As school districts across the country grapple with the benefits and risks of incorporating cellphones, media players, and tablet computing devices into school life, one research group is offering up a framework it hopes will serve as a vehicle to help address student use of those devices.
The Center for Education Policy and Law, based at the University of San Diego, last month issued a collection of documents on what it calls “electronic communication devices,” or ECDs, which includes a six-page model district policy that outlines proper and improper use of the devices, as well as sample short (two-page) and long (four-page) student-use agreements.
Also included are documents detailing resources to help educators understand the culture of electronic device use in which many of today’s students live large chunks of their social lives, as well as the legal privacy and free speech concerns schools face when enforcing policies that govern device use.
And while the documents take no official position on the desirability of integrating ECDs into the classroom, researcher Frank Kemerer said they were authored under the assumption that such an integration is happening and will continue; an observation that echoes opinions from mobile learning advocates.
The University of San Diego’s Center for Education Policy and Law’s report includes a short and a long version of a sample student-use agreement for “electronic communication devices,” or ECDs. Both versions attempt to answer five key questions.
1. What Qualifies as an ECD?
Cellphones, computers, pagers, or any other decives that allow direct electronic communication or communication via social networking.
2. When do school ECD rules always come into play?
During school activities on school time, or during school-endorsed activities outside of school hours.
3. What constitutes misuse of an ECD?
Refusal to turn device off when told, damaging school-owned ECDs, causing an in-school disruption, using the device for cheating, cyberbullying, or sexting.
4. When can schools punish a student for misuse outside of school?
When misuse causes school disruptions or harms students, teachers, or other school personnel in a manner that the offending student should have expected.
5. What are acceptable consequences for misuse?
Device searches, verbal and written warnings, confiscations, notices to parents or law-enforcement authorities, extracurricular restrictions, suspensions and expulsions.
SOURCE: Center for Educational Policy and Law, University of San Diego
“The trend is in the direction of helping teachers and students incorporate electronic communication devices,” said Mr. Kemerer, a professor-in-residence at the University of San Diego’s schools of law, leadership, and education sciences. “What we’re doing is to provide this information as a starting point. Expert advice and a lawyer would be needed to tailor this to the needs of a specific district.”
Both usage agreements clarify what qualifies as a mobile device, when school rules governing device use apply, what behaviors constitute misuse, when schools have a right to intervene concerning use during a student’s personal time, and what consequences schools may enforce. The longer version gives more detail on types of misuse, and when school personnel have a right to search student-owned devices or involve themselves in misuse occurring outside of school time.
Missing Basic Issues?
Some ed-tech experts criticized the plan for not fully outlining basic issues—for example, where exactly students are allowed to carry and use devices during the school day,
for what purpose, and where they are to store devices when not in use. Those critics insisted the potential educational benefits of using those devices should not mean that policy ignores the greater potential for harm than good when devices aren’t used constructively.
“You need to recognize [the danger of devices in school] outweighs the benefits, other than anything you are doing to forward the educational process,” said Parry Aftab, the executive director of the Fort Lee, N.J.-based online watchdog group WiredSafety. The group will be releasing its own guidelines about the issue this month, Ms. Aftab said, and while it won’t craft model policies in the same way, it will point toward real policies in place throughout the United States and Canada that it considers good models.
“I think you’re dealing with risk management more than class management.” She continued, “You need to set out the rules so kids know that ahead of time.”
Others praised the University of San Diego center for giving the trend of integrating devices in schools legitimacy.
“Kemerer is one of the few people in this issue that doesn’t have an axe to grind, is not looking at the issue as a retirement fund for attorneys, and understands what this looks like on a daily basis in education. That makes his work rare,” said Barbara-Jane Paris, who sits on the board of directors at the Reston, Va.-based National Association of Secondary School Principals, in an e-mail. Ms. Paris, who is the principal at Canyon Vista Middle School in Austin, Texas, testified this summer alongside Ms. Aftab at a Capitol Hill hearing on cyberbullying.
“Even though [how to integrate ECDs] is the topic du jour, much of what is available is mired in intangibles,” she continued, and “data that is tortured to confess whatever we want it to say.”
Elliot Soloway, a professor of computer science and education at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, and a leading advocate of learning with mobile devices, agreed that the report gives new clout to the push to use smartphones and other devices as learning tools, and said he hoped other research institutions would make their own recommendations.
As for whether the model policies were prescriptive enough, Mr. Soloway conceded there could’ve been more specificity, but also said individual schools and districts have a duty to set their own priorities.
“Schools are going to have some ambiguity, and are going to have to make some decisions,” Mr. Soloway said. “Superintendents, principals, and teachers all need to step up and take a position.”
Mr. Kemerer of the University of San Diego said the documents were initially crafted specifically based on legal rulings and precedents in the state of California, but also considered federal rulings. The project, which took about a year to complete, was actually conceived when a university staff member’s child became a victim of cyberbullying.
The policies outlined in the report make little differentiation between whether the devices are owned by the school, district, or individual student, though they do note that a student may not be punished for damaging a device he or she owns. The shorter student agreement was crafted after a focus group of students indicated they would struggle to read, let alone comprehend, the longer policy.
“The comments from the students were, ‘Yeah, it’s better,’” Mr. Kemerer said. “‘We still don’t like it, but it’s better than the other version.’”
A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Framework Crafted for Student Use of Computing Devices