We can BYOD for you wholesale

Our intermediate school introduced Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) two years ago, at the same time our oldest daughter arrived in year 7 (what people my age recall as form 1). At that point, the first ipad ever released was just 4 years and 10 months old: not even primary school age. Now, something like half the kids in our decile 8 school have one.


Total Recall, Dir. Paul Verhoeven. Based on the novel We Can Remember It For You Wholesale by Philip K Dick.

The teachers talked us through it at a pre-term meeting. It came down to three lines:

  • Computers are here and more are coming and everyone needs to get used to it pronto
  • Computers help iterative learning by increasing parents’ and teachers’ visibility of student work
  • Computers let kids learn more flexibly in their own mode (textual, visual, audio etc.)

I doubted the veracity of all these statements. Nobody (save for a few) knows how their car works, and that never has the slightest impact on our use of them, nor our ability to profit from that use. Same with computers. I can use a computer ok, and none of my clients have ever doubted it or queried it any more than whether I know how to spell (actually, not that well). Knowing how they work is for other people, who I’m happy to pay for their expertise.

I was also surprised to hear a teacher imply that iterative learning was dependent on computers. I work iteratively all the time. As a design researcher, I sort of specialise in it. It doesn’t require any further knowledge of the internet or computers than it does to write this blog. Usually, considerably less. What it requires is knowledge of people.

As for multi modal learning, well, maybe. But hasn’t the Steiner model been doing that for the thick end of a century?

But I also hold the teaching profession in high regard, so I let them have it without any quarrel. They gave us assurances: not everything would be done on devices. And it’s not really about the device, they said. It’s about the pedagogy. How I love that word. Truly, I was a pushover, offering no more resistance than a curious kitten. And besides, why resist? I asked, they answered. I was actually looking forward to it.

Not long afterwards I learned that whatever iterative pedagogies were going on in the classroom, they were invisible to me. The cloud platform they’d told us about in the pre-term meeting never really eventuated: my log on – when it finally got working – showed me a scroll of school-wide chit chat on endless trivia: the location of today’s netball practice, homework for room such-and-such is due in the box outside Ms Thingumie’s office, etc.

Eventually, the teacher just emailed a few of us keen parents a bit of a list of weekly homework expectations. That worked pretty well. Not exactly iterative, but simple, informative and effective.

But because the homework was still being done on the ipad, it was effectively invisible. We couldn’t see a thing, far less than we would had it been done on paper. Besides, if a teacher wants to teach iteratively, why do they have to do it online? Why not just look at the work? What’s the difference?

As for preparing students for the tsunami of pixels heading their way, I’d seriously doubt that many-if-any kids are better off as a result of BYOD. Actually, they’re worse off. The only outcome, the only thing I can see, as a parent, that it’s doing for my kids is this: Technology is Cool emoji!

BYOD is a big, green light, an endorsement of the highest order from the people with whom she spends the most time, and who carry untold influence on her current and future life choices.

It’s probably the thing we spend the most time arguing about in the house. We declared Sundays screen free (with the exception of night time movies: usually a family event), and I’d rather have the seismic arguments about that, than see my kids lulled into stupefaction by the swampy, highly calorific cultural diet of internet meme after meme after meme.

Then there was the decision over what device to get. School specified either an ipad, a Samsung, or a Chromebook. The ipad seemed the most robust option, so that’s what we got. Great. Only, now the girl’s in high school. It’s the nearest one to us, and even in the same cluster as her intermediate, and they specified a Chromebook. When’s it going to stop?

Again, if there’s any negative outcome from our ignoring this spec, we certainly haven’t been told about it.

Then, one night, since nobody at the intermediate school could or would furnish any research into the pedagogical efficacy of BYOD, I thought I’d try and find some myself. It’s been a long time since I did academic research and I know that a lot of articles get locked up on subscription data bases, but I found nothing. Not one thing, not one article claiming – even vaguely, let alone categorically – any positive learning outcomes from BYOD.

But, after about an hour, I did find a few articles. Few if any of them were interested in the educational impacts of computers. Nearly all of them took the form of advice to teachers looking to integrate BYOD in their school: barriers you can expect to find to BYOD, and how to overcome them.

In the thick of all this I went to a barbecue at our primary school. I casually asked an associate principal what she thought of my prediction: that before our youngest daughter left primary school, that it too would have a compulsory BYOD platform. “No” she said. “This school will never have compulsory BYOD.”

That was reassuring, but only because I misinterpreted her answer. Because, of course, now the primary school has optional BYOD. We opted out, thanks.

I was having a little bleat about that to our year 4 teacher on about day 2 of term. She was interested and sympathetic in the few ideas I had time to share with her. And she said one thing she liked was that having a few devices in the classroom makes it much easier to set up different students with different tasks, and thereby to provide more focused, individualised programmes.

But overall, it feels like the only ones who are really benefitting are the hardware and software companies pedalling all the kit.

It’s all very frustrating. The schools ask us parents to spend more money on our kids computing hardware than on any other single item: not even the “voluntary donation” comes anywhere close to the thousand dollar IT set-up budget per student. And yet the schools appear to have no interest in the impact that school computing has on home life, nor any notion that those who are around when the computer is most often within reach might have something to contribute to how they’re used in school.

Quite simply, I feel like a revenue unit for the Apple corporation.

Where to from here? Now that we’ve come this far, I’m wondering if the worst step the schools have made has been to embrace computers for their pedagogical value. But why not just face up to the fact that the best thing computers can teach is computers? 

Every kid has to bring their PE gear, so they can learn PE. Why not be the same way with computers? If every kid brings a computer, why not teach them to look after themselves properly, not by the digital equivalent of stranger danger mitigation, but by the stuff that matters: code. How to encrypt stuff. How to clean a browser of its history, and its cookies, and why that’s important. What hackers and governments both do with your data. That is where empowerment lies. And, for some, that’s where jobs lie, too.



2 thoughts on “We can BYOD for you wholesale

  1. Great blog James. Especially liked your last paragraph with its piece de resistance – use the darn devices properly and teach code. How to write and apply it to solve problems. Imagine that. How liberating and wondrous that could be on so many levels for many kids. And the school has the hardest obstacle to achieve this, a computer for each of the students, sorted.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. oh man, i typed out a comment on this post, but don’t see it online! what happened? Great subject.. there should be a raging pedagogical debate… and learning code is a great idea.. but there’s more… starting with disk management and The Googlization of Everything.


    Liked by 1 person

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