Get important education news and analysis delivered straight to your inbox
NEW YORK — Amy Thiam, a fourth-grader at Harlem’s P.S. 129, is staring at her cellphone in class — just as her teacher instructed. She’s typing questions about their recent lesson on Native Americans into school software. Later, her classmates will share their questions and they’ll answer them together.
These students in Stacey Nealy’s and Ryann Geldner’s classroom only began using their cellphones in class the day before, in early June, but they had no trouble adjusting.
“We are learning and having fun at the same time,” Amy said, pointing to her Android smartphone. Its bright pink case matches the scrunchy in her hair. “My parents just told me I couldn’t lose it.”
New York City public schools looking for new ways to bring technology into the classroom received a potential boost with the lifting of the cellphone ban in March. The Department of Education (DOE) is now encouraging schools to leverage students’ devices — such as smartphones, laptops and tablets — as instructional tools by asking students to “Bring Your Own Devices,” a program referred to as “BYOD.” It’s part of a national trend of bringing student devices into classrooms. According to a study published by Amplify, a company that creates digital tools for schools, 29 percent of school districts encouraged BYOD in 2014, and another 20 percent had a BYOD program in development.
While the DOE reports that many schools are excited about this new development, there are concerns about fairness. For students who don’t own devices, schools can provide them in the classroom, but those students may miss out on some of the broader benefits of BYOD — such as being able to consistently use the same device both at school and at home. Jackie Patanio, the technology coach at P.S. 16 on Staten Island, which will introduce BYOD in the fall, said her school understands “this isn’t a perfect world where every student will have a device.” To help out those students, she is looking for ways to provide families with opportunities to find refurbished devices or grants that would allow students to take school devices home.
At DOE training sessions for BYOD, the most recent of which was held May 28, teachers have been taught how to use a variety of apps and programs that will work across multiple devices. Lisa Nielsen, the director of digital engagement and professional development for the DOE, said the goal is to give teachers a broad introduction, and then provide follow-up support as the teachers figure out what works in their own classrooms.
“We really believe in empowering teachers with tools so they can do what is best for them” when it comes to lesson planning and classroom management, said Nielsen. “We’ll also learn a lot from the schools that have chosen to do this, and be able to hold them up as exemplars for others.”
While 10 schools participated in the May 28 BYOD training, P.S. 129 is one of the few that decided to implement the program right away, allowing a single fourth-grade classroom to try it out.
“When you look around the room, you don’t see distracted kids, you see kids who are engaged in what they are learning,” said Nielsen. She was on hand at P.S. 129 to observe the first full day of BYOD on June 11, which she said seemed to be going “very well.”
While all students were encouraged to bring technology from home, it was not required, said Alena Gabriel, the school’s technology director. So about half were working from their own smartphones and tablets, and the rest were using school laptops plucked from a laptop cart in the back of the room.
“We were actually surprised at how many students had their own devices,” said Gabriel, who added that the expectation was never for every child to bring a device, but to make the school’s existing technology stretch further.
Getting technology in the hands of every student is one of the main reasons many schools are interested in BYOD, said Nielson, because many schools still cannot afford to buy a device for every student. The students’ devices allow schools to buy fewer of their own and update them more frequently.
That’s the goal at P.S. 16, said Patanio. “Most fourth- and fifth-graders do have their own devices,” she said. “We just have to learn how to harness that, and teach our teachers how to use those tools in the classrooms.”
Patanio will introduce BYOD in the fall in four fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms. Over the next several weeks, she will train the teachers who have volunteered for the program, in the same way she was trained at the district-wide sessions. But Patanio said she plans to give teachers plenty of room to experiment, so that they can use the devices in ways that best fit their own teaching styles.
“I want my teachers to feel comfortable to try something new and not feel that they are going to be penalized if they fail,” she said. “I want them to take a risk, and then have the students see that and try something new as well.”
Related: Blue-collar town leads Rhode Island’s tech-assisted learning revolution
That kind of open mindedness is essential to the success of a BYOD program, said Tim Clark, the director of learning innovation at SAFARI Montage, a company that produces instructional technology.
