By SHANNON WATKINS
Is it time for Pulaski County’s schools to go digital with learning? At last Thursday night’s school board meeting, Director of Technology Tim Barnes gave an informational presentation on the “Bring Your Own Device” or BYOD, program, currently being implemented in some public schools across Virginia.
“BYOD is student-centered, twenty-first century learning,” Barnes told the school board. “And what I’d like you to keep in mind as we go through this presentation is, every turned off device is a turned off child.”
Barnes began with a video detailing how BYOD is used in Virginia Beach public schools with tablets, e-readers and smartphones.
According to the video, this “extends the classroom beyond the building.” Teachers allowed students to text them questions, and one teacher expressed the view that if students use devices at home but not at school, education seems like it’s moving backwards.
Virginia Beach teachers in the video further said that kids are very generous in sharing their devices with one another, and that the school system provides devices for those without.
“You don’t have to be the expert on the device,” said a teacher. “Let the student be the expert on the device. You be the expert on the material.”
The video emphasized the importance of “teaching kids how to be digital citizens and how to extrapolate the data that is out there.”
“A lot of children already have smart devices,” said Barnes after the video. “What this allows is for children to bring them to school and access our network.”
“What are the advantages of doing this?” he continued. “This is not your standard, behavioral-objective type stuff…it’s culturally relevant to children. How often do you see them in their spare time playing with their devices? The days of ‘chalk and talk’ were relevant to people like us. We did chalk and talk. Culturally, they are the digital natives, we are the digital immigrants.”
He cited texting, wikis, blogs and podcasts as things students are already accustomed to that could be incorporated into the classroom experience.
“What we need to do is leverage that into some type of learning tool, where not only are they learning some type of lesson, but they’re using the tools that they love to use. I think it’s a win-win situation,” he said.
Barnes covered the drawbacks as well. First is simply what Barnes called the “digital divide:” the fact that some students simply don’t have smart devices to work with. Barnes said that the school would need to provide for the students without them, and advised that it might be possible to procure laptops for around $200 each.
This led into the next drawback, which is the cost of BYOD. Barnes said that of the estimated $498,000 cost, “about $430,000 of it is already programmed into the system.”
“We have a wireless network right now that’s at end of line,” he said, and mentioned that Virginia Public School Authority funding could assist in replacing it.
“We already have to redo the network,” said Barnes. “We might as well just add in a few more dollars and bring in BYOD.”
Another consideration, according to Barnes, is the likelihood of viruses or other malicious software infecting devices and their network. He cited a recent 5,000 percent increase of malware found on smart devices, and advised maintaining a restricted network and working out a policy on how to handle compromised devices.
Despite these potential obstacles, Barnes said that BYOD is worth consideration. “Here’s the beauty of Bring Your Own Device: it’s not bleeding-edge technology, it’s not cutting-edge technology; it is technology that has been around for quite a while. So we do not have to reinvent the wheel. We can look at what others have done and take their best practices.”
He said that the school system could spend the summer working out how to best implement BYOD, introduce it to Pulaski County High School in the second semester, and expand it to the rest of the schools after getting any practical problems solved.
During the comment period of Barnes’s presentation, School Superintendant Dr. Tom Brewster remarked that Pulaski County Schools’ current cell phone and smart device policy is very restrictive, and the switch might present problems due to the lack of wireless drops in some classrooms.
Echoing Barnes’s statement, he said of BYOD, “If we did start out second semester, we would want to start as a pilot program before enhancing and expanding and moving on.”
Brewster continued, saying that a policy would need to be designed for the safe use of a network with clear rules.
“We would have a policy that would let our students get on our network in a safe, controlled manner,” he told the board. “The only other issue that might come up is the fact that some students in some areas of our buildings can’t get a cellular signal, but if some students with some type of LTE or broadband signal, they could bypass our networks. They could access inappropriate sites, and we would have to have measures by which that’s monitored and prevented from happening.”
The problem of lost or stolen devices would be the student’s individual responsibility if it belongs to that student, he noted.
Vice Chairman Jeff Bain asked, “What about the camera capability of these devices?”
Brewster said that it would be policy to forbid camera use unless it is for instructional purpose, which is also current policy.
Barnes also noted that there are programs to handle web-based mail, which currently doesn’t run through filters. Such a program could scan texts and images and notify the central office if they’re deemed inappropriate.
Chairman Mike Barbour asked how much of the money in question has been spent. Barnes replied that he has spent $100,000 on strengthening the existing network.
Bain remarked, “I will be the first to admit, I am so archaic when it comes to the technology side. The computer that I use in my office was purchased in 2002, and I just keep hoping that it’ll keep working. I am going to have to rely almost totally on your good assurances and your information on this in order to make an informed decision.”