Reflections on W&M’s myNotebook Program Ten Years Later

William & Mary announced its myNotebook initiative nearly ten years ago. Our effort was by no means revolutionary (as Wake Forest University’s ThinkPad Project began a decade earlier in 1996), rather it was meant to capitalize on the boom of mobile computing that was already changing how students interacted with technology on a day to day basis. I was surprised to discover much of the documentation that was generated during the birth of this project still available online. I even found one “white paper” that was easily turned into a scoresheet for tallying what we got right as well as wrong. Forecasting technology more than a couple of years is tricky business, and I was pleased to find that we got quite a bit right with this project, as well as missed the mark by a wide margin (as expected).

Bring Your Own Device

The phrase “bring your own device” (BYOD) was coined in 2005 and since then has been used to describe both the possibilities (pros) generated by users bringing their personal computers and other devices to work or school, as well as the support challenges (read: cons) that this presents institutions in “hosting” these devices. BYOD has nearly ever since been on the “hot list” of things that are about to radically change computing in higher education.

While in broad terms many people have considered BYOD somewhat of a nuisance in the business world, higher ed has had a much more favorable view of its potential. In part, higher ed saw those devices as “free” resources that could potentially replace either equipment previously purchased institutionally or equipment that could not be purchased that way because of budgetary constraints. They could also allow for the use of  digital technology in non-traditional spaces in much more flexible ways than had been possible via traditional computer labs. However, much in the same way that Brazilians refer to their country as “the country of the future, forever” in a tongue-in-cheek way, the potential revolutionary benefits of BYOD, while seemingly just over the horizon year after year, have yet to bear significant fruit in the classroom.

myNotebook: A Failed or Delayed Promise?

Geology 110 students using their laptop computers and LectureTools during class. I’m arm-waving at the front of the class. So who is on Facebook and who is checking their email? Photo by Pablo Yanez.

A lecture hall of Geology 110 students, with Chuck Bailey leading, using their laptop computers and LectureTools during class. Note that nearly no one is on Facebook or checking their email.

Our myNotebook initiative preceded the creation of the BYOD acronym but the concept is the logical extension of what had been one of the mantras during the creation of our initiative … that of “ubiquitous computing.” In general, much of the infrastructure needed to support ubiquitous computing — such as an extensive wireless network, new security measures, and the interoperability of Web resources — have been in place for years now. While, just as in our peer institutions, in excess of 98% of our students own a laptop computer and nearly all own at least one other smart device, we have yet to see BYOD have a really earth-shattering impact on our teaching environments, and we continue to struggle with how to best take advantage of these devices.

The high levels of personal ownership and institutional money spent on supporting BYOD over the past ten years have, I think, not generally neither meant a correspondingly large-scale change in either the number of computer classrooms or public access computer labs that are deployed by the College, and/or to the degree in which personal devices play a useful role in traditional (i.e. non-computer lab) learning/teaching environments.

However, this is not to say that there have been no successful classroom uses of BYOD. Personally, I worked with one faculty member to try to leverage BYOD in what turned out to be a largely successful experiment, and several of my colleagues have led or participated in similar efforts. But for the most part these have been fairly isolated efforts and on the whole it is still not the norm for students to take their technology to class, and if they are, that they are using that technology in a constructive and mission-critical way. Obviously, BYOD is central to the flipped classroom and other e-learning initiatives. But certainly we have not yet achieved our goals of reducing the number of needed computer classrooms and/or public access labs, or having portable computers (or other devices) be an everyday tool for “good” in most classrooms.

