Parents and educators face a new challenge in today’s schools: the pervasiveness of smartphones, tablets and other digital devices. Are they disruptive to student learning or an enhancement? Do they increase student safety or provide a new weapon for bullies?

The debate is heating up because a growing number of children have access to digital devices and take them to school. According to a 2014 study of Canadian students, more than 25 percent of Grade 4 students have their own cell phones. That number increases to almost 90 percent when the students reach high school.

Schools have responded with policies that range from outright bans on digital devices on school property to unrestricted access in classrooms. And parents have taken conflicting stands on all sides of the issue.

The Saanich School District started an ongoing controversy recently when it announced that starting in September cellphones and iPods would not be allowed on district school property. Schools across Canada and the U.S. have introduced similar bans and touched off community debates.

On the flip side, other educators have encouraged the use of digital devices as learning tools, unfettered in some cases, and that has also railed parents. When Huband Park Elementary School in School District 71 allowed unsupervised technology time during rainy days, some parents protested.

Many educators have embraced the potential of digital devices to complement the learning experience, just as they once accepted calculators, computers and other technological advancements.

But one thing is clear: digital devices are here to stay and how educators deal with their presence can either enhance or detract from the learning experience.

The policies in place at Comox Valley schools mirror the variety of responses across North America.

Some schools require that phones stay in lockers and can only be used before and after school and during lunch breaks. Other schools take a directly opposite approach, allowing phones in classrooms but banning them before and after school hours and during lunch breaks.

It’s no wonder some parents are confused and rumors light up social media.

School District 71 requires that all students and staff who take personal digital devices to school must sign a Responsible Use Agreement, and renew it annually. The document is similar to policies at most large businesses that provide computer equipment and access to the Internet. You can read it here.

But the district does not dictate to individual schools or teachers how or when students can use phones and other digital devices.

SD 71 Superintendent Dean Lindquist says this question is “Ultimately … left up to the schools/teachers to decide how best to integrate personal devices into their teaching.” He responded via email to a question about district technology policies.

The district has a stringent vetting process for apps and access to web sites, blocking access to specific sites and certain general types of web sites.

“Beyond the Responsible Use Agreement, school building administrators and classroom teachers regulate if and when a device can be used in the school or classroom,” Lindquist said in his email response.

A quick check of the handbooks of several district schools shows that educators are handling the issue quite differently.

High school policies

Students at G.P. Vanier must leave their digital devices turned off and in their lockers during school hours, unless they have teacher permission to do otherwise. Their handbook includes this section:

“I have the right to a learning environment free from distractions such as, iPods, mp3 players, cameras, cell phones, game boys or other personal electronic devices.

“I have the responsibility to keep my personal electronic devices at home or, if I bring them to school, off and secured in my locker during school hours. The only exception to this is when I have teacher permission during the class period.

“Why?

“Electronic devices can be distracting to student learning. Therefore I will ensure that my electronic device is turned off and out of sight during class time unless I have been given permission to use it for educational purposes. I may use them during non-class time (before school, recess, lunch, after school, etc.) unless directed otherwise by a staff member.”

At Mark R. Isfeld and Highland secondary schools, the policy is slightly different. From their handbooks (the wording is exactly the same):

“You are permitted personal phones, but they must be turned off during class time. If you receive calls or messages during class time you could lose the privilege of carrying your phone during the school day. Other electronic devices such as IPods are permitted, but may not be used during class time without permission from the subject teacher. Non-compliance could lead to the requirement that the device remain at home”

Other Comox Valley schools

Cumberland Community School takes a more lenient approach. From their handbook:

“During class time, it is up to the teacher’s discretion if/when personal electronics are being used for educational purposes. We encourage teachers to have students’ access personal electronics to supplement their learning. However, students are not to text, call, message or email for non-educational purposes during class time. When a student is in breach of this they will have their phone sent to the office. For a first offence it will be returned at the end of the school day after meeting with a principal and reviewing the policy. For a second offence it will be returned to a parent when they come to pick it up and the policy will be reviewed with the parent. For a third offense it will be returned to the parent when they come to pick it up and the student will no longer be permitted personal electronics at school.”

And Huband Park Elementary School goes a step further in encouraging the use of digital devices. From their handbook:

“The school recognizes and encourages students to bring their own devices to school.

“Students are allowed to bring cell phones and electronics to school if they are used appropriately and when teachers have directed students to use them. Personal devices brought from home will not have areas blocked. These areas are not to be used by the students on school property, areas such: as Face Book, texting, video camera or camera, games that have shooting, gruesome or graphic images. There will be times when students will be asked to use the camera and video camera for certain projects but this needs to be supervised by the teacher.

“Students wanting to use their devices to communicate with friends and family during the school day must be approved by a staff member. Students will be asked to store personal devices brought from home safely on their person or in their backpacks and coats. The School will not be responsible for lost, stolen or damaged
devices.

“We encourage physical activity and social skills at break times: before school, recess and at lunch time. Therefore, students will be asked to put these devices away at these times.

“Teachers will have the authority to take these devices away from the students if they do not follow these rules. The device will be returned at a later date.”

Some parents and educators argue that phones in schools provide another level of safety for students. In the event of a crisis, such as a shooting or an earthquake, students can contact parents, ambulance services or law enforcement.

There will always be some students who break the rules and, with access to phones during classroom instruction, they can create distractions for other students. But phones can also provide access to learning opportunities that didn’t exist in the pre-digital environment.

Is it better than a student takes a smartphone picture of something a teacher has put on the blackboard, or to go through the process of writing it down?

There are no easy answers to this debate, but there’s no denying that smartphone and tablet technology has changed the dynamic in classrooms.

 

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