Guest post from Gerald Haigh. Gerald is a freelance writer who regularly writes for the Microsoft UK Education Blogs.

Over the days since BETT 2012, I’ve spent some time looking at ‘Bring Your Own Device’ (BYOD), whereby a school will accept and work with students’ personal devices. I was attracted to it partly, if you’ll forgive me, because the phrase irresistibly reminds me of ‘Run What Yer Brung’, which, in drag racing, is a session when you can turn up at the track with any vehicle at all and have a go.

The problems are intriguingly similar you see – the appearance of unexpected and alarming machines, strain on the infrastructure, occasional breaches of discipline and so on.

Aside from that, though, conversations at BETT2012 with teachers, queries on the Microsoft stand, and discussion with partners such as Civica and European Electronique, showed just how much interest there is in the idea of BYOD. I was further inspired, too, by Mark Reynolds’ recent Microsoft Schools Blog post on the achievements in this area at Saltash.net school in Cornwall.

Eventually, I hope to produce a document summarising thinking and practice in BYOD, with more in-school examples and, of course, reference to the important part played by Microsoft technologies in oiling the wheels.

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Meanwhile, based on several conversations with schools, Microsoft partners and local authority folks, here’s a brief rundown of what seem to me to be some of the issues and questions around BYOD. Please take the time to get back to us with any reactions in the comments below. This is a fast moving area, still controversial in some ways, and there’s room for many views and experiences.

The fundamental driver is the prospect of being able to provide the school with a much richer IT environment at little extra cost. Mark Reynolds, when I discussed this with him, put the case in personal terms, describing how his son would like to take his new laptop to school.

“Instead, it sits at home switched off from eight till four. From a parent’s point of view I would like him to be able to use it and get more benefit from it.”

That’s the nub of it, that in every school many, perhaps most, students have better devices in their bags or at home than the ones they use at school.

Essentially, of course this is about cost. One Microsoft partner I talked to said,

‘The ideal of a school being able to provide one device per student is not now financially achievable. That, though, is what students expect.’

The figures here are compelling. Mark’s blog post tells us that Saltash.net has 1700 devices on the network, only 700 of which are owned by the school. The math’s isn’t difficult is it? That’s 1000 devices the school hasn’t had to buy, and whatever caveats, costs, deals and limitations you throw into the mix, there’s clearly a worthwhile saving there.

So why isn’t everyone doing it? Lots are certainly looking at the concept more closely. I spoke to a local authority adviser who is now fielding so many questions that he’s about to produce a paper for schools on BYOD.

Up to now, though, schools don’t seem to be taking the plunge in significant numbers. Ask several people for good BYOD examples and they tend to come up with the same few. Why is that? That’s a genuine question by the way, to which you might like to contribute your own answers, any of which will be as valid as what I can suggest.

Plainly, it’s not a matter of the technical process. How to connect ‘guest’ devices is not the biggest issue. Providing the wireless infrastructure is up to the increased and inevitably growing demand (and that can be a big ‘if’) then it can be done, and Mark describes how Saltash.net does it.

No, the barriers lie elsewhere. To start with, the demand has to be there. Teachers, or enough of them at least, have to be feeling limited by the inability to ask students to turn easily and to their personal devices without the hassle of going to a specialist room, or wheeling in a trolley of laptops. And, presumably, there has to be a strong belief that CPD and the availability of the devices themselves will strengthen and broaden this demand across the school.

Then, the demand has to be met by will and determination to make it happen. Everyone has to be on board, with full understanding and a ‘can do’ approach. Senior leadership, technical team, subject teachers and support staff all need to be clear about the vision and supportive of it.

There are strategic questions about, for example, whether and how to support students who don’t have the right sort of device. It will add up to extra work for some people, different ways of teaching and learning for others, all providing endless opportunities for dissent, misunderstanding, errors and ruffled feathers. This, of course calls for high quality leadership and good communication so that nobody feels excluded or wrong-footed.

We have to recognise, too that while there aren’t many schools as yet bringing student devices on to the network, there’s certainly a larger number which permit students to use their smartphones via 3G, sometimes in limited ways, sometimes more generally. The thinking here has usually been that if students are going to bring their phones in anyway, which they undoubtedly are, then they should be used for classroom work within an acceptable use policy agreed and recognised by the students themselves.

Is that a sensible step towards hosting student devices on the network, a preparatory move that schools might consider? Or is it a separate style of working, with its own rules and practice, something of a diversion from the true BYOD vision? Again, they’re genuine questions, and would love to hear your thoughts.

So there it is for the moment. More questions than answers. Please let us know what we’ve missed, what’s going on out there, what your experiences, doubts, disappointments and successes are, and we’ll try to share them and to see how we can help the process along.

The time’s right for BYOD. It ticks so many boxes, cloud technology, the consumerisation of IT, the vision of ICT embedded across the curriculum and anytime/anywhere access, and look forward to seeing this develop. Watch this space…