of device. Some may prefer a laptop; others a smartphone.)
  3. Using these capabilities as a selection criteria when adopting textbooks with online supplementary materials, other curricular online materials, and classroom activities .

Stager makes some compelling ethical arguments against BYOD. But there are also ethical questions raised when we do not provide all the learning opportunities possible to as many students as possible - realizing some students will not be able to take advantage of them. If the cure rate of a vaccine is 9o%, do we not treat anyone since it would be unfair to the incurable 10%? Do more powerful computers equal more powerful uses of technology in schools, as Stager suggests? When does education become "fair" - when all students in a classroom, a grade level, a school, a district, a state, a nation or the world have equal access to equal technologies?

If we wait for the perfect conditions to begin anything (100% if students all having access to a powerful portable computer, for example), many of us will be waiting for a very, very long time. Let's work with what we have and continue to work for better access to technologies and more powerful ways of using them. Stager's assertion that BYOD is The Worst Idea of the 21st Century may indeed be just that.

* I have never quite decided if BYOD is a project, plan, philosophy, policy or just a buzzword.

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Reader Comments (13)

This is so interesting. We're grappling with the exact same issues too. Thanks for posting!

October 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJ.

Shall we get rid of all technology because we can't afford to provide the same thing to every teacher and student? Do we spend money on the lowest performing devices because that is what we can afford?

I know Gary is our canary in the mine so I appreciate his perspective. In a perfect world, every kid would have the computing device that fit their personal learning needs and every school lunch would be healthy.

October 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDottie

One thing I am really excited about in my district- The Boston Public Schools- is a program called Tech Goes Home.
I am co-teaching the program this year at my school with the computer teacher and another staff member- it has parents and students come to the school and take a 15 hour technology course culminating in a project that is made by both parent and child (usually a powerpoint or google doc equivalent).At the end of the course families can buy a net book for $50 and get access to low cost broad band internet. We will hopefully train 60 families this year in a school that has less then 300 students. Deb Socia is the founder and runs the organization- it is an incredible organization and one that could easily be recreated. I love that I can identify the students who might not have tech and invite them to participate. The other amazing part of the program is the data it collects about families- something like 70% of parents have never stepped foot in their child's school before taking the Tech Goes Home course.

October 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMaur O'Toole

Hi Doug,

I'll reply here and on my blog. I may include some of this in a future blog post as well. I appreciate you reading my blog. (or at least this post)

Ah, where to start?

1) I am amazed, slightly disappointed and not surprised by the amount of "traffic" this blog post has received. It is hardly my best or most important blog post (,, & are infinitely more important articles). However, this post earned more comments than anything else I've ever written.


Is it because I had the audacity to suggest that education should be better funded? Because I believe the once revolutionary edtech community lurches between self-congratulatory and catatonic? Because I believe that we should advocate for the richest possible educational experiences?

In this case, the great isn't the enemy of the good. The cheap seems to be the enemy of the good.

2) It is difficult to pretend that there are not a lot of schools who have figured out how to fund a real multimedia computer for all students. I've been working in them for 21+ years.I suspect you've given speeches in some of them too. Alan Kay and Seymour Papert began advocating for this in 1968. One million kids in the developing world have an XO and if we decided to provide every kid with a laptop in America, the costs would drop dramatically AND it would create jobs.

I wonder why the organizations alleged to represent edtech don't do so? (ISTE, COSN, SETDA)

3) You allude to this, but if schools didn't enact moronic reflexive policies banning arbitrary objects (cellphones, etc.), then schools would not have to adopt policies allowing them on campus. I said over and over and over again in the post and comments that 1:1 is inevitable and that schools should not be capriciously mean to children.

4) Critics of my post have largely ignored the issues of:

• False equivalencies
• The narrowing of computing
• Increased teacher anxiety
and contributing to the growing narrative that education is not worthy of investment

5) Turning my argument for equity into an argument against equity is the sort of rhetorical trick I'd expect from Fox News.

6) Too few people seem to understand the purpose or meaning of "policy." Again, I'm not accusing you of this, but making compromises for what may seem like a good reason at some point in time isn't the same as setting thoughtful policy.

7) The screenshot you include above breaks my heart. After 30 years of trying to use computers in ways that we know can revolutionize learning and liberate kids from a system designed for another era, R&D is being invested in tracking homework assignments, attendance and grades? Please don't argue that such technology serving the system increases agency for the learner.

8) Perhaps we are talking past each other since my vision of computing in schools may be dramatically different from yours (or other critics of my blog post).

The October 13th edition of The Daily Papert - says this better than I can:

“To skeptics who might ridicule seeing learning as the most important issue in a deeply troubled world, I will only say that none of the world’s troubles will be resolved unless people, especially those of the next generation, learn to think in better ways than those who brought the troubles about. Having said this I shall from now on confine myself to far more specific and immediate questions about what changes in how people learn may come about via the computer. These are not simply changes in curriculums or test scores. They include changes in the human relationships most closely related to learning-relationships between generations in families, relationships between teachers and learners and relationships between peers with common interests. The debates between Utopians and critics are as fierce in this “limited” arena as anywhere.” (Seymour Papert, 1996)



October 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGary Stager, Ph.D.

BYOD is not the worst idea ever. It is a stopgap we can employ until educational policy makers remove their heads from the behinds of the loudest political voices and look around. Once they do this, they will (hopefully) see the need to fully fund tech in education. Meanwhile, growing school districts like mine have to tuck tech initiatives into bond packages that go toward building new schools, because we are pretty sure voters will not approve tech packages alone.

A 1:1 model is ideal, but I fear many campus/district tech folks are afraid of the additional work all of those devices going home with all of those different types of kids will bring, not to mention the additional expense. IT administrators also seem to fear a loss of control over "their" networks, not fully understanding that the network is "ours". If we employ BYOD and buy devices (such as netbooks) for kids who cannot afford their own devices, we have a 1:1 model at a fraction of the cost.

It may not be popular, but it would be effective.

BTW - I can't fully trust anyone with a typo in his bio: "Mr. Stager’s doctoral research involved the creation a high-tech alternative learning environment for incarcerated at-risk teens." Don't forget those prepositions, Gary; they save lives.

Gary Stager has some good ideas going on, but believing that voters (the 15% or so who actually get out and vote) are going to approve handing every kid a "powerful computer" in these economic times shows either overwhelming optimism or a staggering incomprehension of the reality many districts face. We have to do what we can do with what we have. Public educators have been doing this for a long time, and we will continue to work miracles, 1:1 or not.

October 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLen

Thanks for posting your thoughts on this Doug; it is an issue I have been struggling with as well. Whilst I admire the forward-thinking Gary Stager, I can't help thinking how different his experiences are to my own. Here in the UK, there is a growing tendency to outsource all school ICT provision to private companies. Thus, schools now have ICT solutions that Councillors have deemed the most efficient as a business model, rather than solutions that educators have designed to improve learning. This is not just the result of an austerity budget, but rather misconceptions surrounding the role of educational technology. My teaching colleagues think this might give BYOD a run for its money in the "Worst Idea Ever" category!

As Len posted above, many educators view BYOD as a stopgap measure; it may not be ideal, but it is the reality for the moment. I have seen this "better than nothing" mentality spill over into other areas as well, particularly in the library sector. We have seen librarians replaced with library clerks, budgets frozen, volunteers replacing paid library staff, and library services merging so that librarians are responsible for multiple sites. These compromises are often made so that library services do not close completely, but when does the compromise become too much? Like BYOD, this is an equity issue. And like BYOD, this is a situation where too much compromise can interfere with the library's mission. Stager is afraid that BYOD will lead people to claim that "technology doesn't work in schools" because educators cannot effectively implement meaningful learning opportunities without consistent funding and support for ICT. Likewise, many librarians are concerned that too much compromise on library services will not allow them to provide relevant services, thus opening them up to criticisms that libraries are obsolete.

Where do we draw the line and say that these compromises are going to far? How can we advocate for quality educational opportunities for ALL children given the reality of the current situation, where many schools only have 1 computer lab and no library, let alone 1:1 computing?

October 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterErin Ferguson

I understand both sides of this discussion. We jumped on the BYOD wagon and implemented this fall. So far, so good. Most of the issues of haves/have not - have not been issues at all. What we have observed is that classrooms that embrace this technology - become very very collaborative. Kids dont mind working together. I also feel this has also given our teachers a considerable advantage because they are beginning to design lessons/activities with m-learning in mind. We are planning on doing some small pilots around a mixture of tablets and devices in each building K-12. We will be rolling this plan (click) out next week in our HS in search of teacher champions. With the recent announcement of the $200 tablet (Kindle Fire), it wont be long before all students have these in their hands (whether we purchase for them or not) and we need ensure our curriculum is ready for them. For me, I feel this is the biggest challenge when implementing BYOD.

October 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJen Hegna

I'd argue that if BYOD creates a disparity we can use our limited funding to help those who have a need.... (of course, then parents might see that we're providing and try to get into the provided for line...confusing).

I think that affordable portable devices can potentially decrease the access gap though as this NPR article talks about, indicating that more people can reach the internet through relatively inexpensive devices and there is already a measurable difference in adoption between socioeconomic lines.

