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Don’t forget to bring your phone to class

By Chelsea McCullough / February 5, 2014


Don’t forget to bring your phone to class

The “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD) debate has extended beyond the American workplace and into classrooms all across the country. While most schools continue to discourage the use of mobile devices on premises, 25% of our country’s K-12 learning institutions are beginning to loosen up their restrictions. Even with the growing acceptance of smartphones and tablets in the classroom, Mayor Bloomberg’s 2006 anti-cellphone sentiments continue to echo through hallways across the country:

“[Cellphones] are a distraction and are used to cheat, take inappropriate photos in bathrooms and organize gang rendezvous. They are also a top stolen item.”

But that belief is starting to change as educators understand more about how students have grown up in a connected reality. According to EdTech expert , this has a profound impact on teaching methods:

“Our students have changed radically. Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach… They are more engaged in learning when using the latest technological gadgets, because it is what they are most used to interacting with. Our students don’t just want mobile learning, they need it.”

This perspective resonates with today’s students. Comments on a debate.org post on the subject reflect that they don’t quite see the point of fighting phones in class. One contributor states, “There is no getting around the fact that they’re around, so they might as well be used for educational purposes. As the technology grows, then the need for it in the classroom grows.” The debate currently sits at a 50/50 split, and although this only includes a small portion of the population, it could reflect a much bigger picture.

The good and bad about BYOD

The benefits and challenges of BYOD in the classroom mirror that of the business sector. According to the National Consumers League, 60% of children ages 8-12 already have mobile phones. This number is even higher for teens, as 78% have a cell phone, half of which are smartphones. Encouraging kids to bring these devices to class saves the school district the cost of investing in equipment. Furthermore, technology can be put in place instantly as opposed to the time-intensive process of planning, purchasing and implementing EdTech on a per-school or district-wide basis.

Unfortunately, the cons are equally substantial. Even though personal mobile phone ownership is increasing, not all students have access. And what about students on prepaid or pay-for-use plans? Should these families be expected to absorb the cost of this in-classroom instruction? Beyond the personal access and cost considerations, monitoring and managing data across diverse operating systems is a challenge for resource-strapped institutions as well. Even major corporations find it difficult to get all their Android, iOS, Blackberry and Windows users on the same page. Imagine how difficult it would be to ensure every digital textbook and quiz app ran the same on each device.

Regardless of the challenges, BYOD is a solid stop-gap solution to put tech into the hands of curious school-aged kids right away. Consumers outpace institutions when it comes to adopting the latest technological advances. School districts that over-invest time and resources may miss the mark and purchase expensive systems that are quickly out of date. In addition, mobile phones are playing an important role in narrowing the digital divide. Recent research from Pew Internet indicates that African Americans who traditionally lag in broadband adoption are at the same usage levels as other groups in terms of mobile connectivity. That trend will only increase over time with more and more students using their phones instead of computers to access the Internet.

In reality, the low cost of smartphones and tablets — as compared to a computer — and the expanding speed of mobile Internet is increasing the convenience of connecting through a hand-held device. Educators are wise to recognize that technology should play a role in how students learn and invest time into developing BYOD policies and procedures. And while there is no standard or one-size-fits-all approach, there are ample tools and resources available thanks to the work of EdTech pioneers who have paved the way.

Reading, writing and wireless tablets

Some educators are getting creative about how to use technology to further engage students instead of taking a punitive approach. According to a Pew Research Study, 73% of Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers state “they and/or their students use their cell phones in the classroom or to complete assignments.” More than 40% report using tablets or e-readers in classrooms.

So what are some examples of tech being used in the classroom? How about Poll Everywhere, which allows students to respond to questions through text messaging, resulting in an instant, graphic representation of how well the class understands the problem. This enables teachers to implement “adaptive learning”, meaning they can course correct in real time, provide additional explanation, or note students who may need more direct assistance.

Dystart Unified School District in Arizona is another shining example of how to leverage Digital Learning as a way to meet the growing needs of their district. They began this effort by creating a comprehensive plan that involved educating teachers and administrators prior to placing technology in the classroom. They invested in training for teachers and appointed an Innovation Ambassador for each school to most effectively implement and use best practices. This effort was a part of Digital Learning Day 2013, which highlights effective uses of tech in schools across the country. The next upcoming Digital Learning Day is February 5, 2014.

In Katy, Texas, more than 63,000 students are divided between the district’s 56 schools. Almost 40% of children in the area are low-income and at-risk. In 2008, administrators decided to take a progressive approach and looked to technology to help catapult their district’s performance despite substantial resource constraints. Katy ISD superintendent Alton Frailey commented on some of the revelations that came from their experience:

“We needed to find a better way of connecting with our students. They’re way ahead of us, in terms of their use of technology. We knew that in order to be successful we’d have to be responsive, we’d have to make sure that things work, and we’d have to have enough bandwidth.”

After a quick study, they realized that resources were better put to use in building out the district’s technology infrastructure instead of actual equipment. They encouraged kids to bring their own devices to school and also leveraged generosity from the private sector and telecommunications providers. The result was record-breaking levels in student achievement. Math test scores for some classes surged from the 70th to the 90th percentile. Chief Information Officer for Katy ISD Lenny Schad reported:

“There wasn’t one teacher who didn’t see improvements in engagement and test scores. We heard so many testimonials from teachers who said, ‘I’ve been teaching for 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this.’ The creativity these tools allowed was just amazing.”

Preparing for the future

As more school districts begin to adopt tech in classrooms, the need for wireless and broadband connectivity quickly follows. President Obama’s ConnectED initiative aims to bolster these objectives and seeks to connect 99% of schools around the country to broadband Internet. In addition, the Department of Education is working to prepare teachers to use technology.

Even if BYOD and tech in classrooms got off to a slow start, it’s clear that strategically integrating wireless technology in classrooms will become easier and more urgent in the near future. As technology becomes an ever-important player in our country’s economic prosperity, it’s critical we are constantly increasing the learning opportunities for our nation’s students.


Chelsea McCullough serves as Executive Director of Texans for Economic Progress, a statewide coalition that advocates greater access to tech education, entrepreneurship and infrastructure.