A year after Hamilton County Schools officials unveiled an ambitious technology-for-all plan, teachers are one step closer to formally allowing students to bring their own smartphones, laptops and tablets into the classroom.
The school board's technology committee met Friday to review a new BYOD policy -- short for "bring your own device." At the discretion of teachers and principals, it allows students to connect their personal devices into the school system's network. The board will study the new procedures at its regular monthly meeting Thursday.
But even with approval, the policy doesn't quite open the doors to a technology free-for-all. First, school officials will have to finish ramping up wireless infrastructure and increasing bandwidth.
"It's going to take a considerable amount of planning," said Alan Walker, the school system's network engineer. "And it definitely takes having the wireless infrastructure in place before it can even be considered."
For outside devices, the system will use a "Starbucks model," in which students log on through guest accounts to the school system's firewalled network. That, unlike access from cellular networks, will ensure that students aren't accessing inappropriate websites, officials said. A guest account also can operate outside the school system's infrastructure, which contains payroll information, academic records and other sensitive data.
"You just don't want to throw them on our network as it is now. Because students are very, very savvy," said Patty Kinsey, information technology director. "We don't want them to have access to our servers that have information like grades on them."
Now, some teachers pass out school building wireless passwords to students without permission. Others allow students to bring smartphones and access a cell network to reach the Internet. And many teachers, in accordance with school system policy, still ban cellphones and other devices. The new policy will open the door for principals and teachers to welcome in student devices in a sanctioned manner.
Superintendent Rick Smith said Signal Mountain's three schools -- Nolan Elementary, Thrasher Elementary and Signal Mountain Middle-High -- likely would pilot a BYOD policy in the new year after extensive teacher training.
"They're going to walk into this slowly to make sure teachers, students and parents are comfortable with it," he said.
Smith pushed a plan last December to put an iPad or similar device into the hands of all the school district's 42,000 students. Aside from easing the burden from new online state assessments, Smith said technology-rich classrooms could help transform teaching, putting information at students' fingertips.
Smith's plan relies heavily on students bringing their own devices and getting donations from nonprofits and parent groups. The Benwood Foundation, Chattanoooga Rotary Club and the Public Education Foundation are funding a pilot of devices in six schools.
For months, information technology employees have been increasing bandwidth and installing wireless access points to buildings across the county, trying to get every school to a 300 megabit-per-second capacity -- three times the lowest tier of EPB residential Internet service.
The school system now puts aside about $2.5 million a year for information technology department salaries, equipment purchases and software licenses. Grants often are spent on computers and other equipment for schools. But Kinsey said an already small staff is struggling to keep up with the ever-increasing workload. Kinsey said comparable school systems' IT staffs are much larger. So administrators will ask the school board on Thursday to approve the addition of three full-time positions to her department. Including benefits, the move is expected to cost about $160,000 annually.
"We are trying to be as efficient and as proactive as we can be. We can do more if we have more people," she said. "It's going to be harder and harder for us to keep up these devices."
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249.