One Size Does Not Fit All

The case for hybrid BYOD initiatives

Posted by Susan Brooks-Young on May 31, 2015

Collection of apples and orangesRemember when computer labs were the solution to making technology available to all students? When most teachers had limited personal experience using desktop computers, this approach seemed to make sense. But it didn’t take long for educators to discover that limited access to computers housed outside the classroom was often more a disruption than meaningful learning experience.

Enter 1:1

The development of laptop computers meant that schools that could afford them suddenly had more options for where students and teachers could access technology for learning activities, giving rise to the concept of 1:1 programs.

In addition to equitable access to hardware, 1:1 initiatives addressed concerns related to equipment maintenance and upkeep, software licensing and updates, and monitoring how equipment was used because the laptops usually represented a single platform and belonged to the school or district. However, some of the positive elements also become the source of complications. One-to-one programs are expensive to implement and sustain thanks to on-going costs ranging from infrastructure to staffing and professional development. Furthermore, unreliable funding sources can make 1:1 a dicey proposition.

Enter BYOD

The notion of bring your own device (BYOD) programs started gaining traction in the business world in 2009. Concerns related to theft and network security (among others) made educators reluctant to embrace this strategy. In 2011 more than one-half of schools responding to Project Tomorrow’s Speak Up survey prohibited any form of BYOD. Then tough economic times and the realization that students were bringing devices to school with or without permission tipped the scales and just one year later, only 37% of participants in the same survey reported prohibiting BYOD (2013 Congressional Briefing). Does this imply a happy ending? Hardly!

Proponents of BYOD argue that students prefer to use their own devices and a majority of parents are willing to purchase devices for school use. They also say that reduced costs for hardware purchases and maintenance enable schools to reallocate funds to improve the infrastructure and increase IT staffing. On the other hand, successful BYOD requires access to a robust network—often far beyond what the school currently has in place. In addition, BYOD relies on students bringing devices that are capable of handling the demands of serious academic work and teachers must understand how to plan and implement cross-platform learning activities designed to reduce distractions and support equal access. Another concern is outdated procedures and policies for managing BYOD on campus. None of these potential barriers are deal-breakers but do require immediate action.

Then there is a heretofore unanticipated outcome of both 1:1 and BYOD programs. These days, access to just one type of device—regardless of who owns it—is probably not enough. A recent report based on 2013 Speak Up survey results states, “Just as we do not assume that students will only access one book for all classes, the idea of using only one mobile tool to meet all assignment needs may be unrealistic.” (From Chalkboards to Tablets: The Emergence of the K – 12 Digital Learner). My own experience working in schools with 1:1 or BYOD supports this statement. Mobile devices are fine for some tasks such as shooting photos and video, reading eBooks, or simple web browsing, but most students find it difficult or impossible to use tablets or smartphones to edit multimedia projects, write more than a couple of paragraphs of text, or for serious research. If instructional need drives classroom use of technology, students need access to more than one kind of device when completing various learning activities. This is where another alternative—hybrid BYOD programs—come into play.

Hybrid BYOD

In hybrid BYOD settings, students are encouraged to bring personal digital devices that meet basic minimum specifications to school. They understand that they are responsible for care and maintenance of these devices and are permitted to use them during class for learning activities. But the program doesn’t stop there. In addition to personal technology, teachers and students have access to school-owned devices such as tablets and laptops which may be available for check out from a central location or permanently placed in classrooms in small numbers. The driving philosophy behind hybrid BYOD programs isn’t to create 1:1 access to one specific technology, but to make it possible for teachers and students to select the appropriate tool for a given task from several readily accessible options. Some hybrid BYOD programs also include devices that students whose parents cannot afford to purchase something may check out either as needed or for the entire school year.

Why is this preferable to thinking of 1:1 and BYOD as either/or propositions? Although more expensive than BYOD only initiatives, hybrid BYOD programs are less expensive to implement and maintain than 1:1 initiatives, and insure that teachers and students have access to different kinds of devices as needed. When 1:1 is not the expectation, teachers feel freer to design paired and small team activities in which students learn skills such as communication and collaboration in addition to academic content. And, those students who wish to augment an activity using personal devices are able to do so. I’ve also learned that teachers new to classroom use of mobile technologies appreciate being able to learn how to use the types of devices provided by the school first and then gradually incorporate more formal use of students’ personal devices. This approach also provides the assurance that student teams will be able to use a common platform for group activities in the assurance that specific apps or programs required for the lesson will be available on school-owned equipment.

