Families hit with rising BYOD school technology costs

Teaching the code for tomorrow

Students at Regent's Park Christian School are being trained in IT skills for the jobs of the future.

With the axing of the Federal government's schoolkids bonus and a confusing array of school technology policies,  the pain of meeting their children's education equipment costs is rising for parents as the school year starts.

Schools across NSW are rolling out new Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) policies for students to "deepen learning, be personalised and student-centred" according to the Department of Education.

However, there is concern that BYOD policies potentially cause a "digital divide" for students from lower soci-economic backgrounds and families that cannot afford new devices.

BYOD policies potentially cause a "digital divide" among school children, advocates warn.
BYOD policies potentially cause a "digital divide" among school children, advocates warn.  Photo: Elaine Thompson

NSW P&C Federation president Susie Boyd highlights that "BYOD is hurting parents really hard [as] shops that are taking advantage of the situation and the cost of the devices is raised, particularly for this time of year".

"Parents purchasing the right machine is a problem and I would encourage parents to check with the class teacher prior to buying as they will know the kids' needs and what is compatible with the school's hardware.

"Its definitely a shame we no longer receive the back-to-school bonus as [it] helped cover costs"

BYOD was introduced to schools in 2013 as a replacement for the Rudd Labor government's Digital Education Revolution scheme.

The trend towards digital classrooms has seen many parents shop for expensive or unsuitable devices for their children's education.

In Microsoft's 2016 research, a survey of 1024 parents with school-aged children found that 37 per cent received little to no guidance about purchasing a suitable device for their child's education.

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With the Local Schools, Local Decisions policy handing responsibility for the BYOD rollout  to principals at the local level, parents are at the mercy of individual schools to provide adequate information towards devices for student learning.

For students at Glenwood High School in Sydney's west, it is compulsory to have their own device while nearby Greystanes High School has decided to run an optional BYOD policy.

A spokesman from the Department of Education confirmed its continuing intentions to "deliver computers and supporting infrastructure via the Technology for Learning (T4L) program, maintaining a ratio of approximately 1:8 computers to students."

Popular software in use in BYOD schools, including the Canvas Learning Management System, Google Apps for Education and Adobe Creative Cloud, is largely internet reliant with parents often unaware of the Wi-Fi connectivity specifications of their children's devices.

Some schools allow students to bring any device that can connect to the internet while others require devices to meet stringent criteria with a set list of permissible computers.

With Gonski school funding a continuing issue and the government's ending of the schoolkids bonus in 2016, families face increasing costs to support their children's education.

Parents at Sydney Girls High School are expected to pay a yearly technology levy of $150 per student towards "development, installation, and implementation of computer systems and applications, including educationally required hardware, software and IT Service Desk support staff".

The NSW Department of Education following a review of BYOD in 2013 found that student equity was one of the top issues of concern.

With the gradual rollout of BYOD across government schools, a new Technology Equity Policy clause for students has been implemented in an attempt to reduce the "digital divide".

Most schools now offer students who cannot afford to purchase a device compatible to the school's requirements an option for priority access to desktop computers in classrooms and the library as well as temporary day-based laptop loans.

President of the Australian Council of State School Organisations, Phillip Spratt, says that "to ensure every student has the same opportunity of access to essential resources [is a matter of] fairness".

Some NSW schools have partnered with major retailers such as JB-HiFi, Harvey Norman and Apple to sell preset computer packages to students.

For Sydney Boys High School students, an entry-level 11-inch Lenovo Windows laptop from JB-HiFi will set parents back $709 with option for a 13 inch MacBook Air costing $1914.

Students from Cherrybrook Technology High School can take advantage of the school's partnership with Apple to purchase the iPad Pro from $815 and the MacBook from $1859.

Similar BYOD policies also exist in non-government schools with the Catholic Education Office's 2016 BYOD Implementation Policy prioritising "equity and access to technology ... for all students in Sydney Catholic Schools".

A 2012 briefing paper on Bring Your Own Devices published by Microsoft highlighted the need for "Schools to be vigilant and protective of the foundations of equity of access on which all of our education systems are firmly founded". 

Advantages of BYOD for students include "reduced need for technical support, students are already familiar with devices and learning at home", says Fiona Patterson from education technology company Staples.

The Department of Education refused to disclose the number of government schools with BYOD policies but indicated that individual schools "may use discretionary funds to purchase additional devices or repurpose existing equipment to create a pool of spares for student use".