Some thoughts on pupils ‘bringing their own device’ (BYOD)

Dec 17, 2015

Miles Berry

This is prompted in part by the TES citing some data from HMI David Brown which appeared to show that 30% of secondary pupils questioned by inspectors in Section 5 inspections last March said they were able to use their own device (eg laptop or tablet) at their school. I was pleasantly surprised his figures were as high as this. To spoil my fun, the TES included a somewhat reactionary quote from an Ofsted spokesperson:

“Pupils bringing personal devices such as laptops or tablets into school can be extremely disruptive and make it difficult for teachers to teach…. It is up to schools to decide whether they have rules about personal devices, but Ofsted would be supportive of heads who took tough action to make the learning environment better for children.”

Putting to one side the potential extreme disruption of Ofsted inspections, it appeared the issue was not so much the tablet, as the ownership of the tablet. Sean Hartford, Ofsted’s national director for education, tweeted:

“I think we need to get one thing straight: nobody at Ofsted thinks using tablets is disruptive”

Which was somewhat reassuring, as was Mike Cameron’s analysis of inspection reports that mentioned tablets (other technologies are available, although I worry that you’d not always notice this).

Subsequently, it emerged that Ofsted’s spokesperson had, er, misunderstood the TES’s enquiry, and affirmed that actually technology, even pupils own technology wasn’t intrinsically bad if it was used for learning:

Ofsted is clear that technology can of course have a positive impact on a pupil’s learning experience (as noted in many of our reports) and we are not against the use of tablets, laptops or other devices in school when part of planned lessons.

The debate though about the appropriateness of students using their own technology in school goes on. One of the reasons why, in England at least,  there’s so much disagreement over young people’s use of smartphones, tablets and laptops in school, whether they’re their own or the institution’s, is that autonomous access to technology such as this  goes to the heart of what education and schooling should be for.

On the one, traditionalist if you will, hand there’s a notion of schooling as about cultural transmission, of teachers authoritatively imparting knowledge and of pupils being well prepared for qualifications that open the doors to further study or semi-lucrative employment. These aren’t bad things. 1:1 access to smartphones, tablets or laptops can help with this, but they’re hardly necessary, and potentially disruptive as behaviour ‘czar’ Tom Bennett has argued (paywall). Indeed, OECD’s Students, Computers and Learning report suggests that access to tech has little impact on exam performance.

A more progressive approach would recognise that, important as these things are, there’s more to education than that. That acquiring knowledge to pass exams and get a job isn’t the same as coming to love learning for its own sake. That being taught well isn’t the same as being able to learn for yourself (as many in higher education notice, year in year out, with incoming freshers). That, as Papert argued in The Children’s Machine (1993):

“The most important skill determining a person’s life pattern has already become the ability to learn new skills, to take in new concepts, to assess new situations, to deal with the unexpected. “

Indeed, such ‘progressive’ approaches have quite a long tradition. For example, Plowden, reporting in 1967:

“One of the main educational tasks of the primary school is to build on and strengthen children’s intrinsic interest in learning and lead them to learn for themselves.”

My own schooling was coloured by Plowden’s recommendations – I’ve vivid memories of an afternoon a week in Year 5 and Year 6 spent pursuing our own independent projects – I did tea (clearly, British values were important even back then), philately, probability and local history. Important as these branches of learning were in pre-National Curriculum days, the long lasting effect was the knowledge that I could teach myself something, and that it was enjoyable to do so. I caught a love of learning (and of libraries) that has stayed with me to the present day. You can imagine the consequent excitement when I first connected to the Web back in 1995. We provided a similar experience to the Year 4, 5 and 6 pupils when I was head at Alton, through entering them for English Speaking Board exams – they spent English, history and geography lessons for a few weeks researching their own choice of topic to teach to their peers.

