Monday, June 27, 2011

Tough Argument

Branding BYOD: On/Off
by Jason Ohler

There is a new acronym that is rapidly becoming embedded in the public narrative about technology and learning: BYOD. It stands for Bring Your Own Device. It opens up an area of inquiry that can be summarized in the following questions: How should communities, schools, and teachers address the issue of students wanting to bring their own digital devices to school? What new opportunities and challenges would a pro-BYOD—or an anti-BYOD policy—present? How do educators manage a BYOD world?

I recently had a conversation with someone whom I consider to be very bright and reasonable in matters of educational technology in which she argued that we should say no to BYOD. I pointed out that she didn't have the option. BYOD won. Kids already bring their devices to school and often use them in ways we don't like because we have yet to define ways to use them that we do like. We are left to figure out how to manage the situation, often in reactive mode, as we scramble our way up a new learning curve.

As a management mantra, I am going to suggest we brand our efforts with BYOD with the following: On/Off.

On/Off means that we say yes to BYOD, and then manage the situation by asking students to use them sometimes, and turn them off at other times.

It is up to educational systems to figure out how to use them when they are in the On position. And before we holler "technological determinism," just remind yourself that many of you didn't even have the Internet 15 years ago. Now you wouldn't consider living without it. The same has become true for your cell phone; for adults as well as kids. The average adult wouldn't dream of living in world that wasn't BYOD at work.

Likewise, it is up to learning managers to determine when to ask students and teachers to turn their devices off; that is, to unplug so we can talk, think, and collaborate face to face. On/Off. It's balanced. It's healthy.

If we tell students to turn their devices off all the time, they will turn them on anyway, sometimes defiantly, and do at least some things we wish they would rather not. But if we tell them to turn them on sometimes, and engage them in using their devices to pursue learning exploration in ways that we deem beneficial, they are more likely to turn them off when asked to. If the rhythm is On/Off, rather than "always off," we may find we are much more pleased with what happens when they are on.

... it is up to learning managers to determine when to ask students and teachers to turn their devices off; that is, to unplug so we can talk, think, and collaborate face to face.
But there is a much more important issue in a BYOD environment than simply engaging students to use the technology that feels so second nature to them in ways we deem beneficial. We need desperately to talk to them about their technology, something we can't do if they don't have it with them.

The fact that their technology is so invisible to them is their Achilles Heel. Because they don't see it, they don't think to question it.

They need us to help them put their technology in a social context, and to ask questions about how it connects and disconnects them, or, in McLuhan's parlance, extends and reduces them. We need to talk about how their technology impacts themselves, their communities, and their environment.

In the Preamble of my book Digital Community, Digital Citizen, I ask the question: Our choice for our children: Two lives or one? That is, do we expect students to live a digitally deluged lifestyle outside of school, then unplug when the bell rings? Or is it time to help them integrate their digital and non-digital lives into one healthy life based on a single identity, and talk about their technology in critical terms so that they become the kind of digital citizens the world needs?

I say it is time to help them pursue one life. And to do so, I say we brand BYOD: On/Off.

Are there issues with this? Of course. There are always issues with technology. After all, technology connects and disconnects—always. Most notably, there are three issues that vex us:

1.How do we keep kids safe when they are online?
2.How do we keep them on-task?
3.How do we address those who can't afford a device?
The first two issues are important, but I believe best addressed in an On/Off culture in which we actually discuss, as a matter of normal fare, the up and downsides of our BYOD lives. Make no mistake—we are looking at a new era of teaching and learning. Professional development will never be the same. An On/Off culture will require teachers to do many things they never had to do before, like manage students who are constantly plugged into the Internet. But certainly we can make no progress about this if we aren't teaching students the skills needed to address these issues. And we can’t do this effectively if they don't have their technology with them, and on, at least part of the time.

The last issue, affordability, is certainly real. But when touch pads and other key technologies become so inexpensive that they can vie with supplying each student with a number of textbooks, a development that seems all but certain, this issue can be addressed, whether through lending programs, or easy-buy programs or other approaches that will present themselves as vendors and schools get creative.

I don't think cost will end up being the issue. Rather, once we have the technology because it is so inexpensive, we will need to return the issue that has always vexed in education: just what does an educated person look like?

On/Off. Balanced. Healthy. Possible.

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