The nation’s largest school system, New York City, is among those that have abandoned strict bans, which had some students paying $1 a day to store phones in specialty trucks parked nearby before heading into school. Mayor Bill de Blasio fulfilled a campaign pledge when he lifted the ban in 2015, saying it would help parents stay in touch with their children.
Phones have offered a lifeline between students and the outside world during recent school emergencies. As a gunman rampaged through Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14, students used cellphones to text their parents, call 911 and to record and share their horror.
A ‘learning tool’
The survey numbers released last week don’t surprise Liz Kolb, an education technologies professor at the University of Michigan who has studied cellphones in schools since around 2004. At that time, phones were off limits in virtually every district, she said. That began to change as more students, as young as age 10, began carrying them.
“We’ve seen a lot of schools say, well, I’m not going to fight the tidal wave of parents coming at me that are upset that their child can’t have the cellphone in school,” Kolb said.
There are teachers who have found that having the cellphone is like having a computer in your pocket, so it’s a way to have another learning tool at the disposal of the children that isn’t necessarily costing the district more money.
–Liz Kolb, education technologies professor
Teachers also are taking advantage of the technology at a time when many districts are spending millions of dollars to give students access to tablets or laptop computers and their countless academic apps and programs, she said.
“There are teachers who have found that having the cellphone is like having a computer in your pocket, so it’s a way to have another learning tool at the disposal of the children that isn’t necessarily costing the district more money,” she said.
Students might download a dictionary app for English or use Google Translate in foreign language classes. Other apps, like Kahoot!, connect to the classroom’s smart board and allow students to compete in educational trivia.
Still, some school districts are moving in the opposite direction. The school board in Mansfield City, Ohio, last year tightened its policy, requiring the devices be turned off and out of sight in classrooms unless the teacher says otherwise.
“The cellphones were a distraction,” Superintendent Brian Garverick said. “When you have a device with the capabilities of an iPhone, for example — and it’s not just in our district, it’s everywhere — you see an increase in cheating, you see an increase in texting during class.”