Businesses see benefits in allowing their workforce to use personal devices in the workplace, but is this culture likely to extend to schools?
It's the first class of the day at Crown Woods College. 'Miss' is taking a group of sixth formers through some of the core functions of an ICT system. A QR code flashes up on the interactive whiteboard. The students immediately hold aloft a variety of devices – mainly new iPads and iPad Minis.
Joining them today are a visiting delegation of educators from Finland, a country with an excellent education reputation. They are also invited to hold up their smartphones (Blackberry, iPhone and Android devices) and are able to access the same quiz that the students are participating in. It has to be said that the students performed far better.
Successive UK governments over the last 20 years have promoted the use of computer technology in the classroom. This culminated in the Building Schools for the Future programme introduced by the government of Gordon Brown. But the Conservative-led Coalition scrapped the programme as being too expensive in the current austere economic environment.
Crown Woods College in the London Borough of Greenwich, where the Finnish delegates and I visited that morning, was one of the few schools where the contracts had already been signed and, therefore, building work for the new school could not be halted.
The result is a stunning set of buildings, which feels more like a university campus than a secondary school. Towers of corporate white columns dominate the wide aisles as floor-to-ceiling windows flood the school with natural and welcoming sunlight when the students file in for registration.
Each classroom is also kitted out with interactive whiteboards that allow teachers to introduce images, video, audio and data visualisations to eager students who demonstrate their gratitude by not scrawling graffiti on the desks and chairs. After 18 months, everything still looks as if it were unboxed yesterday.
These students are the lucky ones. Most schoolchildren in the UK will attend schools built and conceived before the IT era. They will open their textbooks rather than notebook computers. Although interactive displays are in most schools, they are still not in most classrooms.
Benefits of BYOD
That's not to suggest, however, that many educators in the UK do not believe that increased use of ICT in the classroom would benefit students. But delivering these benefits when the Treasury is running a record deficit would be tricky. The answer could lie with the current trend within many companies to allow their employees to bring their own devices and connect to the corporate network.
Ian Fogarty, a teacher at Riverview High School in New Brunswick, Canada, is highly regarded in the teaching profession as an early adopter and champion of new technology in the classroom. He is enthusiastic about the prospect of students bringing their own smart devices into school, which could be used for beneficial purposes.
"Let us get ready for that," he says. "Maybe we need to think into the future – and we [teachers] need to invest our time and energy thinking about the very near future."
But there are significant challenges in implementing this approach in the classroom. Even so, several leading ICT vendors have developed platforms, which would allow the bring your own device (BYOD) culture to flourish in schools.
One way that these vendors are allowing this to occur is by making their systems platform agnostic. What this essentially means is that their systems will allow content to be displayed on any device regardless of operating system or manufacturer. After all, it is all about the content.
One such company, Smart Display Technologies, has released a plug-in for its interactive whiteboard display system that will allow content to be pushed to any device with a browser.
Even some of the IT bigwigs have made ICT in the classroom a massive priority in their overall strategies. Intel Corporation, for example, has worked with educators for several years to bring computing into the classroom.
John Galvin, general manager of Intel Education, says: "The winning formula is to make sure that the teachers are prepared and that they know how to use the technology and how to incorporate it... that they have access to the content that really fits into their lesson plans."
This could be viewed as an attempt to improve sales of Intel chips. However, with the company's massive reach and importance, you can at least be sure that their education platforms – which they supply freely to schools – will work on virtually every device, whether it has Intel inside or not.
But there are other big players targeting the education market, including Microsoft and Google. These companies are in the game for more than just lip service, and both are keen to promote their respective operating systems.
Google are marketing the Chromebook as a low-cost option that could easily be used in the networked classroom. Similarly, Microsoft is looking to continue its dominance of the desktop operating system environment.
Both companies have a view to get their platforms in front of young minds and to impress.
There is still the barbed issue of inclusivity to tackle. Although children are owning smartphones at an increasingly earlier age, there are still a sizeable number who are without one.