Simply adopting a hybrid BYOD program does not guarantee success—this strategy is more complex than going down one road or the other. This means that educators must be willing and able to devote the time required for intensive planning prior to implementation and ongoing monitoring to make adjustments as needed. However, given the benefits of hybrid BYOD, it is a strategy worth considering.


Genius hour: We all need a little time!

Posted by Susan Brooks-Young on March 29, 2015

Man studying computer screen.Ask any educator to name two or more impediments to innovation and creativity at their workplace. Almost without exception time and money will top the list. We may not have a great deal of influence over outside funding sources, but we do have some control over how we allocate the time we have.

In the belief that independent inquiry encourages students to engage in activities that support deep thinking and increased engagement, many K-12 educators regularly voice concern about the lack of available time for their students to pursue personal interests during the school day. One strategy that has gained traction among educators is called “20% time.” This approach comes from the technology sector where innovation and creativity are the industry’s bread and butter. I’d like to suggest that educators also need time to think, to explore new ideas, and work on projects in areas that are of interest to them; that we need to consider ways to restructure what time is available to make it possible for the adults to take advantage of some form of 20% time when needed. But I’m getting ahead of myself. What is 20% time and how does it work?

The practice dates back to at least 1948

Twenty percent time is a practice where personnel, usually knowledge workers, may opt to spend one-fifth of their regular work time tinkering with their own pet projects. Although Google often gets credit for originating the idea, this practice has actually been embraced for years in various formats by an assortment of innovative companies. For example, 3M has encouraged employees to use a percentage of their paid time to pursue new work-related ideas since 1948. Of course it’s difficult to imagine an educator being able to carve out 20% of the work week for creative pursuits, but there are ways the idea can be modified to meet the constraints of educational institutions. This lack of time for additional research and making real world connections worries many K-12 educators, leading them to seek ways to provide time during the school day for students to engage

It’s important to understand that 20% time is not usually a formal program in the business world. Participation is entirely optional and many employees never take advantage of this time. The specific design of 20% time for self-directed exploration isn’t rigid, either. The percentage of time allocated varies from one company to another. In addition to percentages of the work week, some firms offer year-long research grants (we used to call them sabbaticals) while others sponsor occasional events lasting anywhere from one day to a week (something like self-directed professional development).

Translating 20% time to education

How does this translate to education? For students, teachers are making opportunities for them to work on individual or small group projects during the school day. Often called Genius Hour, this program typically provides roughly 60 minutes per week for all students in the class to work on individual projects of their own choosing that have been approved by their teacher. Due to time constraints, the time for student Genius Hour is usually set and flexible scheduling for self-directed learning is not normally an option.

Sixty minutes, you ask? Would it be possible for the adults on campus to dedicate one hour per week for self-directed inquiry? I think so, particularly if it’s something a person can opt into, rather than being mandatory. Imagine inviting staff members who are interested to pitch an idea for an individual project that they could work on during the work day, say during PLN time or in lieu of a committee assignment. Of course, guidelines will need to be established to make this work.

Structure the program to meet the specific needs of your staff. Remember that business model schedules vary greatly. Offering sabbaticals may not be possible, but aside from that, the time frame can range from 60 minutes per week to one or more days per year. What options are available to you? Brainstorm some possibilities with staff or fellow administrators.

Some things to keep in mind

Once you have an idea of the schedule you can offer, consider the following as you develop a plan.

  • Self-directed projects are not time off. Establish guidelines that set clear expectations. For example, require that volunteers outline a project that you approve before they begin. You may even say that projects need to be related to school or district goals, or require that all projects include a tangible product and/or some type of presentation.
  • Individual projects may serve unique needs, but small group projects can allow participants to accomplish more together than they can on their own. Do insure that part of the procedure-planning process includes setting expectations for group members’ responsibilities.
  • Remember to be flexible. Even the best plans can be sidetracked by unanticipated challenges.

Part of the beauty of self-directed projects is that there is no right answer. Participants may find their inquiries lead to outcomes they had not anticipated. Encourage them to go with the flow.

Even given the scheduling constraints we live with, there are ways to support individuals who are interested in expanding and enhancing their professional skills through dedicated time for working on projects of their own design. Encouraging this level of autonomy will result in greater job satisfaction for educators and may lead to innovations you might not have thought possible.


3D Printing—The Possibilities

Posted by Susan Brooks-Young on January 31, 2015

Photo of a 3D printer“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh the thinks you can think up if only you try!” Dr. Seuss

As Dr. Seuss implies, there is no limit to what people can think up. An illustration of the truth of this statement is 3D printing. Current users in education tend to be early adopters in large part because 3D printing is still a bit spendy and also because it needs to become more user-friendly to entice less adventurous users to climb on board. But does that mean that 3D printing is as fanciful as “beautiful schlopp with a cherry on top?” Or, should educators be paying close attention as this technology matures? Before you decide on your answer, it might help to know some of the ways 3D printing is being used outside education. Here are a few examples.

