Recently, a lot of schools and districts across the US have been trying out a “BYOD” program–ie. Bring Your Own Device. Students bring in their cellphone or tablet to school and classroom activities are structured to allow a variety of ways to engage with the content via the the various devices. Even though not all students come in with devices, proponents of BYOD note that the equity issue isn’t cause for concern as students share their devices and learn together.

I understand that BYOD programs are a good step forward in terms of ed-tech integration at a low cost to schools and districts–however, I think there are long term concerns that these schools (many of which have 50 to 60% of their students on reduced lunches) should seriously consider. Though there hasn’t been a lot of research on BYOD programs, I am already skeptical of these claims that equity issues are taken care of by students sharing devices in class.

A report I read for my class on emerging technologies (“Learning: Is there an app for that?” by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center) mentions that one of the key benefits of mobile technologies in schools is the push towards an anytime, anywhere learning culture. The anytime, anywhere learning philosophy is fantastic and there is great potential for technology in education to catalyze the movement towards such a philosophy… but mobile technologies and especially BYOD programs are missing an important piece of this issue.

Anytime, anywhere learning is when learning is not restricted to the classroom. It occurs when students are motivated and have the tools to actively pursue learning, wherever they are. A very powerful concept! However, BYOD empowers the socioeconomically privileged students to engage in this kind of learning, but expressly limits the students who aren’t bringing in their own devices. It’s saying “for students who have the technology already, you can continue learning outside the classroom, at home, on the playground, or at your friend’s house!” But for the students who aren’t bringing in their own devices? Their main exposure to the technology itself (and as a result, their opportunities for developing digital literacy skills) and to a higher quality of learning opportunities, is limited to the school environment alone (assuming BYOD in the classroom is scaffolded well). In contrast, students who are bringing those devices to school are also spending many hours exploring and learning informally.

My independent research at Grinnell was looking at this issue from a different lens but the research inevitably points to the same conclusion: you cannot discount the value of outside-of-school learning opportunities. Kids who have their own laptop at home can develop their digital literacy skills and further engage with school content on their own time. They’re getting a very different kind of quality of access to the technology itself and the learning opportunities it provides than do kids who type up their school essays at the public library. The same is true for mobile devices–whether smartphones or tablets.

Coming back to BYOD then, my issue is this: BYOD isn’t an inherently bad program. It’s just inadvertently going to worsen inequities in students’ digital literacy development, as some students are engaging with their devices at home AND school while others only have the structured school environments. And in the end, the inequities today are going to translate to students’ post-graduation opportunities.