School BYOD policy to grow in coming years

Six St. Johns County schools are testing a “bring your own device” policy that could alleviate some of the financial strain the school district is facing from the state’s push for digital.

The district is phasing in BYOD — which allows students to bring personal smart phones, tablets and laptops into the classroom — as schools complete necessary infrastructure, wireless internet and bandwidth updates. The policy isn’t mandatory, but it could solve a costly per-student device dilemma.

Brennan Asplen said state mandate requires schools have enough devices to test the largest grade level at any time on the same day. The challenge is having enough money to purchase that many devices while managing the infrastructure to support them.

After piloting a Digital 1:1 program in seven schools, it was apparent the cost of per-student devices paired with infrastructure requirements would be too hefty to replicate district-wide. Just in those schools, $1.5 million was spent on 2,700 devices and accompanying infrastructure.

Asplen said outfitting the entire district the same way would cost $92 million in a matter of five years.

Bruce Patrou, chief information technology officer, said the district added more than 2,000 devices to schools this year using a Digital Classroom Plan allocation of $1 million from the state, but infrastructure cost the district an additional $2 million.

The district plans to use $25 million of the sales tax over the next 10 years to address technology needs, although it may not be enough to placate constant growth and maintenance demands.

Hopes are high the BYOD policy will give the district more room to address bandwidth and infrastructure demands.

“I think if students choose to bring in their own devices, it could help make up the difference,” Asplen said.

Students can use their technology to complete in-class activities, do homework and access websites with curriculum-related content, under the supervision of teachers. Personal devices won’t be used for testing purposes outside of teacher-created assessments and students are responsible for their device set-up, charging and security.

Right now only a handful of schools allow BYOD, but Asplen said eventually all schools will participate as bandwidth and Wi-Fi capacity increases. He added that students are mostly using their phones, but he suspects more will use tablets and laptops as the policy gains traction.

“Especially if students are getting computers or tablets for their birthdays,” he said. “They’ll probably use those straight to college.”

Michelle Dillon, the teacher union president, said technology costs shouldn’t be the burden of the district or the student. If the state is pushing for digital classrooms, she said, the state should pay for the changes.

“If that’s what the state wants, they should have to supply it,” Dillon said.

She said while technology adds an element to the classroom, it also requires constant attention and maintenance.

“I can’t even imagine it from the logistical side. Getting the computers, making sure everything is up-to-date, getting the infrastructure,” she said. “By the time you get everything installed, it’s all outdated again.”

Two teachers at Palencia Elementary School, one of the seven schools piloting the Digital 1:1 program, say they appreciate having more devices in the classroom, especially when it comes to assessing students and tracking their progress.

“These kids are so tech-savvy,” said Julie Haden, a first-grade teacher said.

Haden uses programs that allow her students to share their daily class activities with parents. Parents can send messages of encouragement to their children as well as feedback and questions for the teacher. When she’s out of the classroom for the day, she can still monitor her students’ activities.

Kate Dowdie, a music teacher at Palencia, said digital devices haven’t overwhelmed traditional teaching and learning methods. But she said the iPads and laptops make boring classroom assessments or activities more engaging and tolerable for her students.

“Kids are so over-tested. If we can find ways to incorporate assessments in a way that doesn’t make the student feel like they’re taking a test, that’s really bold for us,” Dowdie said.

Patrou said there has been a noticeable change for the better in schools using technology in classrooms. Students are more interested, attendance has improved, collaborations are smoother and instruction is differentiated.

“Not all learning is best using a digital device, however this tool can bring many positive aspects to learning including preparing students to work in a digital world,” he said.

But he said there are plenty of barriers to overcome, including equipment costs, digital content, bandwidth and training for staff.

Whether BYOD can bridge some of those gaps is yet to be seen.