Schools taking steps toward allowing personal technology

Jul. 20, 2013 @ 06:28 PM

Baton Elementary School principal Jason Teffeteller knew he had to do something.

His students had just returned from the 2012 winter break and they were all bringing their holiday presents to school. Kindles. iPhones. Nooks.

At first, the school had no definitive policy on what technology students could or couldn’t bring.

Years before, when Teffeteller was a middle-school principal, the policy on cellphones – which were just becoming ubiquitous – was “no.” By the end of each day, Teffeteller always had a row of blinking and beeping cellphones on his desk. One by one, they’d light up with texts from other students at the school. He’d walk down the hall to collect those cellphones, too.

But later, at the beginning of the spring semester at Baton, Teffeteller’s thoughts on technology at school were changing. If students were told to read silently, he thought, did it really matter if they were reading on their Kindle?

“I didn’t want to tell kids not to read when they had it,” he said. “I needed a way to introduce it to teachers that it was okay to have it there if it was used the right way.”

Teffeteller sent an email to teachers, then in late January a letter to parents. Students would now be allowed to bring their phones, tablets and other Internet-enabled devices to school, he told them. They’d only be allowed to use the devices at teacher-authorized, designated times, he added, and the school would not be liable for anything lost, damaged or stolen.

Just like that, Teffeteller had gone from a middle-school principal with a line of phones on his desk to an advocate of bring-your-own-technology, a policy gradually growing in popularity – and one the Caldwell County Board of Education may make official within the next month.

“I started to really understand that those phones are going to come to school,” Teffeteller said. “It’s more a question of how you manage it than how you stop them from coming.”

The technology tides are turning, and not just at Baton. Across the country (and the district), younger and younger kids are using technology – and bringing their devices to school.

At the same time, more educators are seeing educational value in emerging technology. Students can use tablets or smartphones to download educational apps, or use them for what Caldwell superintendent Steve Stone calls “quick discovery” – as a teacher is lecturing, students can use smartphones or tablets to quickly look up words they don’t understand.  

Some districts have taken steps toward outfitting students with loaner devices, usually iPads or other devices.

But providing those devices can be pricey. It’s sometimes a simpler first step to encourage a “bring your own technology” (or BYOT) policy.

Several schools across the district, including Baton, have implemented formal or informal BYOT policies. And last Monday, the Caldwell County Board of Education took a step toward making it an official policy to encourage kids to bring their technology to class.

The new policy, officially titled “Responsible use of personally owned devices,” would make it the district’s official policy that students are allowed to bring their personal devices with them and connect to the Internet over the Caldwell County Schools’ filtered wireless network.

“We can’t always have the most top-of-the-line computers,” Stone said. “But they have one in their hands.”  

The district policy would apply to “all existing and emerging technological devices that can take photographs; record audio or video; input text; upload and download media; and transmit or receive messages or images” during the school day or during any time students are “engaged in instructional activities on school grounds.”

Students would be required to access the Internet through the district’s filtered wireless network and wouldn’t be permitted to use 3G/4G networks or to create a wireless hot spot using their mobile devices.

The district's network currently blocks most social networking sites, but that’s a point that's constantly under review, Stone said. For example, he said, sites like YouTube may eventually be unblocked because of the educational value they can provide.

The policy was presented for a one-month public comment period, and the school board will vote on it at its next meeting August 12.

At Baton, use of the devices for any structured educational purpose has been sporadic so far, Teffeteller said. Each teacher in the school has an iPad, but not every student owns an Internet-equipped device, and even those who do don’t necessarily bring them every day.

But when a teacher tells the class to take out a book and read, he said, you’ll often see two things: Students cracking open paper books, and students firing up their tablets.