Interestingly, Ofsted inspection criteria appear to value this broader view of education. One criterion for ‘outstanding’ from the current inspection handbook:

“Pupils love the challenge of learning and are resilient to failure. They are curious, interested learners who seek out and use new information to develop, consolidate and deepen their knowledge, understanding and skills. They thrive in lessons and also regularly take up opportunities to learn through extra-curricular activities.”

If this  is the purpose of education, then 1:1 provision, at the point of need, of the up to date digital technology may be, well, helpful:

  • There, at their fingertips, would be access to the world’s greatest library – to every Wikipedia article, to Google Maps, YouTube, Flickr, TED, Wolfram Alpha, MOOCs from the world’s leading universities, to Project Gutenberg and the classic novels Nick Gibb wants to see in all schools, to the world’s greatest art, literature and music. To the content that would have been beyond the reach of all but the most privileged elite less than a couple of generations ago.
  • Putting to one side for now the safety issues, there’s the opportunity to participate in, or at least listen to, a global conversation. Recognising that there are others from whom one can learn, and discussion beyond the classroom in which one can participate is hugely empowering. It’s also something where what constitutes safe, responsible and constructive behaviour needs, I think, to be taught.
  • Digital technology also puts the means of production and distribution into the hands of young people – this could be a blog post written for 100 Word Challenge, a Scratch game, original photography, audio or video, or sophisticated 3D animations. We see with blogging, Scratch and young people’s own video work how effective the right media tools and a sense of global audience can be in encouraging young people to strive for their best and to reach beyond that which they’ve been taught.

So, what do we want from education? Pupils passing exams, or students coming to love learning for its own sake? If it’s just the former, transmissive teaching, practice papers and textbooks may well prove highly effective. If it’s also the latter, then providing 1:1 access to the web may be helpful too. For what follows, I’m assuming you see value in the latter. Not everyone does.

If we take the red pill and think a) promoting a love of learning is at least as important as passing exams and b) think that 1:1 access to digital technology can help here, what  should we do?

One option is to invest in the kit. Lots of schools have done this, and those that have put a vision for transforming learning and teaching at the heart of this provision have seen some great benefits here. This isn’t cheap. Take care with your choice of kit too: iPads may not be the solution you’re looking for; Chromebooks are cheaper and pretty fab.

Another is to get parents to provide particular devices for pupils to use in schools, and again that can be successful, although there are thorny issues here of device ownership and control, as well as social equity.

A third option is to let pupils bring in their own devices and use those in school. There’s a number of obvious benefits here. It’s much more economical for schools than providing students with kit. It’s much more economical for students and parents to be able to use the device they already own rather than having to buy a completely different one for school. It’s better for the environment too – how many screens does a teenager need? It’s much more empowering for students – they know how to use their device; they have admin privileges on it so can get more done; they learn better how to make use of their machine for purposeful work. It’s great preparation for higher education, where BYOD is the model outside of particularly specialised contexts. It sends a powerful message that the effective use of technology is not about the hardware, or even the software, but about how you use it. There’s little need for training. There’s no point buying really naff apps. It makes the web the platform, removing the silos of (particularly iOS) apps. It explicitly recognises young people’s right to freedom of expression (‘seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds’).

BYOD is not, however, without its issues. Common arguments against this approach include:

  • Teachers are no longer in control of what pupils do with their device. Is our role as teachers to control children? Or to educate them? Yes, we have a duty of care, but this may be best exercised through teaching pupils to behave responsibly not through some sort of authoritarian control of what they do.
  • Teachers can’t learn to teach all these different applications and operating systems. Nor should they. I dread to imagine lessons in which pupils are trained to use iPhones. These are devices which ship without manuals because the interface is so well designed you don’t need one. Not sure how to get something done? Play; Google it; ask a friend; post a question to Stack Overflow (if you’re very brave). In that order.
  • Not every pupil can afford a device of their own. A perhaps surprisingly high proportion of young people do have smartphones, tablets or laptops of their own, but not all can afford one. I think in some cases this may be a good use of pupil premium money. It seems a fair few schools are spending pupil premium funds like this already, judging by Mike’s sample of Ofsted reports and the NAO’s survey of head teachers (50% of the sample reported spending pupil premium on digital technology – which include, but isn’t limited to 1:1 device provision). Back in ‘09, the Becta home access scheme seemed successful at narrowing the gap for young people and their families; I wonder how many schools have thought of funding home internet access out of pupil premium? If not, why not?