“Because not every kid has the exact same device, teachers have to go from ‘everyone make this specific thing’ or ‘do your research in this exact way’ to giving more open-ended instruction,” he said, adding that, while it’s often hard for teachers to give up control of their lessons in that way, it is the best way for students to learn.
“I know I’m not going to be using my smartphone in the same way that I’m going to be using my tablet, and learning the right tool for the job is one of the biggest things students need to learn,” he said. “Teachers need to be comfortable allowing students to figure that out on their own.”
Clark said one of the main benefits of BYOD is that it allows a consistency between schoolwork and homework — students can save their material onto their devices and continue the work at home.
Patanio also sees this as a huge draw.
“I don’t want to limit this to the building,” she said. “When they are on their way home, they can do their assignment. When they are at home, they can research in the same way we taught them in class. I want it to be fluid — the home-to-school connection where schooling is continuous.”
At P.S. 129, that fluidity is important, said Ryann Geldner, a special education teacher at the school. The fourth-grade class using BYOD has a mix of gifted and talented students and special education students, which presents unique challenges that Geldner said BYOD can help solve.
“If one of the students doesn’t finish an assignment, they might be able to take their phone to the library during lunch and finish then, or take the program home with them and get caught up there,” she said. “It lets students take the time they need, instead of feeling rushed because of the limited time students have to access school computers.”
Although P.S. 129’s BYOD program has launched in only one classroom, and P.S. 16’s will launch in only four, as the program grows and more schools adopt it, they will have to plan for the additional stress on their wireless networks. Clark said schools should begin to think about this future step at the beginning stages of planning.
“A lot of teachers and schools skip this step,” he said. “But you have to think about bandwidth and a security structure that allows all of the students’ devices to safely access the Internet.”
Nielsen said the DOE has planned for this, and that during BYOD training teachers are taught how to monitor bandwidth and how to request an upgrade if necessary. While schools must “make a case” for such an upgrade, she said, BYOD schools will likely be prioritized.
Another school-wide change necessary to accommodate BYOD programs is an updating of “acceptable use” policies — the disciplinary codes that govern how technology can be used in schools.
Related: What it actually takes for schools to ‘go digital’
Clark said that such behavior codes don’t need to involve “teachers being Big Brother in the classroom, looking constantly over shoulders,” as some might expect.
“Just like in a face-to-face classroom without technology, you are going to have students who are distracted and off task,” he said. “A lot of teachers think it will be worse with technology, but it usually isn’t. Once teachers I work with get past that initial hurdle, they realize having devices out is more normal than they expect.”
Clark believes schools can use these behavior policies as a way to teach students how to use technology appropriately.
“You have to help students learn when to turn the devices off and have a conversation,” he said. Without such policies, “we are allowing kids to develop their own rules, rather than nurturing responsible use in the classroom.”
Such policies can also help reduce the anxiety parents might feel about their children taking phones and tablets to school. Because parents did not grow up with technology in the classroom, Clark said, they will want to see “success stories” of students using technology more responsibly and appropriately.
Patanio said P.S. 16 parents “had a knee-jerk reaction to say ‘no’” when she first presented BYOD, “because they associated it with off-task behavior.” She thinks that parents will be more positive about the program once they see its success in the four starter classrooms at the beginning of the school year.
P.S. 129 faced similar parent hesitation. “Parents were initially very concerned,” said Principal Odelphia Pierre. “But I think our tight rules on phones help make them feel more comfortable. Now we find that parents are really excited about what their students are doing.”
In Geldner’s classroom, students put their phones in a bin when they come in, and then the bin is locked in the closet. Students are only allowed access to their devices when they are needed for classwork.
Amy said her parents were “really happy” about the rules.
“They were worried I was going to lose it or break it,” she said, exiting her keyboard and leaning over to show her tablemate her question. “But now it’s fine, because they know about the bin.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about technology in the classroom.
At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.
By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.