Building construction

Several companies around the world are using specially designed large 3D printers to print buildings. One company in China produced ten single story homes in less than 24 hours using construction waste and glass fiber in a cement-based mixture. The basic house design is simple, and plumbing, electrical, and insulation are added later. The cost for each home is $5,000. Of course, these companies have an eye on printing much larger buildings down the road, but in the meantime, 3D printed homes could be a good start for recycling construction waste while providing affordable housing to people all over the globe.


One obstacle to long-distance space travel is how to provide food to astronauts. NASA recently funded a project to design and build a 3D printer that can print food using edible powder in replaceable cartridges that last 30 years. NASA’s project is focusing first on printing pizza. On the other hand, 3D printed chocolate is already a reality. The Hershey Company and 3D Systems are teaming up to explore ways they can deliver 3D printed food to consumers, starting with candy. This use of 3D printing may have implications for dealing with food shortages throughout the world.

Prosthetics and other medical uses

A child’s prosthetic arm can cost as much as $40,000 to manufacture and must be replaced as the child grows. However, there are now multiple instances of children using prosthetic arms created using 3D printers at a cost of $350 or less per prosthetic. For example, a youngster in Florida can now catch a ball and climb trees thanks to a group of students from the University of Central Florida who designed and printed his first prosthetic arm.

In late 2013, Mick Ebeling, founder of Not Impossible, established Project Daniel, a 3D printing prosthetic lab and training facility in the Nuba Mountains, a war-torn area of Sudan. Sadly, missing limbs are an unfortunate fact of life for many residents here. A teen-aged boy who lost both arms in the region’s civil war was the first beneficiary of the project. African trainees continue to print and fit prosthetic arms for children and adults in the area.

In addition to prostheses, medical professionals around the country are successfully experimenting with 3D printing of ears, bones, blood vessels, kidneys, and skin grafts. And in 2012, surgeons in Michigan saved the life of an infant by implanting a specially-designed tracheal splint created using a 3D printer.

These examples just scratch the surface of the possibilities. how sells a variety of 3D printed items including jewelry and accessories. Some fashionistas are sporting 3D printed apparel. The University of Colorado is developing tactile picture books for children with visual impairments using 3D printing. And there are many more 3D printing projects in the works.

Given the potential for positive impacts on society, 3D printing in education begins to make sense. If you’re not sure where to begin looking for how 3D printing is being used in your area, check with local Maker groups ( or affiliates of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). In California the affiliate group is CUE ( and in Arkansas the affiliate group is ARKSTE ( For a complete list of ISTE affiliates, go to


Too Much Information? Tools for Organizing Information

Posted by Susan Brooks-Young on June 18, 2014

Cartoon of octopus with too many papers.

“Information is a source of learning. But unless it is organized, processed, and available to the right people in a format for decision making, it is a burden, not a benefit.” William Pollard (1911 – 1989)


Physicist William G. Pollard may not have experienced the Digital Age first hand, but he hit the nail on the head when he observed that information without context or form is more burden than blessing.

Over the last decade, students and adults alike often identify information management as one of their biggest challenges. And unhappily, access to more information than any one person can reasonably be expected to cope with appears to be a growing problem. Researchers currently estimate that on average most people are exposed to the amount of information it takes to fill 174 newspapers (at 85 pages each) every single day!

Information literacy is emerging as an increasingly critical skill set for students and adults. Definitions for this type of literacy commonly address four facets: identifying, locating, evaluating, and using information. But there’s a fifth aspect of this skill set—the ability to organize the information that’s been found so that it can be effectively evaluated and used—that has largely been ignored until recently. The advent of tools that allow users to ‘curate’ digital content is changing this.

What is ‘content curation?’ The term refers to the idea that digital information must be organized in order to make use of it. One formal definition of content curation is, “the gathering, organizing and online presentation of content related to a particular theme or topic” ( Educators and students have ready access to many free and low-cost online tools that can be used to organize—or curate—information so they can use it more effectively.

Summer break is a good time to explore new tools. Whether you want to resolve personal information management challenges or are looking for tools you can share with staff, students, and parents, this may be the perfect time to check out the three content curation tools described below. Each is easy-to-use and meets a different need related to organizing information. Give one or more a try!

