BYOD in Schools: Bridging or Expanding the Digital Divide?

By Tim Kridel 6/5/2013


Bring your own device (BYOD) is one of the fastest-growing trends in the enterprise and higher ed for a variety of reasons. For example, companies with a limited IT budget sometimes use BYOD to leverage the productivity benefits of the latest and greatest smartphones and tablets without having to buy them. In that sense, BYOD democratizes mobile technologies by making them available to more organizations. It is not without its challenges, however, as any on-site tech manager will attest.

When it comes to secondary education, does BYOD widen the digital divide or help to bridge it? On the one hand, it can minimize the hardware-related costs of bringing distance learning and other educational services into schools with tight budgets. Those savings could mean the difference between students having access to those services and not.

On the other hand, BYOD could put at a disadvantage students whose parents can’t afford a smartphone or tablet. Concerns about that can affect all students if it means that a district limits its use of mobile-friendly education technologies because it can’t afford to issue a tablet to each student.

One thing is clear: Many students already use their own smartphone or tablet for school work, including in class, regardless of whether the school condones or encourages it. For example, in a recent Pew Internet survey of advanced placement and National Writing Project (NWP) teachers, 73 percent said they and/or their students use a mobile phone for school work in or out of the classroom.

And sure enough, the Pew survey shows a digital divide: Fifty-two percent of teachers of upper and upper-middle income students say their students use mobile phones to look up information in class. With the lowest income students, 35 percent of their teachers do.

But the latter statistic is surprising. Low-income students should have BYOD usage on par with their middle and high-income peers simply because smartphone penetration is nearly consistent across all of those youth demographics.

For example, another recent Pew study says, “Teens living in the lowest-earning households (under $30,000) are just as likely as those living in the highest-earning households ($75,000 or more) to own smartphones.” That study also found that they’re “just as likely and in some cases more likely than those living in higher income and more highly educated households to use their cell phone as a primary point of access.”

Why? One likely reason is that low-income parents often can afford $200 for a smartphone but not $500 or $1,000 for a PC. If that’s the case, it means those students will use a smartphone rather than a PC to do most of their assignments that have a technology component. That’s something for teachers and technology managers to keep in mind when selecting products and services. For example, a distance-learning video service that includes an app would serve more students than one that requires a PC or that uses Flash, which most smartphones can’t support.

There’s also the larger trend of smartphone penetration overall. Today, more than 55 percent of Americans own a smartphone, comScore says. Many of those people are on their second or third smartphone. What happens to their old ones? According to the Device Renewal Forum, about 99 percent wind up in landfills and junk drawers. Districts could turn that problem into an opportunity by encouraging parents, students and the community to lobby the mobile industry to send refurbished devices to schools. That’s not called BYOD. It’s called giving back.

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