iPads in Education

Innovating education with technology.

Making the Case for Student Controlled Devices

One of the benefits of getting older is that you can reflect back on a time when things were done differently. Similarly, you can also clearly see when other things are essentially the same. Although the world around our schools is dramatically different, many of the pillars of our educational systems remain unchanged. Given the dramatic and accelerating transformation in the world around us, it's certainly time to reflect upon how we conduct the business of schooling.


Many have already started down this path. We acknowledge the clear need to move from "sage on the stage" teaching to student empowered learning. We realize that our old content delivery models of education need to be replaced with more experiential and discovery based processes. We understand the limitations of a text only approach and try to integrate different forms of media. Now it's time to revise another sacred cow that has been symptomatic of institutional education since its inception. 


It's time to let go of the notion that we need to control student behavior. It's time to realize that we cannot and should not dictate the manner in which students learn. One area where the desire for control is clearly manifested is our use of technology in school. 


Now before you fire up that impassioned response let me clarify that I'm not advocating a complete hands-off policy that gives students the freedom to do whatever they desire. There's a clear distinction between "protection" and "control". Protecting students from accidentally getting a computer virus or being routed to a pornography website is important. Deciding what apps they use; preventing them from managing their devices; undue censorship of internet activity; using software to watch their screens during class - these are control issues.


It's ironic that we insist on censoring and controlling technology use. Outside school technology is characterized by freedom and empowerment - the ability for anyone to easily access or publish information, connect with people across the world and utilize media for new forms of creative expression and knowledge expansion. Innovation leads to new technologies which in turn can nurture further innovation. However that can only occur if we allow it...

  • Technology empowers students to explore and create. In schools however it's often used in the pursuit of efficiency where we require students to use technology in the same manner and with the intent that they produce similar results.
  • We understand that they have vastly different talents and distinctive learning preferences. At home some use technology in more structured, logical ways while others gravitate to more visual or creative pursuits. Technology empowers them to find their own space as learners. In school we decide what applications they must use and we dictate exactly how they will use them - step by step - even in the face of our full understanding that students are far more expert at learning and using technology than teachers.
  • The internet has enabled the democratization of information - publish, discover and learn anything. Anyone can publish. Everything is available. In schools we attempt to strictly control what they can see and do (yes, I used the word "attempt" - try Googling "ways to get around school web filters" and see what you get).


Technology is a product of change however we often design our implementations in manners that latch onto the comfortable old structures we've always used. Teachers control the class and it's always been heretical to suggest otherwise. We therefore decide what technology students use and more importantly, how they will use it - even though they represent the first generations in history that are mastering many of the essential tools of everyday life before the adults that came before them. 


If we know anything about the world outside school it's that it requires an ability to adapt to change. We insist that modern life requires graduates that are experienced, independent learners. School is the time to start developing those skills. When we enable the use of technology in school we should also grant students the independence and freedom to use it their own way.

  • We can and should allow students to manage their own devices. Help them learn the relevant technical and organizational skills, especially as this has become a vital part of life outside school.
  • Loosen the Parental Controls. Allow them the freedom and responsibility to manage their school apps, set up their school email and more. Have someone instruct them on best practices.
  • Allow them the freedom to find and use other apps as appropriate to their activities in class.
  • You can purchase some apps centrally but otherwise ask parents to purchase the apps. There is an abundance of inexpensive choices.
  • A "Responsible Use" policy should clearly state what is allowed and disallowed. The policy should be signed by child and parent alike.
  • Freedom and responsibility come with consequence. Define a clear outcome for inappropriate use and act upon it as required.
  • Use a web filter but set restrictions loosely and only block categories of sites that are potentially harmful. Ensure you have monitoring in place so you can track web usage if needed. The only skill strict filtering develops is the ability to find ways to work around it ... and they do. Rather than acting as "big brother", set an expectation of personal responsibility and take action when the standards aren't met.


Most importantly, encourage creative, independent and innovative use of technology.

  • Allow students the latitude to express their knowledge in different ways and with different tools wherever possible and subject to your prior approval. The process of learning should be more personally meaningful and motivational.
  • Let them find and bring tools that they are most comfortable using.
  • Give them the latitude to be teachers as well as learners - when they invent, discover or master something new have them teach others and create tutorials that you post online.


Our desire for controlling the use of technology is emblematic of a deeper problem. Top-down institutional control isn't a workable model in an era where the marketplace requires graduates to have skills for learning anything, anywhere and at any time. Following instruction is important but there's also an urgent need to develop personal innovation - the sort of flexible, creative thought and action that's required to deal with a world of tumultuous change. Innovation requires that we open the metaphorical classroom windows and doors. Instead we still feel more comfortable keeping them closed. Is it about control or are we more concerned with efficiency? Are we making decisions based on their needs or ours? 


Whenever I discuss iPad or BYOD implementations in schools one of the first issues raised usually revolves around problems associated with management and control. iPads are difficult to manage on an institutional level. That could be a blessing in disguise. Maybe it presents us with the right timing and opportunity to finally allow students to manage their devices and develop their skills as independent and responsible learners.


Sam Gliksman


Twitter: @samgliksman



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Comment by Danny Delgado on March 17, 2012 at 1:15pm
I totally agree with what you write. So, how do we get past the fear voiced by some teachers about this technology and the lack of control that ,"...is inevitable..." The leadership feeds this when things are slowed down and put on hold. How do I work around this?
Comment by Sam Gliksman on March 15, 2012 at 4:34pm
Thanks for the feedback Diane.
Comment by Diane Brook on March 15, 2012 at 3:32pm

I agree with your approach Sam,  in our schools we have given students "stewardship' of their own devices in Secondary schools. Their Internet is filtered and we can log their activities on line, but students have full management of their laptops, they can load software, install drivers etc.

The model has worked much better than many people feared. It is harder with shared devices in K-6 classes, but we have as little "control" as possible, and try to use education and respect as our digital citizenship strategies. Not everyone agrees, of course, some of our ICT "managers", do struggle  with opening things up, but it is worth it.

Comment by Sam Gliksman on March 6, 2012 at 12:30pm

I noticed that your BalanceEdTech website actually embeds a presentation I recently gave in New Zealand on BYOD - thanks. Many of the issues you raise on the wiki are addressed in that presentation.

Younger grades are definitely more difficult for BYOD programs. They need more guidance. Using the same device with younger children - if that's possible - makes instruction easier. Although there are always exceptions, I generally recommend a standard 1:1 program for elementary schools. Either 1:1 or BYOD can work effectively in middle and high schools.

Having said that, this blog post focused less on how we allocate devices and more about the benefits of allowing students to control them.  

Comment by BalancEdTech on March 6, 2012 at 11:15am

Last year toward the end of the year was the first year we have had a significant number of students begin bringing their own devices. This year I have kids (3rd-8th grade) bringing iPod touches, iPads, Kindles, netbooks, mac and windows laptops. It's a wonderful opportunity and a headache from my newness to all the permutations. Unfortunately, especially at the younger grades, they aren't very sophisticated users yet. If they are, it is usually only of a tool or two, like messaging and internet browsing. They REALLY want to use their devices and I'd like to help them each get there (and help themselves and help others). So, I've started collecting some resources and started an affordances and constraints chart. Do you have any other resources to recommend or comments on our chart?


Lots of trying, exploring, experimenting, failing, and thinking still to do!


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