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Schools ask: Time to stop fighting cellphones?

by PATTI ZARLING Press-Gazette Media on September 03, 2013 10:00 AM

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Once banished to lockers or backpacks, smartphones are increasingly becoming part of classroom routine.

Most Green Bay-area school districts have policies requiring students to limit cellphone use to time between classes and before or after school. However, since many students now have smartphones — those with Internet capability — some school administrators say it makes sense to bring them to class if teachers are working on online lessons. Smartphones, they say, should be part of an overall movement to bring-your-own technology to classrooms.

“The big piece goes back to education,” said Mark Smith, director for secondary schools, activities and athletics for the Green Bay School District. “Is it something that will help with curriculum?”

Green Bay, like most other local districts, generally prohibits students from bringing cellphones to class. They are allowed if a teacher directs students under a lesson plan, Smith said.

The technology can prove useful, administrators say.

For example, teachers might ask students to use text messages to assess a particular lesson or what they have learned, said Diane Doersch, chief technology and information officer for Green Bay. Or they could post items on Twitter, focusing on a particular topic discussed in class.

“A lot of phones have cameras, so they could use them to go out and take a picture that shows what a right angle is for a math class,” she suggested. “There’s a lot of ways students can use the technology to learn.”

Schools should embrace students’ love of technology and smartphones, Smith said.

“The days of fighting students to bring in a cellphone to school are over,” he said. “But students shouldn’t have phones out unless they are part of an educational piece. We want to look at, ‘When does it aid compared with when is it taking away from student learning?’”

Educators realize cellphones can provide a safety net for parents who want the connection to their child.

“That’s something districts have to consider,” Smith said. “That’s part of the conversation. If they need to get a hold of a parent, what are some ways they can do that and appropriate ways they can do that?”

About half of students attending Green Bay district schools qualify for free or reduced price meals, which can be a sign of poverty. That may mean families can’t afford personal technology or smartphones.

“There is no requiring of students to have a cellphone or smartphone to complete assignments,” Smith said. “We have a variety of Internet-based technology available in our buildings. It’s an opportunity, but not a requirement.”

The Ashwaubenon School District allows cellphones in schools, but they can’t be used in classrooms.

“They can bring computer devices, such as laptops or netbooks,” district Superintendent Brian Hanes said. “Seventy-five percent of our students in high school had netbooks as part of our one-on-one program, so most of them already are bringing some kind of technology into the classroom.”

Ashwaubenon adopted a program several years ago to provide high school students with netbooks, or smaller laptop computers.

The idea is that each student would have a similar device to complete assignments. Netbooks were distributed to ninth-, 10th- and 11th-graders last year. Seniors were allowed to bring in their own devices. The Pulaski School District allows teachers to decide whether smartphones are allowed in class.

“I think that’s really the biggest challenge school districts are facing right now, do you provide a device or allow students to BYO, bring your own, device in,” said Amy Uelmen, instructional technology coordinator for the Pulaski district. “The majority of districts are able to provide some technology, but it is costly.”

Pulaski generally uses an “our time/your time” philosophy about cellphones, she said, in which students don’t use them during class. But use is left up the classroom teacher, she said.

“There are definite benefits to allowing kids to use their own technology,” Uelmen said. “But there are challenges. Some students might have an Apple, some might have Android. Often kids have different phones, it can be difficult for teachers to develop a plan, and if there is an Apple application, there might not be an Android.”

Teachers may not know how to use different types of phones, which makes it difficult to help students, Uelmen said.

Parents also might take away technology as a punishment to kids, she said.

“Then a teacher will say, ‘Bring your own device,’ and students won’t be able to,” Uelmen said. Also, screens on smartphones are generally too small to create content, she said. That limits them mostly to web surfing, texting or using applications.

Administrators expect uses to expand in the future.

“Part of our focus is on how do we leverage technology to further instruction?” Smith said.

“We have scratched the surface of how we can use technology in education. As soon as we master one form, another comes along. There are many forms we will be looking at.”

Doersch expects use of smartphones also will grow.

“The thing about cellphones is they are a natural part of the student’s day and activities, something they are comfortable with,” she said. “They use them for their social life, for so many things. If we can engage them using cell phones, it’s definitely worth doing.”

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