Post written by Mark Reynolds, Schools Business Manager (South)

School IT budgets are under pressure. Many schools have an ageing estate of laptops or netbooks, either allocated to individuals or in laptop trolleys. On the flip side, students and teachers now have access to better and cheaper technology at home than ever before. A spot check of the average 15 year-olds school bag is likely to reveal a heady mix of mobile phones, laptops, games consoles, iPods, cameras, and more power packs and cables than your average branch of Dixons.

It’s therefore not surprising that schools are wondering whether these two trends can be combined. Is it really possible to allow students and staff to be productive in school, using technology they’ve brought in themselves? Can the school save money buying or replacing hardware, by utilising the devices which have often been banned from the network? Will staff and students actually work harder and be more engaged in their learning and teaching, if it’s all happening on a device which they enjoy using? Or is BYOD nothing more than a headache for school IT staff, a massive security risk, and a fad based largely on the head teacher being in love with their new iPad?

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You’ve probably heard of saltash.net. It’s a fantastic school down in Cornwall where head teacher Isobel Bryce has built a strong platform for her staff and students to succeed. Their most famous son is Dan Roberts, whose Recharge the Battery project won a Microsoft Innovative Teacher award in 2009. Tim Bush and I went down there last month, and in addition to some organic vegetables, we brought back a great story about how BYOD could be put into practice. So the interview for this blog post was not with Dan and was not about chickens. It was with Adam Ledger, the schools Network Manager. Adam explains their approach to BYOD:

“Our network has about 300 fixed desktops and 300 netbooks, all built on CC4 (their network management platform from RM). We also have about 100 teacher laptops, which are vanilla windows and 30 Macs in a suite for Media. So we’ve got about 700 school owned devices, but in total have over 1700 devices which have joined the network.”

The 1000+ “unmanaged” devices are a huge range of laptops, netbooks, smart-phones, iPads, iPods, kindles, nintendo’s and anything else which staff or students want to bring in. To be honest, I nearly fell of my chair at this point, because although I’d been to many schools who allowed guest wireless access of some kind, I’d never come across anything on this scale. Adam explains that Saltash.net has always had this approach, ever since students started asking:

“Trust always is the starting point. Trust the kids and they will reward you with good behaviour. We say yes to everything, as long as they come and ask us. I can only think of 3 or 4 instances of misuse of the system, and one of those was a member of staff. I know we are lucky with the kids and that it might not work in every school, but it works for us. We enable access on peoples on devices which they WANT to use, and so we have happy customers. They know we can block or remove access if we need to, but they value the trust we put on them and they’re glad to be learning in a way that suits them.”

So from a technical point of view, how do they keep it secure and manage the process?

“If you want to bring in your personal device, you bring it to see us (the IT team). We register their mac address, version of anti-virus, make and model, and the serial number of the device. We then use the software that comes with our wireless network to enable that mac address in a whitelist. The same software we use for whitelisting can also do the blocking by mac address (blacklisting) – which it does for any “unknown” mac address, or for any device that needs to be banned from the system. We also periodically they clean out the DHCP databases, and run a very short lease on the IP address given to a wireless device. We want people to have freedom of access, but also want to know what’s on our network.”

And that, really, is that. They give wireless access to devices they know about and they block anything they don’t. It is then down to the teaching staff to manage the way students use those devices when they are in school. That is one for Dan Roberts to explain, which we’ll do in another blog post. Just walking round the school though, that feeling of trust and mutual respect is noticeable. I can only assume that the same respect students have for their teachers, they have for the freedom they are allowed when it comes to technology. They’re enjoying their learning, and feel able to use the technology that suits them.

Microsoft is planning to make the management of BYOD networks much easier, with the launch of System Centre 2012. Not only will System Centre offer the best possible management of your existing Windows network, but it will also offer support for management of iOS and Android devices too. There is a public beta available already, which you can read about and download here.

Additionally, for more thoughts on BYOD and the Consumerisation of IT in Education, download our paper via SlideShare. Alternatively, the full paper can be read in full below: