Bring Your Own Tech to School... and Become a Hacker!

FILE - In this Feb. 27, 2012 file photo, Ysabella Ortegon, 16, reads about Leonardo da Vinci's painting "The Last Supper," wh
FILE - In this Feb. 27, 2012 file photo, Ysabella Ortegon, 16, reads about Leonardo da Vinci's painting "The Last Supper," while working on her new iPad at McAllen Memorial High School in McAllen, Texas. Welcome to the new digital bookcase, where traditional ink-and-paper textbooks have given way to iPads and book bags are getting lighter. Publishers update students’ books almost instantly with the latest events or research. Schools are increasingly looking to the handheld tablets as a way to sustain students’ interest, reward their achievements and, in some cases, actually keep per-student costs down. (AP Photo/The Monitor, Nathan Lambrecht, File)

Getting a new computer is quite a traumatic experience for me. On my personal Mac Mini (vintage 2009) I have all my favorite apps installed and all my folders and files just where I like them. I have all my accounts, system settings, network settings, and fonts customized and optimized. It took me weeks of trial and error to get it set up so I can focus on thinking and producing and not getting distracted by missing bits and bytes.

Over the years Apple has helped out by allowing me to "migrate" my data, accounts, apps, and network settings every time I buy a new Mac (which isn't often). And Google helps with synchronizing my bookmarks and browser plugins when I sign in to Chrome. I don't use iCloud or Google Drive, but I do use Dropbox to ensure important documents follow me around as I wander from machine to machine. These tools all help me feel at home on the computers I use.

It's important to feel at home with your tools in order to perform well. Using someone else's computer always gives me a feeling of cognitive dissonance. I see this with the developers we hire at Huffington Post: It always takes a day or two to configure a new employee's new computer. Even then, as new tasks and new projects come up, a developer's computer needs continuous tweaking so that work isn't interrupted by firewall complaints or missing UNIX libraries.

All this synching, optimizing, and personalizing is known as configuration management and it's a thriving technology business. Tools like Puppet enable professional system administrators to automate the setup of server farms and user's computers. Tools likes Apple's Migration Assistant, Google Chrome Sign In, and Dropbox bring configuration management to ordinary mortals.

Last week the New York Times published a great story on the issues around kids using their own tech gear in school. It's a great idea to help with ever shrinking public school budgets but some educators are worried about tech support problems or the lack of research on personal devices and learning. Well, I have an excellent domain expert at home on the whole Bring Your Own Tech (BYOT) issue: My high school-aged son.

(When my kids are all grown up I will have to adopt new ones so I can continue to stay current on tech trends!)

My son's high school lets you BYOT. And he has friends at a nearby high school where every student is given an iPad. I don't know what the official analysis of these programs is but my son gave me the test subject's perspective and embedded journalist's analysis.

School X lets students bring their own phones, pads, and laptops into class -- if the teacher thinks it's a good idea. Some kids use the devices to take notes or catch up on Reddit. This is the equivalent of the spiral notebook back in my day. Sure, browsing the web during class should be frowned upon but everyone doodles (the pre-Internet age equivalent of browsing). When the lessons are interesting the students use their devices to google unfamiliar topics, chat with friends in other classes to get their opinion, and bookmark sites for research later that day. This is exactly what I see people do in meetings I attend. Unless there is some harebrained no-devices-in-meetings rule we're all multitasking.

School Y gives every student an iPad. At first this is awesome because every kid wants a free iPad and it levels the playing field. If your parental units (that's what they call people like me) can't afford or just don't understand the value of an iPad the school steps in and provides.

But the kids at School Y have learned the harsh lesson that nothing is really free. The school supplied iPads have configuration management and monitoring software installed. iPad usage is controlled. Only approved programs are installed. The students can't multitask. These tightly controlled iPads prevent the free flow of communications and information that make our mobile Internet age empowering.

In response to this aggressive monitoring kids at school Y jailbreak their iPads. I actually like the irony of a whole school of high schoolers motivated to become hackers because of a poorly thought-out school technology program created by well-meaning but out-of-touch administrators.

It would be better for everyone if school Y followed school X's example and allow uncontrolled BYOT in the classroom. It's more productive and it lets kids develop the skills they will need in the workplace. What about families that can't afford to buy their kids high-tech gear? These lines from the NYT article address that problem nicely:

And while district administrators worried initially that poorer students would not own devices, they discovered something of 'an inverse relationship' between family income and the sophistication of their devices, particularly smartphones, said Don Boulware, the district's director of technology services.

It is hard to live well, let alone go to school, in the 21st century without a smartphone. The "inverse relationship" observed by Boulware is caused by over protective helicopter parents keeping tech out of their children's hands for fear of the negative affects of technology on a child's cognitive development. I think this strategy is counterproductive, as nothing is more positive than having all the world's information and opinions at a high school student's fingertips.

In the real world, which increasingly is becoming the virtually augmented reality world, a smartphone, a pad, or a laptop are survival tools. Even the Amish have a word processor. (This is not a joke but rather a great example of off-the-grid-I-will-not-participate-in-your-broken-culture thinking.)

Yes, there are kids in both schools X and Y who cannot afford fancy computing devices and they should be helped. Helped in a way that actually addresses their problems in a real and permanent way that a school monitored iPad does not. Let's save the configuration management software for the server farms and give kids what they need without digital strings attached.

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