If your school is considering a change of approach by venturing down the route of allowing pupils to make use of their own technology in school, then there are a few things, some of them not immediately obvious, which it’s worth getting right first.

First and foremost, this is about culture and values: it’s about making the school a learning community, a place in which education is a shared endeavour for which all take responsibility, not something which one groups does to another group. Getting this right isn’t trivial, but it is worth it. As Hattie puts it,

“The biggest effects on student learning occur when …  students become their own teachers.”

Certainly from the position of higher education, our best students aren’t those who take the best notes in lectures and submit those back to us in their essays, but are those who read, think and write for themselves. I ask my students what they would want from their pupils: children who accepted what the teacher said or children who would question things; naïve as they are, most would prefer the latter.

Behaviour. I’m at risk of sounding like someone from the NRA, but it’s not phones, tablets and laptops that disrupt lessons, it’s pupils. Establishing a purposeful learning environment in which disruptive, anti-social behaviour just doesn’t happen is essential if BYOD is going to help rather than hinder learning. If you can’t get that right, then Tom, Nick and Sir Michael are probably right, and it would be better to ban the things. However, don’t assume that simply banning digital tech is going to miraculously transform the behaviour of your pupils. I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Connectivity. One of the Government Digital Service’s design principles is ‘do less’ – they explain, “Government should only do what only government can do”, which is a politically laden view, but I think the same might apply to school tech: school tech should only do what only school tech can do. For me, that means providing faultless, high capacity bandwidth to the point of need. Rent the best (fastest) internet you can; try to avoid paying for additional ‘services’ you don’t want and you won’t use. Make sure that wifi across the site works really well. If you can, provide some safe and secure way for students to keep devices charged during the day, as Moore’s law doesn’t apply to batteries. It’s still quite useful to be able to share one screen with a class so projectors or big screens may well be useful. A webserver of your own, virtual or otherwise,  is quite useful too, assuming you’ve got someone who can make use of it. Think very carefully about spending money on other ed tech, as you can do most of the other things you’d actually want to do for free.

Try to keep pupils safe. It’s best to teach them to keep themselves safe, but you still want to do what you can to avoid bad things happening. Filter the connection sensibly at the gateway and actively monitor how each account is used. Watch out for additional wifi hotspots appearing in the building which bypass the school’s own filtering and monitoring. Get a clear message across that in school, we use the school wifi not our own SIM. Work with parents to ensure that they’ve activated parental controls on their children’s SIM cards. Good e-safety isn’t just about technical solutions though – it’s much more about character and values. It should be taboo to be accessing ‘inappropriate’ content in school.

Don’t exclude anyone – I made the point above, but it needs reiterating – not everyone can afford devices such as these, and allowing BYOD without thinking through how all can be included seems simply wrong – pupil premium funding can help, but don’t assume that the only pupils without a smartphone, tablet or laptop are those entitled to pupil premium funding. Even if BYOD is about permission to bring in a device rather than a requirement to do so, many might feel disadvantaged if they can’t make the most of the opportunity. Perhaps a set of loan devices in the library for any who need them? Chromebooks work very well for this sort of thing, assuming you’ve bought into the GAFE ecosystem and are comfortable with associated privacy issues.


These are interesting times. I’ve little doubt that in 10-20 years time this will be as commonplace as bringing your own stationery, calculator or reading book to school is (or was). This seems increasingly  common practice in the independent sector, particularly where boarding is involved, although the social exclusion issue is less of an issue there. It’s already how we do things in HE. Isn’t it time that we recognised that students in schools already have access to some phenomenal digital technology, and removed the artificial barriers to their using it effectively in school?