Cellphones in Schools: Disruptive or Necessary?

The debate over cellphones in schools is heating up. As phones, tablets and other digital devices become more pervasive, schools across the country are continuing to grapple with policies that range from outright bans to free and open use in the classroom and everything in between. According to teachers, students and administrators – even those at the national level – there is no easy answer and many questions remain.

A student uses her iPhone during class at Campolindo High School in Moraga, California

“National PTA does not have an official stance on whether or not cellphones brought by students to campus should be allowed,” Heidi May, media relations manager for the National Parent-Teacher Association, said in an email. “The association does support and recognize the importance and benefits of technology in learning.”

According to current policies in place across select schools in the U.S., there is one overriding theme: technology and personal devices, such as smartphones, are here to stay with the potential to enhance the learning experience. Beyond that, the policies on usage particularly for so-called “bring your own” devices vary dramatically.

In Bowling Green, Ohio, teachers are given the discretion to allow personal devices in the classroom on specific projects. In Corcoran, California, the Corcoran Joint Unified School District allows students to use their own devices with a teacher’s permission, but the district reserves the right to search personal devices if they feel any school rules have been violated. Students cannot record media or take pictures on school property unless they have permission from a school staff member and the person whom they are photographing.

The Oak Hills School District in Cincinnati, Ohio has been working on the bring your own device issue for several years, writing and rewriting policies to meet the changing dynamic in its classrooms. The district has taken a strong educational approach that involves buy-in from students, teachers and parents around “acceptable use.” They even have a personal devices “passport,” which includes an acceptable use policy and requires students’ and parents’ signatures.

A sign outside a classroom at Westview High School in Beaverton, Oregon.

The New York City Department of Education flat out bans personal devices on school property, paving the way for privately-operated phone trucks that will store a student’s phone for $1. The ban was put in place by former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg during his administration, but current mayor, Bill de Blasio, who acknowledges that his son frequently violates the current policy, vows to allow cellphones in schools in the next.

Policies can even vary within a school district. In Lafayette, California, elementary and middle school students may carry devices in their bags, but they must be switched off during the entire school day. Lafayette high schoolers, however, may use their phones while on break.

“I was honestly shocked that kids could bring their cellphones into the classroom,” said Ken Bakar, who has a high school sophomore and a sixth grader in the Lafayette School District. His daughter, Madeline, however, recounted how she used her cellphone to text her parents when the high school went into lock down following student threats via social media, despite being told not to by teachers while crouched under desks.

Cellphones for Safety

At Westview High School in Beaverton, Oregon, students are allowed to use their phones during the lunch hour and according to teachers and students, most do.

Safety is another issue some parents and administrators argue in favor of allowing use of devices in schools.

At Moore School District in Moore, Oklahoma, which was hit by a massive tornado on May 20, 2013, the policy was recently revised to allow students to keep phones with them rather than in their lockers. Brad Fernberg, assistant superintendent for secondary schools, acknowledged that the schools were fighting a losing battle against phones generally, but said after the tornado it just made common sense.

“We weren’t winning the battle,” Fernberg said. “You aren’t going to win with parents who give their child a cellphone, so they can reach their child when they need to.”

During the tornado that struck the community and damaged several schools, the cell networks were immediately overwhelmed and calls weren’t going through, but texts transmitted successfully.

At Westview High School in Beaverton, Oregon, two years ago, teachers confiscated devices if they were found being used in the classroom, but last year, that policy was reversed due to complaints and complications managing all the devices and the restrictions. This year, the school decided to allow phones on school grounds, but they cannot be used in the classroom.

A student at Campolindo High School in Moraga, California conceals his phone to check fantasy football app.

The Beaverton School District now implements a three-tiered “Off and Away” policy regarding phone use in class. A teacher may confiscate a student’s phone found used during class for any reason (emphasis noted on written policy). The student may retrieve the phone from the main office on the first infraction. Only parents can collect the phone on the second occurrence, and the third offence and beyond will add a written behavior referral.

Megan Staropoli, a French teacher at Westview High School, recognizes the difficulty in keeping students from their connected lives. Nevertheless, she believes that class time should be devoted to learning, and that students shouldn’t answer their phones for anyone other than President Obama.

“It hasn’t been a big issue yet,” said Staropoli, who acknowledges that she gives the kids permission to use their phones to connect and get caught up for a few minutes at the end of class if the day’s work is complete.



Ethical Concerns

Thomas Duffy, a 10th and 11th grade English teacher at Campolindo High School in Moraga, California, paraphrased the school policy similar to others: “If the phones create a distraction, the teacher can take the phone and either return it to the student at the end of class, or send it to the office, where the student can pick up the phone at the end of the day.”

“I find the students distracted by their phones,” said Duffy, who added that they can also represent a potential ethical hazard. “Students take photos of tests and quizzes, and then send those photos to friends. Those tests, which require time and energy to develop, are no longer valid or fair. Big problem.”

Some students at Campolindo High School in Moraga, California may make instant copy of class notes by taking a photo of teaching materials.

According to Duffy, Campolindo staff continues to discuss the pros and cons of cellphone use in the classroom and have not agreed to—nor implemented—a school-wide policy that goes beyond what is already in effect.

As much as phones can be distractions, there is little doubt that they are effective communication tools. Emerging commercial programs like Remind, a free app that allows teachers to text message students and stay in touch with parents, are helping to integrate smartphones with education.  According to Remind, one million teachers now communicate with 17 million parents and students via the mobile phone and text-based system. The app is particularly popular in Georgia and Texas, with 50 percent and 40 percent of teachers, respectively, using the system. Remind recently closed a $40 Million Series C round of funding.

“We are entering a different era…in terms of education and technology,” Duffy said. “Cellphones could be an incredibly powerful tool for learning, but also have the potential to be a crutch, a distraction, and a cheating device. On the one hand, I think it’s cool that a kid can take a picture of whatever notes I might make on the board. On the other hand, perhaps that student would have gained something by going through the process of filtering, processing and writing those notes down on paper. Many questions remain.”

Source: Intel Free Press