Classroom Technology

As Cell Phones Proliferate in K-12, Schools Search for Smart Policies

By Leo Versel — February 08, 2018 6 min read
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A decade ago, cellphones were devices that students in the Katy Independent School District used to complete their academic work at home, but were restricted from using during class.

Now, students in the eastern Texas school system use their cellphones to access reading and math programs via a mobile app. They rely on the devices to complete assignments and quizzes on their smartphones, and to check grades on the district’s learning management system, Canvas.

They are even allowed to scan their work on notebook paper using their phones and submit that file via Canvas for grading.

Angelia Garcia, who teaches at Golbow Elementary School in the district, uses a website where she can monitor students’ activity on mobile devices while they are completing work and give them real-time feedback by messaging them from her computer.

Smartphones have become a ubiquitous tool for many K-12 students today. A nationally-representative survey, released in 2015 by Pearson, found that 53 percent of 4th and 5th graders, 66 percent of middle schoolers, and 82 percent of high school students regularly used a smartphone. In addition, 41 percent of polled students reported using a smartphone at least twice a week to complete schoolwork, according to the survey, conducted of about 2,300 elementary, middle, and high-school students.

Usage of these devices has even grown among young children. As EdWeek reported in October 2017, the time children ages 8 and younger spent engaging with screen media on mobile devices, such as a smartphone or tablet, has tripled since 2013, from 15 to 48 minutes a day, according to a Common Sense Media national survey.

But the widespread presence of smartphones and the possibility of excessive screen time have raised concerns about negative effects for younger students and encouragement of anti-social behavior.

Jeffrey Knutson, the senior producer for Common Sense Education’s teaching strategies project, said a critical standard for judging whether to use cellphones in classrooms is whether students are engaging with the devices in meaningful ways.

“When it comes to kids’ screen time, it is an issue of not only moderation and media balance, but also the context in which it is happening,” Knutson said. “There’s a significant difference between parking your child or all of your students in front of a screen to sit and absorb, and engaging with a screen or using a screen to engage with others.”

Best practices for schools often require nuanced decision-making, Knutson added. It’s up to educators “to help students learn how and when to use devices responsibly and in ways that are healthy for themselves, and healthy for their communities.”

A recent survey of the nation’s school districts suggests that many districts acknowledge the widespread use of cellphones and are taking steps to integrate their use into instruction.

Data collected in the survey, conducted by the Center for Digital Education and National School Boards Association, found that 88 percent of polled districts have policies governing the use of mobile devices and 56 percent provide a smartphone app to students. In addition, mobility is listed among the top five digital priorities for districts.

One of the biggest challenges districts have in integrating smartphones in classrooms is providing professional development on how to effectively use them, said Kecia Ray, executive director of the Center for Digital Education. The devices, on their own, are of little use unless teachers and students have instructional support.

Ray said that “teachers, principals, technology officers, and superintendents believe that smartphones are a beneficial tool,” but added that “if you want to measure student learning, you’re going to have to direct your research toward a particular app or software on the tool rather than the physical device.”

Students are likely to resist efforts to ban smartphones from classrooms, said Ray. A better approach is for teachers to show students effective ways to use their devices, instead of assuming they know that already.

There are many practical uses of cellphones that teachers can easily master, Ray said. Those include performing calculations for a course, participating in a class poll or assessment, completing research, and logging into a learning management system, Ray said.

The Katy Independent School District, among the first K-12 districts in the nation to incorporate smartphones in the classroom, started a pilot program in 2009 with 150 of its 5th-graders at Cimarron Elementary.

District officials at the time saw how students were using the devices to communicate and collaborate outside of school, and “thought there was no better place than school to show them how to work in this digital world,” explained Darlene Rankin, Katy’s Instructional Technology Director.

Excitement from parents and students about the pilot, and the potential for the program to change Katy’s learning experience, influenced Rankin and other district administrators to take the effort districtwide.

At first, she said some teachers and administrators were uncertain mobile learning would be successful in Katy, and that it took time to change the norms in the district concerning technology. Even today in Katy, Rankin said teacher discretion determines when students can use their devices in class.

“It’s important that our students learn and understand how to work in this digital world,” Rankin said. But it took training for “teachers to understand the change in rules, and how they could leverage the devices their students are so engaged with.”

The district has other policies in place to encourage productive use of the devices. Students in the K-12 system sign classroom and district-wide “technology contracts” at the start of the school year, which include guidelines for appropriate technology use and responsibility for devices.

‘Don’t Make a Ban, Have a Plan':

Setting clear expectations for cellphone use in classrooms, and establishing models for appropriate use, are good alternatives to simply forbidding their use, said Knutson.

“Our motto here at Common Sense is ‘Don’t make a ban, have a plan,’” he said. “Bans may put teachers in unnecessarily adversarial roles with their students. They could be even bigger distractions than phones ringing or students sending texts.”

Knutson, who was a high-school English and English-language learner teacher for 10 years, said schools should consider the potential benefits that smartphones bring in teaching students about moderation in the use of technology.

Setting smart cellphone policies can be a “systematic way to address the distractions and inappropriate use” of technology. “We have to help guide students, and model for them, what healthy media balance looks like.”

Elliot Soloway, a professor at the University of Michigan, said schools that allow smartphones have the power to encourage student inquiry.

“If all students have is a textbook, they can’t answer their own questions,” Soloway said, “but if you give them a smartphone, now the world is open to them.”

One of the biggest challenges smartphones pose for schools is determining how lessons conducted via smartphones should be integrated into existing curricula, he said. Schools need to focus their efforts in figuring out which learning activities are most effective with smartphones, and which ones aren’t a good fit.

For years, many of the nation’s schools have moved in the direction of ‘bring your own device,’ or BYOD policies, Soloway noted. Now with smartphones, BYOD is almost taken for granted, yet too many schools aren’t taking advantage of the opportunities that smartphones offer to engage students.

“I walked into an elementary school just last August and a sign said, ‘Cellphone Equals Suspension,’” Soloway recalled. Too many schools are still “afraid of what children are going to see.”

Soloway believes students and parents will continue to push for students’ use of cellphones in schools. Schools, he said, “cannot hold this train back; the train is moving.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.