Schools in the UK are starting to ask pupils to “bring your own device” to class. So far only 29 per cent of UK secondary schools have opted for some form of BYOD, according to a 2016 survey by RM Education, a supplier of computer products and services.

However, the number considering adopting the policy has risen from 22 per cent in 2014 to 26 per cent this year.

By comparison, only 9 per cent of UK primary schools have adopted BYOD in the same way. “It works well for older pupils who are pretty self-sufficient and can fix the simple things that go wrong,” says Steve Forbes, an RM networks specialist.As budget cuts hit, more secondaries may consider BYOD, he adds.

Schools have taken a variety of approaches, from specifying which gadget to buy to saying pupils can bring any device that can access the internet.

Students using digital tablets in classroom
Modern learning: schools come of age © Getty

Mr Forbes says BYOD is more developed in continental Europe, where pupils use low-cost Android devices. In the US, schools, districts or states tend to specify Google’s Chromebook or the Apple iPad, which are designed to require low levels of IT support, he adds.

Advocates say student BYOD increases engagement and makes it easier to transfer work between home and school. Pupil motivation is often improved, adds Chris Sessums, programme director for research and evaluation at the Center for Technology in Education at the Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University.

He says teachers often worry BYOD will “create terrible problems with pupils texting and sexting [sending nude images of themselves or others] in class” and not focusing on lessons.

Such fears are usually unwarranted, Mr Sessums says. “Those who thought it would never work and have tried it for a year have found that pupils can learn the ground rules. Besides, even adults are not ‘on-task’ the whole time.”

Having many devices in class can help develop collaboration skills, such as assigning roles to team members and learning to share, he adds. “On a joint project, a pupil who has a cell phone or smartphone might do some research or fact checking while a pupil with a laptop or tablet does the initial write-up.”

The emphasis on internet access, rather than specific devices, is consistent with the move in education towards cloud-based services that can be used from home as well as the classroom.

BYOD does not necessarily save money. It can reduce spending on hardware, but it increases overheads such as internet infrastructure, software licensing and technical support. This can cost up to £100,000 for a large UK school.

More bandwidth or additional access points might be needed to ensure students can go online because handheld devices have a shorter WiFi range than powerful notebook computers.

Matt Britland, director of ICT at Lady Eleanor Holles School in London, says: “If the internet is unreliable and not fast enough, or WiFi is very slow, it will go pear-shaped and not be used.”

Another problem is that some families cannot afford to buy devices. Some UK schools dip into pupil premium funds — additional money for disadvantaged pupils in state schools — to subsidise computers for the less well-off.

Because of tight budgets, schools have to be creative, says Mr Sessums. For example, they could go to organisations such as banks that refresh machines every three years and ask for the old devices. “The children could even be taught how to upgrade the machines as part of their learning.”

Even if children bring devices, all the content they see still needs to be filtered as it would be for any device used in school, adds Mr Britland.

“We can use software to turn the camera off, enable teachers to use classroom management tools and distribute and remove apps. The school web filtering can also block social media services such as Snapchat and Instagram.”

However, those with 3G or 4G smartphones can access anything they like unless their parents have applied parental controls and filtering.

Some schools that provide iPads use Apple’s “device enrolment programme”, which customises iPads to preset specifications.

Known as “supervised” devices, these are available to parents from suppliers who provide an educational discount. Once pupils leave school, this supervision can be switched off.

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