Left to their own devices: the everyday realities of ‘one-to-one’ and ‘BYOD’ schools

<abstract for special issue of Oxford Review of Education>


One significant change to schools over the past decade has been the increasing prevalence of personal digital technologies in classrooms and across campuses. In part this is a result of increased smartphone, tablet and laptop ownership amongst many students and teachers. Schools have also initiated official ‘one-to-one’ and ‘Bring Your Own Device’ (BYOD) policies in efforts to ensure that personal technologies are on hand to support teaching and learning practices.

These developments are usually discussed in terms of the implications of these devices for classroom processes, pedagogical practice and/or student-centered learning. A number of institutional issues associated with the technical and infrastructural challenges of implementing such policies also generate attention. In addition, there is a growing literature on ‘inappropriate’ uses of devices for bullying, sexting, cheating and various other anti-social and transgressive acts. Overall, the increased presence of personal technologies in schools tends to be framed in terms of new forms of education benefit and/or social risk.

While such discussions are important, this paper argues that the main implications of personal technologies in school are more mundane in nature and incremental in effect. Drawing upon in-depth ethnographic studies of three Australian high schools, the paper details the ways in which the proliferation of digital devices was subtly altering everyday experiences of school for students and staff.

  • The paper first describes the ways in which personal devices were being accessed and engaged with. Despite all three schools operating relatively permissive device policies, students were often engaging in surreptitious modes of access and use – notably in terms of smartphones and personal music players. The paper considers specific ‘flashpoints’ in each school where personal use was judged to have become problematic and prompting attempts by school authorities to suppress use. In particular, the paper details various efforts from students to subvert and work around these restrictions.
  • The paper then examines the uses to which personal devices were put. Here, it is noted that most often these technologies were being used neither for sustained learning nor for serious misconduct. Rather, students’ most frequent uses of personal devices were more intimate and ordinary in nature. Alongside communication and social networking uses, the data also highlight the ways in which these devices were associated with a variety of idle (and often introspective) pleasures that offered students means of temporarily disengaging from school.
  • Finally, the paper considers the outcomes and implications of these practices. In particular it explores the affective characteristics of schools that are replete with digital devices. For example, the paper reflects on the sounds, movements and general rhythms of activity, as well as the waves of excitement, anxiety and other emotions surrounding students’ personal device use. As such the paper highlights the tacit ways that personal technologies were influencing the mood and character of the three schools.

These discussions cast new light on the heightened presence of personal technologies in school. As such, the paper concludes by considering the implications of these altered arrangements. With personal technologies set to become even more tightly woven into the fabric of everyday school life, how might students be supported to make more meaningful and empowering informal uses of their devices? What can school authorities learn from students’ informal uses of these personal devices? What implications might the ever-increasing presence of personal technologies have for the forms and nature of ‘school’ as we enter the 2020s?