This article from Dave Taylor argues that Japan has evolved a more competitive celluar market that the US is missing out on, and I think I'd agree that the future is cheap access via vending machines and more competitive plan options. I agree with Jen's comment that the time is nigh when these devices will show up whether we're carefully planning for it or not!

October 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDan Davenport

It's good to hear you weigh in on this. I think this statement you made sums up my feelings: "If we wait for the perfect conditions to begin anything (100% if students all having access to a powerful portable computer, for example), many of us will be waiting for a very, very long time. Let's work with what we have and continue to work for better access to technologies and more powerful ways of using them."

The real problem is convincing school boards that allowing kids to use their own devices in class does NOT excuse the school system from providing their own (and better?) resources. The teachers I know who allow BYOD keep it pretty quiet, because otherwise, their administrators 1) balk at allowing them to use the shared laptop carts/computer labs (their thinking is, allow the limited time slots to go to teachers whose classes would otherwise have no tech access) and 2) won't invest in updated technology for the school.

October 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAngela Watson

Teachers have been BYOE (Bring Your Own Everything) for a very long time, and it was educator early-adopters who brought the first computers into classrooms; their own computers. Change takes time, and your point that we err when we wait for ideal conditions is right on. The cost of tablets has now fallen to the point that we can establish BYOD policies, perhaps even create equity-assurance programs, without a great deal of controversy or angst.

One point Stager makes, one our entire culture needs to take to heart, is that in real dollar terms, the cost of bringing a computing environment to schools is not so great that informed and intentional reform cannot be achieved. Pardon the double negative, but education technology groans along in a negative culture when it comes to funding priorities. Our society's leaders need to keep their heads in better-lit places in order to effectively address the education crisis in which we find ourselves.

October 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBill

Hi J,

Some interesting comments on this post if you haven't read them. Didn't realize this was so controversial - or at least for this reason.

Been enjoying the Decomposition notebook - review soon.


Hi Gary,

Thanks much for your reply. I appreciate your vision and your drive and willingness to take on the sacred cows.

My guess is that don't disagree on all that much, but because of our respective jobs, just see these issues from very different viewpoints. I need to do my best for the kids who are in my schools today as well as working toward a better future.

Keep up the good work and let's carry this conversation over a beer some day.


Hi Len,

I rather doubt that BYOD is a stop-gap measure. As the price of technology falls, the netbooks or iPads or whatever will be about as exceptional as calculators or trapper keepers today. And I would guess that over built machines would be a total waste in the hands of many (most?) of us!

Thanks for commenting,


Hi Erin,

I guess I don't this as a "better than nothing" proposition. I am not sure how often or well hugely powerful computers would even be used if available. (Are all communications now going to be video produced and all communications online?) Maybe I am not seeing Gary's over arching vision, but my iPad does about 90% of all my computing tasks.

Thanks as always for the comment.


Thanks, Jen. It's always great to hear an issue from the perspective of people who are in the trenches doing great things. As you know, it's not about the power of the devices as much as the use to which devices are being put! Just think of all the things we could do if kids even had access just to Moodle!


Thanks for the links, Dan.

Japan does seem to lead us on tech use. I think people there have been using cell phones as e-book readers (and composers) for many years.

All the best,


Hi Angela,

Point well made. The school still has the obligation of providing powerful technologies when needed for all kids and providing access to those who can't afford it at all. I'd hate to see BYOD be a shunning of responsibility. I also know that schools will need to make substantially more investments in infrastructure - wireless and access to the cloud - even in a BYOD school.

All the best,


Hi Bill,

You reminded me of the days I used to drag my Apple IIc (and monitor and printer) to school every week and home every weekend. I think I did this for over a year before the school took pity and bought a computer for my desk in the library!

I am going to argue that schools are always going to be a zero sum game - that there will be a finite pot of money to spend. Personally, I think our $$$ are well spent on tech infrastructure, lower class sizes, staff development, and good library resources - not just powerful laptops in 1:1 programs.

I sleep with a clear conscience!


October 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

I have felt that when administrators say "we are adopting a BYOD policy" that suddenly everything is OK, that all the problems are solved, and that the unicorns and bunnies will all be bounding into the school.

I cringe to think of what my supervisor might say if, after they say the BYOD phrase, I reply with - "What does that mean? Do I, as a technology teacher, now need to support every device that comes in? Is you definition of BYOD mean iPads? Do you know how many D's there are?"

November 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKenn Gorman

HI Kenn,

Yeah, we've actually had a problem keeping the bunnies and unicorns from over-breeding in our district. And the rainbows are distracting too.

Your concerns are why BYOD needs well-articulated policies that are communicated and discussed with parents. For example, we make it clear that our tech support responsibility for student (or staff) owned devices begins and ends with helping these devices connect to our network.


November 10, 2012 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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