Kerry Troupe, ICT advisor and teacher at Crown Woods College says: "My concern is not all students can afford it. So to ensure that block isn't there, I'm looking at buying individual devices."
Fogarty agrees: "In our school there would be just a few [who can't afford a smart device]. Around 60 to 70 per cent of our students are coming to school with their own smart technology, so we're looking at 25 to 40 per cent. In two or three years, as prices are going, that adoption will be far higher. So I think in the near future, we'll probably only be looking at about 10 per cent of the students."
There are two main reasons preventing parents from buying smart devices for their children. The first relates to affordability – many parents simply cannot afford to buy their children a smartphone. The second is a fear of not being able to monitor the child's Internet use.
Many in the teaching profession also share this concern. In the past, many schools have banned the use of mobile phones as they have been considered disruptive in the classroom. Adding to this, there have been numerous headlines relating to stories of cyber-bullying, which often involves smartphones. The issues continue to mount – the latest being concerns over sex texting.
Some consider that these concerns can be overcome by simply introducing controls on how the technology can be used. There is a big difference between the use of a mobile phone that is not part of the teaching framework and where there is no guidance on how the student should be permitted to use it within the teaching environment.
A number of IT trends have combined to make BYOD possible. Firstly, the development of media-rich HTML 5 browsers on mobile devices allows a great deal of multimedia content and interactivity within the browsing environment.
The next trend is the increased acceptance of cloud-based services. This type of infrastructure is ideal in lending itself to the BYOD culture as very few classrooms can afford to have a technician standing by in case a student is unable to connect to the network.
Cloud computing is becoming a trend in both the corporate and consumer environment. The idea is that much of the processing and storage is not on the device itself but is stored and accessed externally, via the Internet.
Multimedia plays a big role in modern teaching methods. Therefore the ability to store and process this type of content and display the results on any HTML 5 compatible browser (which virtually all mobile devices now possess) is an important advance.
Multimedia social networks such as YouTube are also an integral part of the teaching experience. Blocking these sites would be a self-defeating exercise.
"Its rich digital and 'not flat' content really engages the student. Where we see it implemented the return on investment is worth it and the results are incredible," says Galvin.
Troupe also agrees that multimedia is important, but boundaries have to be set: "Students are allowed on YouTube because we use it for educational purposes,'but we have filtering in place [for each year group].
"It's about educating them so that they are making the appropriate choices. We do, however, block particular sites for child protection issues."
Teachers will require training in how to guide students in the proper use of any technology that they use in school.
Such a change in attitude will be difficult to implement among teachers – many of whom still see mobile devices as a distraction in the classroom rather than a benefit.
In many cases, student- and teacher-owned mobile devices are newer and more powerful than those that the school can afford. The financial incentive to schools for BYOD is clear. The lower initial capital expenditure is particularly attractive in the current economic climate.
But this will only be beneficial if operational costs can be kept low. Supporting a range of different mobile devices is likely to be more complicated than supporting a range of identical devices purchased and maintained by the school itself.
Another challenge is that when a student or teacher provides their own device, the school has no control over where it has been or what apps the user has downloaded. The history of the device is unknown and it is virtually impossible for the school to enforce security policies and remediate compromised computers.
This is a big risk when mobile devices connect to school networks and access essential applications and information. If devices are used for a class activity, the teacher needs to cater for the least powerful device in the classroom.
But often the least expensive devices are designed for consumption rather than creation. Even when the latter is possible, it is cumbersome. This could mean that all students do not have equal access to the collaborative learning experience.
Cost also has to be considered. It's far easier to manage multiple devices if they are all from the same manufacturer, running the same software and configured exactly the same.
Managing a range of different devices can increase the cost and complexity of a school's IT infrastructure. It's very easy to block a website, but when Facebook is built directly into the platform it is impossible to remove and difficult to regulate student access.
In 2013, smartphone sales are likely to outstrip ordinary mobile phones for the first time and young people are likely to own one. Many educators are coming round to the idea that since these devices are already in schools, we should use them as learning tools rather than treating them as a problem.