Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Why BYOT part 4: Exercising the Preferential Option


In preparation for this last and final post dissecting our decision to go BYOT, i am struck by how much I saved the best for last.

JESUIT CONTEXT SETTING: Like last time, it is important to understand that the decisions we make at Brebeuf Jesuit are made from a context of a mid-sized highly academic and Catholic school. One hallmark of Catholic education that is taught to our students and hopefully lived by our institutions is the “preferential option for the poor”. In practice, the IT department interprets it this way: When making a decision, all things being equal, choose that option which most benefits those who are most in need. When things are not equal, consider preferencing those most in need anyway. :)

For a number of years, this was the element that kept us from opening up our wireless network to student devices. Simply, why should we spend the money on security, protocols, etc. to open up the wireless to further advantage students who already have technology rather than working to provide technology to those who don’t?

What changed? Why BYOT?

1. Wireless/Security infrastructure has changed a lot in the last few years:
The cost of wireless infrastructure, security, stability, etc. has dramatically changed. there are products now that scale linear without the need for an expensive back end controller; SSIDs can be secured with different security profiles without the need for separate firewalls, etc.
2. The cost and productivity of mobile devices has changed a lot in the last few years:
I had a trustee ask me why i laugh every time they ask me for a 5yr technology plan. I point out that 5 years ago there were not iPads, android was a sci-fi term, and chrome had little to do with technology outside of wheel rims. Beyond the advent of new or greatly improved mobile systems, the cost of full or mid-productivity machines has dropped to the point that a great majority of our students carry something in their backpack or pocket that outstrips the capacity of computers that are good enough to be in service.

So, the first element of the decision from a “preferential option” standpoint was that technological progress and market forces created an environment where the cost of opening up was not made at sacrifice of access of the lesser advantaged students. In parallel, enough students have access to their own technology that it becomes fiscally advantageous to focus our efforts on the “have-nots” in the technological landscape.
And at that point, the entire BYOT philosophy makes sense. See, the pedagogical advantages (see parts 1 and 2) apply universally:
  • If we make the claim that there is an inherent value in CHOICE. that the ability access, evaluate, and use at a meta level is educationally valuable, then it is educationally valuable for all students, whether they come from families that can afford to make that choice or not.
  • If we make the claim that students should be able to make a responsible decsion (in consultation with their family) about what the best product is for them to accomplish day-to-day tasks of curation, consumption, creation and communication, than that claim applies to all students, regardless of location on the poverty line.

Again, our context helps to drive this decision. We see an inherent benefit and an educational advantage in giving students solid access and choice in end user products. We focus our efforts on providing clear signal and strong access to tools for all students. In our ideal world, we use our remaining funds in two ways: first, to provide access to specialized tools that go beyond the expectations of the typical BYOT device; second, we work to provide the same environment and advantage of choice to our most needy students that are naturally experienced by our well-off students.

Ultimately, while we are fulfilling our obligation of the “preferential option” mandated by our school’s mission, we end up benefiting all of our students: We can raise the minimum expectation past the one-size-fits-all-in-a-budget netbook solution. We create an environment where choice, critical thinking, and problem solving is built-in to the learning process at a global level. We can provide access to technology that is specialized or otherwise unavailable through specific labs, software, and equipment loan/checkout.

and, in classic debate tradition, it is for all of these reasons that Brebeuf Jesuit urges a BYOT environment.