BYOD: Schools’ attempt at using lean methodology

by Lauren Miller

In a world that is becoming increasingly digital, with over 75 percent1 of American kids age 12 to 17 owning cell phones and 19 percent2 of Americans owning tablets, schools are rapidly realizing that the proliferation of these devices into the classroom is inevitable and potentially beneficial for the future of education. Despite their acknowledgement of this trend, very few schools have budgets that allow them to purchase tablets or other mobile devices for each of their students. Districts also realize that if they are going to invest in purchasing devices over the coming years, they need to ensure that their assumptions about the impact that these devices can have on education are true.

The strategy that districts have adopted—bring your own device (BYOD)—reveals that many of them, though not explicitly, have decided to attempt being lean. The lean startup methodology advocates avoiding waste and optimizing resource expenditures by testing hypotheses.3 The BYOD strategy gives schools the opportunity to validate their hypotheses about the presence of mobile devices in the classroom without requiring heavy and potentially wasteful investment. Though I highly commend schools for using a lean approach and getting some parts of the methodology right, it is important to note that they may have gotten some things wrong and have already learned a lesson that if not addressed could hamper public education’s ability to ever truly go digital.

What they got right

Several school districts have taken the time to explicitly delineate the key assumptions that they are testing. Broadly, the hypotheses that most schools believe to be true are as follows:

Having devices in the classroom will

  1. lead to greater student achievement
    1. through differentiated learning customized to student needs
    2. by making learning less teacher-centered and more student-centered
    3. through innovation in learning and teaching
  2. lead to greater student engagement
  3. not distract students from learning

The Vancouver school district is an excellent example of a district that specified hypotheses. You can see their plan here. A large number of school districts have even conducted pilots in some of their schools. However, the design of these hypotheses and pilots leads me to areas of concern.

Areas of concern

First, the hypotheses that schools are testing need to be of the highest priority and need to be made falsifiable. As the Vancouver Schools plan (and my broad hypotheses above) illustrate, many districts have yet to master this science. Additionally, rather than using the smallest set of activities necessary to confirm or disprove their hypotheses, such as a smaller scale test using one classroom or one grade level, most districts chose to test the program across an entire school or a handful of schools in the district. Though this seems not to have caused any significant problems, testing on a smaller scale would allow the district to iterate and implement learnings more quickly.

Schools also need to have a very controlled way of testing which devices are most effective in the classroom as some kids will bring in tablets, others will bring their parents’ old laptops, and the remainder will have mobile phones. All devices used for educational purposes are not created equal and without pilots designed to test certain devices in some classrooms and different devices in others, it is difficult to determine effectiveness on this particular level. Furthermore, schools could end up getting a false negative on the hypothesis that devices in the classroom will not cause a distraction because having a class full of students handling his or her own device, each one different from the other, could only amplify teachers' anxiety and reduce use.

One lesson already learned

From pilots that schools have already run, districts have learned that a BYOD program requires a solid IT infrastructure to support the demand of student devices, which several schools currently don’t have due to the age of their buildings. If BYOD programs are going to really reach their potential, districts will need to improve their schools’ wireless infrastructure and internet security to handle the capacity of every student in the school simultaneously using the network.

In closing, using the lean methodology is a great move for the politicized and scrutinized field of public education, especially since stakes are high and economic challenges abound. However, because improving education in many ways hinges on our ability to integrate the best technologies into classrooms in the most impactful ways, I urge districts to quickly integrate lessons already learned and to avoid design mistakes of the past.

1 Pew Research Study
2 Pew Internet & American Life Project
3 Eisenmann, Ries, and Dillard. Hypothesis-Driven Entrepreneurship: The Lean Startup. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2011. Print.


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