BYOD versus Academic Equity

Bring your own device (BYOD) sounds great at first. However, a failure to adequately plan could introduce new academic disparities that will create gaps in improving student outcomes.

BYOD versus Academic Equity

I want to start with an extreme example of BYOD that we can use to springboard our conversation. Keep in mind, this is written only from the perspective of families and students, not faculty and staff.


Firstly, BYOD is not just about bringing your own device. According to Gartner, BYOD also means that you need to bring your own apps, content, services, and mobile broadband. If you own a smartphone or media tablet, you know that it is pretty useless without apps, content, services, and a mobile broadband plan.

While some apps and services are free, they are often traded for privacy and access to your friends’ shared information. Quality and well-designed apps, content, and services cost money. These are dollars above the costs of the device and any accessories needed, hence it should be called BYOD Plus (hereafter BYOD+).

In contrast to devices, I have never purchased a book that needed mobile broadband, apps, additional content, or services before I could read it. Hmm.

No Big Box Mart Prices

The other BYOD+ issue is the lack of bulk buying power of institutions for individuals or families. Families and students will have to pay whatever market price they can afford. Even manufacturer discounts are trivial when the manufacturer sets the market price. Households are better served when the market itself promotes competitive pricing.

While the institutions save a lot of money on hardware, apps, infrastructure, support, and services, students and families pay the difference. These costs escalate with the number of school-age children per household.

This Time It’s Personal

Now, I said this would be an extreme example. As a parent, if I foot the bill to get my daughter the best device with the best ancilliary services, why in the world would I allow her educational institution to put anything on her (read “my”) personal device?

The risk equation is very different from a “Trapper Keeper” binder filled with loose-leaf paper. We are talking about an ongoing investment that can range between $400 to $1000 with an annual recurring costs of at least $180 to $360 for mobile broadband. A digital device without mobile broadband is almost a waste of money–I did say almost.

Costs escalate with the number of school-age children per householdThe final aspect of BYOD+ is that some organizations require additional safeguards on your personal device to access their network services. These safeguards show up in mobile device management (MDM) solutions to prevent loss, theft, and malicious use of institutional data. There is nothing inherently wrong with MDM solutions. However, if students are used to swiping to unlock and getting right to work, that will change with swipe to unlock–please your enter PIN–in 90 days please reset your PIN.

There is a human threshold on how much friction people want to experience on a personally-owned device. I would argue that the threshold is significantly lower on personally-owned devices than on an institution-owned/managed devices. (Perhaps, BYOD+ should be 100% tax-deductible…that would make it more attractive.)

The question I believe most families will ask, “How did something that was never my responsibility or expense, suddenly become my responsibility and expense overnight?

I think it is a fair question. So we will have to evolve our thinking to answer it justly.

A Few Words About Apps

The best app experiences on any platform are always native apps. By native, I mean apps that were designed to run on the device it is being used. The challenge with native apps, is that they are not universally portable. The native apps that run on an iPad, will not run on an Android device. The native apps that run on Windows will not run on an iPad. This native app disparity and portability challenge pushes institutions to find a common platform–the Web.

World Wide Web Wars II

We thought it was over. The Web was won. Now, the second generation of competing web browsers is in full swing. The Web…at least the Web we use daily is based on standards right? All websites and web browsers used the same Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), and JavaScript to build and present web content, right? If that is true, why do we have so many different web browsers today? Why do some public institutions go so far as to recommend or only support certain web browsers in a world of web standards?

The simple answer, when it comes to the Web–standards are not supported with fidelity across all major browsers. While the Web promises to be the common denominator for mobile devices, it is not. Any recent attempt to view the most popular websites on a mobile device is fraught with issues. Moreover, today’s mobile devices obfuscate the Web through apps to avoid the complexity of compatibility with mobile web browsers. Curses–foiled again.

This is not a permanent problem. The mobile web will get significantly better in the months ahead. At the same time, native apps will still have a superior experience.

Is Equity the Deal Killer?

Lawsuits are filed and won over academic inequities all the time. In every state of our Union, school districts and parents fight for academic equity for all student demographics–regardless of socioeconomic status, gender, race, or special category. It is a big deal and cannot be taken casually.

There are three simple solutions to ensuring equity exists for all students, I’ll list them in my perceived degrees of difficulty.

1. Do nothing. Maintain the status quo. Hopefully, we will have enough textbooks at the start of the school year.

2. Embrace consumerization. Advocate BYOD+ with policy and standards guidance. Whether standards are open or de facto, the device should be able to support them.

An example of an open standard is Office Open XML format. The most popular documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and groupware applications use this format for authoring, editing, displaying, archiving, and machine-interaction. The de facto standard app in education and the workplace is Microsoft’s Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc.

Here is the difference, Apple’s iWorks apps can open and edit, Office Open XML formatted documents. However, being certified on Microsoft Office is an employable skill that human resource managers are seeking. It is not one or the other. You need to have both –open standards and de facto standards–to ensure that students are not inadvertently put at a disadvantage in school and life.

Standards have another role for institutions. It ensures that the marketplace will be sufficiently competitive for consumers. Also it ensures that consumers will have both choice in the device and the source of the acquisition.

An analog example, I can buy loose-leaf paper from Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, Staples, Office Max, Costco, Dollar Tree, or Walgreens. This is a sufficiently competitive market because each provider will carry different brands of loose-leaf paper that meet my needs. One brand from many suppliers is still not a competitive marketplace. The same holds true for BYOD+

The most important reason for ensuring a competitive marketplace has to deal with the buying power of households. In the absence of high-volume purchasing power, families and individuals need highly competitive markets that keep costs low and innovation high.

Without policy and standards guidance, families and students are likely to make redundant or inferior purchases for academic work.

3. Re-imagine learning and the learning organization for the digital age. Remake your institution as a digital native learning organization. While this proposes that the academic institution buy all and any devices that learners and educators will need, it puts forth a second notion as well–we cannot continue business as usual.

Of the three options, this is by far is the most challenging politically, financially, socially, and academically.

Take the State of Florida, for an example. Our first assumption is that we could get a total first year costs of $500 per device per student. That would cost the state $1.3 billion dollars in year one for all students Pre-K through grade twelve [1]. The Florida State legislature only spends $9.4 billion on education[2]. You can start to see why politically and financially, this is challenging.

"Difficult takes a day, Impossible takes a week" -- Jay-ZThe role of everyone and everything in a digitally native learning organization would have to be rethought and reimagined. How and what we deliver as academic instruction would have to be tested by fire and sacred cows would have to be placed on the altar. Only the best for learning can survive.


Transformation is Hard Work

I am persuaded that Gutenberg’s invention is an exceedingly resilient technology that continues to shape our academic discourse.

As a colleague of mine recently quipped, “…500 years later, we are still trapped by Gutenberg’s box.”

It is easy to dismiss Gutenberg’s box–the construct of the printed page–as high technology. This technology fundamentally upended scrolls and made them obsolete. That is why we are not talking about BYOS(crolls). Today, almost all BYOD+ conversations ultimately end in a discussion about books and etext on devices–namely tablets. This puts the conversation right back into Gutenberg’s 500-year old box, albiet a digital construct…a box nonetheless.

The transformation opportunity that awaits us is as transformative to Gutenberg’s construct as his page was to the scroll. The magic is in the medium.

Once we unlock the power of the digital medium for life-long learning, we will realize that BYOD+ was never truly a learning opportunity, it was (and is) a financial one. Perhaps, we should focus on how and what learning needs to be transformed, then use technology as appropriate.

That would be novel and innovative.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” –Albert Einstein


1. Florida Department of Education, “Membership in Florida’s Public Schools, Fall 2011,” December 2011, (

2. Sunshine Review, “Florida State Budget,” (

3 Responses to "BYOD versus Academic Equity"
  1. BYOD+ still presents an extremely challenging environment for teachers and students to play in – for the very reasons you mentioned. With limited time and demands that compete with the ability to think differently, BYOD+ is augmentation at best, instead of being “the way to do business”.

    Perhaps you could add an option 4, which would be a hybrid of parent-owned, but school-supplied devices. What if the devices were bought by the school system, but rent-to-own for the parents with a monetary contribution? Would parents pay $100 per year for a device that is essentially given to them?

    • Thanks for your comment Joel. Your option 4 is a practical idea. However, I would submit that parents are not going to spend an extra $100 per year for a device in “public education” in addition to traditional school supplies unless they find transformative value in their student(s) learning, growth, and competence.

      The challenge of option 4 is putting it into practice. Would the school system need a third-party to manage payments or would the district take on this responsibility and asset management themselves?

      As schools focus more on their “core student learning + success mission” and get out of all other endeavors, we are going to see more disruptive models of education. If we don’t, public education should begin anticipating disruption from external forces.