Many educators have struggled to confront the challenges associated with high-tech devices in the classrooms (especially cell phones). Cyberbullying. Cheating. Distractions. Inappropriate digital material. There is no shortage of possible issues. The seemingly easy way to respond to these concerns has been to ban all personal electronic devices from the classroom (or the entire school). I have heard about penalties that include students being fined or surrendering the device until the end of the day or even until the end of the school year! This is just crazy. First of all, short of strip-searching students as they enter the school, it is practically impossible to enforce a complete ban on technology in the school. Most administrators have largely conceded this point and therefore enacted policies which say something to the effect of: “If I see it, you lose it.” A colleague of ours recently quipped that schools approach cell phones the same way they do underwear: “We know you have them, we just don’t want to see them in class.” It is really unfortunate that these powerful devices have been excluded from learning environments where they could actually be put to positive uses.
Recently, however, it seems that increasing numbers of schools are looking to loosen their overly restrictive cell phone policies. We have received a number of queries over the last couple of months from districts that would like to allow students to bring their own devices, to be used for educational purposes. It is easy to see how cell phones, iPads, or laptops could augment curriculum delivery in the classroom: flash-polling; looking up multi-media definitions of difficult concepts; pulling up a map of a far-off place; viewing a video of an endangered species…. The possibilities are literally endless. And we also know that the vast majority of teens already have, and regularly use, these devices (e.g., 75% of 12 to 17 year-olds have their own cell phones, according to Pew). So there is enormous upside here.
But we do need to recognize the potential problems that may accompany the positives when students “bring their own devices” to school. It is important to stress, though, that the problem isn’t cell phones or other particular devices. The problem is how these devices are being (mis)used by some. Most schools already have a bullying/harassment policy. These documents should be reviewed to make sure they explicitly cover cyberbullying. Students, staff, parents, and others need to understand that inappropriate behaviors will not be tolerated and are subject to discipline. And be specific—talk about harassment and cheating and disrupting the class environment by texting or Facebooking, etc. Clearly outline the consequences for such behaviors. Get students and parents in on this discussion. Schools will have problems as the school community gets used to these changes, but hopefully the problems will be few and far between and will get better with time. Students will learn appropriate behaviors and it should – in time – become the norm if done right. For example, ten years ago cell phones were much more of a problem in my college classrooms than they are now. University students, at least in my experience, have gotten better at cell phone etiquette and are not letting the devices distract the learning that is occurring. Sure, occasionally a phone will go off in class, but usually the student is apologetic and immediately realizes the faux pas. Of course middle and high school students are different than those in a univesrity, but I am optimistic that we can work through the same challenges at the secondary school level.
There should also be some discussion in school policy that administrators can conduct a reasonable “search” of the contents of these devices when there is “reasonable suspicion” that evidence of a violation of school policy is on the device. Schools can’t search these devices whenever they feel like it, but if the search is reasonable and supported by a justifiable need, it could be allowed. There is some debate about this, so be sure to run it by your legal counsel (you can read more about this here. We also discuss it in great detail in our new book.) Either way, the circumstances under which school officials can search student-owned devices need to be made explicit. This will definitely come up, so make sure you are ready. And again, students, parents, and others need to know the standards. If you are an educator in a school that recently opened up to electronic devices, please let us know how it is going (the good and the bad!). If you are a student, we would appreciate hearing your experiences as well.