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Lessons From “Late Adopters”

Lessons From “Late Adopters”

New waves of school districts are encouraging kids to bring smartphones, tablets, and laptops into the classroom after banning them for years. Here’s why.

By Calvin Hennick

Early adopters of technology tend to get the most attention. But as anyone who spent hundreds of dollars on a LaserDisc player or an Apple Newton in the 1990s can attest: Sometimes it pays to wait things out.

Nearly a decade after the debut of the iPhone, some districts are just beginning to allow or encourage students to bring their own tech devices to school. In some instances, this is merely a nod to the impracticality of enforcing a ban on cell phones in an era when most teens bring devices with them nearly everywhere (88 percent of American teens have access to a mobile phone, according to the Pew Research Center). But in other cases, administrators are seeking to turn student devices into classroom learning tools.

Schools that are just now repealing device bans or implementing bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies have a wider range of options available to them than early adopters did, thanks to the considerable evolution of smartphones, apps, and networking infrastructure over the past few years. Also, curriculum and technology leaders at these schools have been carefully watching those that went before them, and they’ve learned what works and what doesn’t.

Here are some of the best lessons from “late adopters.”

Involve students.

When Mark Grishaber became principal of Taft High School in Chicago in 2014, he noticed a number of needlessly aggressive signs around the building, including this one: “Don’t use your cell phone. If you use it, we’ll take it away…and we’ll think about giving it back to you.”

“I needed to change the culture,” he says.

Grishaber allowed students to advocate for changes, including a repeal of the school’s cell phone ban. The process made students feel like administrators were listening to their concerns, and Grishaber says that most of them respect the new rules, which allow students to use their phones anywhere in the building except in the classroom, unless it’s as part of the lesson. (So far, students are using their phones as calculators, taking notes on them, and writing collaborative poems via text messages.)

“You just talk to the kids with respect and tell them, ‘You’re here for education, not to be on your phone,’” he says.

Students have even come up with ways to use their phones to improve upon Grishaber’s own ideas. The school has one bulletin board dedicated to each of its more than 100 student clubs, and Grishaber suggested adding a box of business cards to each of them so that interested students would know whom to contact to get involved. He recalls: “The kids said, ‘Why don’t you just have a business card stapled to the board, and students can use their phones to take a picture of it?’”

Establish clear guidelines.

Without a solid plan, giving students permission to use their devices in school can backfire.

Richard Murphy, who teaches courses in the economics of education as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has published research showing that repealing cell phone bans at schools can actually hinder student performance—especially for lower-performing students.

The research didn’t consider whether smartphones can be successfully implemented as teaching tools, but Murphy says that he does think it’s possible. However, he cautions that clear guidelines must be established to prevent problems.

“When the phone is allowed back into the classroom, it’s a potential source of distraction, so you need clear rules on how it should be used,” Murphy says. “If I were a school principal, I would definitely want strict guidelines. Just allowing [devices] into the classroom [without a plan] isn’t going to improve anything.”

Use apps to drive engagement.

When New York City repealed its ban on student cell phones last year, Staten Island Technical High School was already in the middle of a one-to-one tablet rollout. But the devices hadn’t yet made their way to the school’s senior class, so Principal Mark Erlenwein encouraged teachers to incorporate students’ smartphones into lessons.

The impact of such a shift would have been more limited several years ago, before a plethora of effective mobile apps emerged. For example, teachers at the high school used an app called Nearpod to push slideshows to student devices. Some of the slides contained multiple-choice questions, and the app allowed teachers to see student response data in real time.

Students in advanced math classes took pictures of their completed homework and used their phones to share the work with their teachers. “By the time attendance has been taken, all of the homework was accessible on a SMART Board, and you could get right into the lesson,” Erlenwein says. “We’ve had teachers gaining eight to ten minutes per lesson because they’re not wasting time having students rewrite the problems on the whiteboard.”

Encourage collaboration.

This fall, Greely High School in Cumberland, Maine, will begin requiring students to bring a laptop (or a tablet with a detachable keyboard) as part of a school-wide BYOD program.

This sort of initiative would likely have been impossible a decade ago, when it was difficult to find powerful computers for under $1,000. But with the price point of some Chromebooks dipping below $200—and most parents in the district already buying laptops for their children, anyway—school officials felt comfortable requiring the purchase. (Accommodations will be made for students whose families cannot afford a device.)

Dirk Van Curan, director of technology for the district, says it’s not only the lower price point of technology that convinced district officials this is the right time to formalize a BYOD program. In addition, he says, newer tech tools like Google Classroom increase the potential value of student devices, especially when it comes to collaboration. Students can use Google Classroom to hand in assignments and receive feedback, to work with their peers on assignments, and to communicate with teachers. That level of collaboration would have been impossible only a few years ago, no matter what device students had in their hands.

“Google Classroom was not really rolled out until two years ago,” Van Curan notes. “Before, teachers used Google Docs, Google Drive, and Gmail, and they built a system around those tools, but Google Classroom came in and blended all of those things together. That stuff is all new.”

Train the teachers.

I can reference so many examples across the country of poorly executed mobility programs,” Erlenwein says. “You can’t just throw devices out there and expect good results. A lot of it is in the professional development—and you can never give enough of it, because technology is ever-changing.”

Erlenwein sat with each of his teachers for five one-on-one professional development sessions to answer individual questions and make sure that every teacher in the school was comfortable with the mobility rollout. That might not be possible at every school, depending on the size of the staff, but it demonstrates how important it is for teachers to understand exactly how devices should—and shouldn’t—be used in the classroom.

Some teachers may be apprehensive about lifting a device ban, worried that the presence of cell phones will give them one more classroom behavior to police. Grishaber stresses to his staff that high-interest activities are the surest way to prevent distractions.

“I tell them, ‘If you have an engaging lesson, kids won’t look at their phones,’” Grishaber says. “It’s when they’re bored, or when they see you as wasting their time, that they’ll look down at their phones.”

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