1. ScoopIt!: ScoopIt! allows curators to glean and republish articles from the Internet in newsletter format, based on keywords the curator identifies. This can be an effective way to share online news with a variety of target audiences, depending on the viability of the topic selected. For example, it will be easy to find articles about mobile devices but might be more difficult if the topic is confined to creating content with mobile devices. There is a free version and fee-based accounts are available as well.

2. Bag the Web: Bag the Web is a free tool that is ideal for those times when you need to share a limited number (5 – 12) of links focused on a very specific topic. Like Pinterest or Learnist, Bag the Web supports quick curation of short lists of digital content. Unlike Pinterest, a link can be added to a list even when Bag the Web can’t find an image to grab and display. I frequently use multiple Bag the Web lists during professional development when I want to draw participants’ attention to particular resources.

3. LiveBinders: Finally, for large collections of resources that will be curated over time, you can’t beat LiveBinders. The metaphor of a digital three-ring notebook makes it easy to organize hundreds of resources related to one main topic (notebook) through use of sub-topics (dividers). Anything that can be digitized can be uploaded and linked in a LiveBinder as can web pages. Free and fee-based accounts are available.

These are just a few of many excellent content curation tools already available. New tools are regularly being developed. If you have a favorite, please add it here as a comment along with a brief description and URL.


Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) Initiatives—Increasing the Odds for Success

Posted by Susan Brooks-Young on December 1, 2013

Cartoon hands with many tech devices
See “Security Amidst The Mobile Chaos” for a business perspective on the BYOD issue.

Unimaginable not all that long ago, growing numbers of schools and districts are launching programs where students are permitted to bring their own mobile devices to school for classroom use. The work I do makes it possible for me to spend time in schools and districts across the country. In the last two years I’ve had numerous opportunities to see several different manifestations of BYOD in action. It’s probably no surprise that some approaches to BYOD are more effective than others. However, I’m learning that irrespective of overall program design there are five specific issues that must be addressed to lay the groundwork for successful BYOD programs.  They are described here.

1. Infrastructure: The state of your network matters—a lot. I’m not a technician, but from what I’ve seen and been told at multiple schools struggling with network problems, a common problem is that folks who design the infrastructure typically underestimate the amount of traffic that will be generated by a BYOD program. As a result, teachers and students can’t get online, become discouraged, and abandon BYOD altogether.

Schools and districts must have a realistic understanding of what their infrastructure needs to support BYOD. Until the network is at the point where it can handle the amount of traffic that will be generated by students using their own devices (and then some), limit the scope of the rollout to what the network actually can support. This may mean initially planning a small pilot that can be expanded as the network becomes more robust. While a staged approach may not please everyone, it is preferable to a situation where the network isn’t functioning reliably for anyone.

2. Hardware specs: BYOD does not mean that students must be allowed to bring to school any mobile device they happen to have on hand. It’s important to take time to identify the kinds of learning activities the technology needs to be able to support and then establish minimum specifications for the devices students may bring based on identified uses. When students’ devices meet a pre-determined baseline, it’s easier to for teachers to plan lessons and for students to fully engage in classroom activities.

3. Policies and procedures: I’m surprised at the number of schools I visit that launch BYOD programs having given little or no thought to how they will handle a range of issues from devices that are lost or broken to students who circumvent the school network using their device’s 3g or 4g connection (not to mention procedures for downloading apps, troubleshooting student-owned hardware, charging batteries, and much more). Of course it’s not possible, or even desirable, to craft policies and procedures that attempt to cover every possible circumstance, but a few clearly stated, reasonable expectations shared with students ahead of time and then enforced will set the stage for success.

4. Professional development: Incorporating effective use of student-owned technology into classroom activities requires far more than a mandate. Few teachers have expertise in use of multiple mobile platforms or are comfortable designing learning activities that require use of mobile devices to support collaboration or critical thinking. Yet it’s common for teachers to be asked to participate in BYOD initiatives with little or no professional development. Even teachers who embrace more traditional technology use benefit from training focused on strategies and tools for addressing academic content in mobile environments. Ongoing professional development that includes a coaching component is an effective model, but requires a significant commitment of time and financial resources.

5. Parent involvement: The importance of parent support for BYOD programs cannot be over-emphasized. Educators must include parent representatives in BYOD planning as early in the process as possible. In addition to garnering support for the initiative within the community, parent representatives can provide very useful information when determining minimum specifications for mobile devices that may be brought to school and as school officials design BYOD policies and procedures. Recent Speak-Up Survey reports indicate strong parental support for BYOD initiatives nationally. Capitalize on this to shore up local support for local programs.

Take the time to work through these five issues. Your teachers, IT staff, students, and parents will thank you.