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Should Districts Require Student-Owned Devices?

In tough economic times for school districts across the nation, might it help to cut costs further if districts required students to bring their own devices? For now the jury is out, but district leaders are trying to figure out how to support many different devices in their buildings as state and federal funds for education get even tighter than they were just a few years ago.

Jaime Casap, senior education manager of Google, says that he has talked to schools that are hashing through the issue, especially given fiscal realities. "Kids are used to using these devices. Why not let them use them in a learning environment as well?" he says.

Hall County (Ga.) Public Schools allows students to bring their own devices and has one school, DaVinci Academy, where they're required to do so, says Aaron Turpin, the district's executive director of technology. "I foresee a day when we will not issue textbooks; we will issue a device," Turpin says, "and that's a lot more cost-effective."

Alvarado (Texas) Independent School District issues laptops to fourth- through eighth-graders, then expects high school students to bring their own devices, although the 80 percent of students in the district who are economically disadvantaged can check out one of the 250 laptops available in the library. "We don't care what device you have, as long as you provide connectivity," says Kyle Berger, executive director of technology services. "It puts the ownership of the technology and the responsibility on the students, which prepares them better for college and life after K12."

Even many poorer students have smartphones or other devices, according to an Alvarado district survey, which showed that 85 percent of all students have a cell phone, 51 percent have unlimited Internet access on their phone, and 54 percent have a laptop or tablet, Berger adds. Bob Moore, director of global education at Dell, agrees that bring-your-own is a nice way to empower students, but he sees the idea as more enticing on the surface. "It's a challenge," Moore says. "Even if you were in a school district where you said, ‘Every student has to have a smartphone,' that's not going to be sufficient for everything you want to do." He adds, "There are significant digital-divide issues with bring-your-own in most districts."

"The equity issue is at the root of the question," agrees Cameron Evans, chief technology officer for education at Microsoft. "For families that can afford it, they will make sure students have the fastest, most capable device available to them. Schools have to set a benchmark for what level of computing power is necessary for learning."

Berkeley (Calif.) Unified School District, which uses the free Google Apps for Education tool, won't be turning to bring-your-own any time soon, with a 50 percent rate of students on free or reduced-price lunches, says Jay Nitschke, the district's director of technology. "There's definitely an equity question," he says.

Berger notes that the cloud environment began in the business world. "It's now making this impact on education to where a lot of people are realizing that we are a big business. We can function in this same, streamlined manner. The cloud is how students are living. It really makes sense."