The myNotebook initiative was probably guilty of being overly optimistic to the degree in which student owned technology would be purposely used in the classroom. Early on we realized that platform uniformity (operating system, as well as hardware capabilities) would be an issue in teaching environments. Ironically, while the myNotebook initiative was largely designed to be composed of Windows computers with a much smaller number of Apple computers, just a few years later we find that heterogeneity is still an issue, but that our undergraduate population had other ideas when it came to selecting the dominant platform. We also thought that other issues, such as battery life, storage, and hardware reliability would be much more difficult to deal with than they have turned out to be. In large part, technology and student habits have resolved these issues. Regardless, I think that it would be fair to say that our 2004 selves had higher hopes in regards to how integrated these devices would be by now in our everyday educational experience in the classroom. Our projections were not “flying car” wrong, but things could be better.

Hope for the Future

While BYOD may not have lived up to its early hype in classroom settings, there is still much potential for it to have a significantly larger impact in this area in the future. Some of the factors that have prevented the better use of BYOD in education environments are, and probably will continue to be, out of our control. But I think there are some things we could do to take better advantage of our shared computer resources. Here are just a few:

  • Electronic Textbooks: I think that one of the major factors preventing better use of personal devices in the classroom is the lack excellent electronic textbooks and/or their adoption. If you are a student who is carrying two or even just one large textbook, classroom BYOD starts to look like a back-breaking proposition. While recently teaching a introductory-level course, I was surprised by the relatively large percentage of students carrying textbooks to class (which was not required), as well as the very small number of students that opted to purchase the electronic version of the textbook, even though it was available. I believe this was a result of e-textbook pricing not being very attractive, and/or their functionality being limited. This may also be a result of social norms (especially for our freshmen students) of what students do, and what their standard toolkit is. It’s probably fair to say that if you want to  facilitate the possibility of using your technology in the classroom, you may want to start by making some good choices regarding textbooks. We may also want to begin to provide some guidance in regards to the pros and cons of print versus digital resources.
  • Platform Heterogeneity: This is still a large issue if you want to incorporate user-supplied technology in the classroom. For example, some software may only be available for a particular platform, or it can be prohibitively expensive for students to purchase, and in some cases even install or configure properly. Even in cases where the software is available for multiple platforms, it does not “behave” in the same way on different systems, making instruction very difficult. One way that this issue can be resolved, or at least diminished, is with the use of Virtual Computing Labs (VCLs). This allows users to effectively use their devices as a sort of dumb terminal for a uniform set of software resources that are actually hosted by the institution and accessed through the network. This allows for the use of resources formerly only available in computer labs in nearly every type of teaching space on campus, while also allowing students to access these resources remotely as well.
  • In-Classroom Use: If students are to bring their own devices to the classroom and used them in a constructive way, there has to be a good reason for them to do so. In general, I think that for most people a high-tech device is no better than a pencil and paper for taking notes in the classroom. If this is the only reason to bring one to class, I can hardly blame them for not doing so. On the other hand, these devices can be very useful in finding information, zooming in as needed into imagery, annotating or otherwise modifying pre-existing material, etc. Allowing students the freedom to use their devices independently of what is going on at the front of the class and in ways that compliment their individual needs and interests can be a very productive practice.
  • Collaborative Possibilities: Finally, I think that we need to provide systems which not only allow students to use their devices to consume presented information in the classroom, but also share and present what they have produced as well. The technologies which allow for screen sharing (usually in a wireless network environment) are becoming easier to use, as well as more robust and affordable. I think that this capability allows for a degree of freedom, flexibility, and “student ownership” not previously possible, and could potentially lead to some significant and positive changes in how some classes are taught.
About Pablo Yáñez

Pablo Yáñez is the Academic Technologist for the Sciences. He studied Geology at the University of Maryland (BS) and University of Arizona (MS), where he specialized in Geochemistry. He joined Information Technology at William and Mary in 2000, and has since worked with nearly all of the academic departments on campus in some capacity or another. Beyond his "normal" Academic Technologist duties, during these years he has been involved in several projects/initiatives including: the use of the College's Public Access Labs; the creation of the Center for Geospatial Analysis, the Swem Media Center, and many technology-enhanced classrooms; and in the review and planning of campus-wide software procurement.