Tech Leadership

Creating Student-Friendly Digital Schools

by Jim Hirsch

While in class, all student attention is focused on the teacher and the content being discussed. In the hallway after the bell rings, all student thumbs are feverishly working surreptitiously to update friends, finalize schedules and connect to the world for news. Does this describe the environment your students experience each day as they come to school?

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It’s time for superintendents to consider what policies, practices and network infrastructures enable students to bring their own mobile devices to school and connect safely and securely to wireless networks and resources. Because students now receive this service at public libraries, parks and their favorite coffee shop, their question — “Why not in school?” — needs to be thoughtfully considered.

Student Input
A student-friendly digital environment requires the ability to connect wireless devices throughout the school and within a reasonable vicinity of the school itself for outdoor work. Fortunately, more and more devices owned by students come with built-in Wi-Fi capability, so this process is relatively simple. Most wireless access points allow the use of more than one channel, so your technical team will be able to separate the secure internal portion of the wireless network from the public guest portion easily.

In addition, policies that address appropriate use and expectations for students with wireless devices must be updated. This process should include gathering input from all stakeholders including teachers, parents, administrators and students themselves.

Teaching and administrative staff will need a significant amount of professional development to enable them to be prepared to manage and leverage student use of devices within the school. In addition, curriculum activities may need modification in order to take advantage of increased student access to network resources.

Finally, accommodations should be made for those students whose family circumstances preclude their ability to have access to their own wireless device. In this instance, encouraging parents to see the benefits of purchasing a supported wireless device versus a game system may help increase the number of students owning a Wi-Fi device.

Handheld Devices
While phones would be the most prevalent wireless device for students to access, the new series of smaller “netbooks” and even handheld game systems provide easy access to web-based content. In some school systems, as recently as three years ago, a student could receive a 10-day suspension for having a phone in school. While most schools have gone to a more moderate policy such as allowing students to bring phones to school, they often have to remain off and in lockers during the school day.

With the majority of newly adopted instructional software being web-based, providing access to this software via a variety of wireless devices ensures students get the greatest amount of use from that investment.

Creating a student-friendly digital school requires that all stakeholders first agree on the value that wireless access for students brings to the learning process. Once that agreement is in place, policies can be created that guide appropriate use and have students value the privilege to a degree that they help manage the behavior of their peers.

Until staff members better understand how these devices can be used for learning instead of diversions, there will be a great hesitancy to allow use in the classroom. Encourage your staff to be more observant as to how students use these devices outside of school. They will find a great deal of collaboration occurring among ad-hoc study groups where students focus on learning activities as much as social activities.

Innovative Policy
Creating a two-channel wireless network, one secure for internal use and one for public use, is relatively simple. The internal network will likely use Wi-Fi Protected Access, commonly referred to as WPA, or a similar wireless security protocol. All district-owned wireless devices will use a shared security key as the users authenticate themselves. If users choose to bypass the login process, their device gets passed automatically to the public guest wireless network.

Both networks use the same Internet-content filtering system, so all federal laws and local policy regarding student Internet protection are still in place. As you might expect, the use of the standard filter does assist in keeping students from browsing sites not appropriate to the school learning environment.

Schools such as Arapahoe High School in the Littleton, Colo., school district already have created a two-channel wireless network infrastructure that supports student use of personally owned devices, or PODS, throughout the school day. In addition, they have created an innovative policy that addresses appropriate use of student-owned devices.

Creating student-friendly digital schools should be high on your list of priorities as you prepare your students for the use of 21st-century learning skills. For additional information regarding student-friendly digital schools, visit

Jim Hirsch is associate superintendent for academic and technology services in the Plano, Texas, Independent School District. E-mail: