Mobile Computing

Are Cell Phone Bans Worth the Trouble?

While many districts see personal mobile devices purely as distractions, many educators are embracing their potential as learning tools.

Cell Phones

A year ago, cell phones weren't permitted in Garland Independent School District (TX) buildings during the school day. The first time a principal or teacher caught a student with a phone, the student could pay $15 to get it back or talk a parent into coming and picking it up. The second time, there was no choice: The parent had to pick up the phone and pay the fine. Garland was not alone in frowning on phones. According to a 2013 Project Tomorrow survey, 32 percent of districts had policies prohibiting the use of personal mobile devices by students. That same survey, though, showed that attitudes were shifting. In 2010, 25 percent of principals said they were likely to allow or already allowed students to use personal mobile devices in school; in 2013 the number was 51 percent.

Over time, Garland's executive director of technology Jim Hysaw came to agree with the 51 percent. Why? Because he faced the stark reality that his district couldn't keep students from using their cell phones at school — even if it wanted to. So, like districts across the country, Garland had to answer the question: Would it adapt or would it continue to fight a losing battle? That question led to more (and more difficult) questions: If you're ready to lift the ban on student devices on your campus, how do you do it and what will the consequences be?

Teaching Responsible Use

Alice Owen can't believe anybody is still debating the use of technology such as phones in schools. In her former job as head of technology for Irving Independent School District (TX), Owen saw at first hand just how many students brought cell phones to school, despite a longtime ban that called for phone confiscation and fines. She also saw how much time was wasted trying "to discipline all the kids all the time."

Owen, who is now the executive director of the Texas K12 CTO Council for the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), said that, in the face of ubiquitous cell phones, the district convened a committee of administrators, who also got input from parents, students and teachers. "We talked about letting kids bring them, and they could certainly use them in passing periods and before and after school and in the lunch room."

When it came to classroom use, the phone decision was left up to the teacher. The high school had a 1-to-1 program going on, and when students forgot their laptops, teachers often allowed students to use phones as substitutes. According to Owen, some instructors embraced phone usage; others didn't. At least one teacher tried a group project: Students from different classes were put into teams and "forced" to collaborate via their phones or laptops. This collaboration included texting with their partners in class. "By legitimizing that or giving a purposeful reason to text a person, then the kids are [learning] responsible use," Owen said. On the flip side, teachers "really need to set clear expectations of appropriate use up front, just like the rules in your classroom. And I think most kids will abide by them if they know what the rules are."

Owen believes that the district’s policy has been a success. "It freed up the administrators from being so punitive about it all the time,” she said, “when we really needed to be teaching kids how to be responsible with the tools they're going to learn to use as adults."

At the private Westwood Schools where "Cool Cat Teacher" Vicki Davis teaches and serves as IT director, a BYOD policy is coupled with a strict device rule: A student’s phone must be off from the moment he or she enters the building until the moment a teacher asks for it to be used in a class. Scofflaw phones are put in "detention" for five days. “We have four in detention right now,” she declared.

The restrictions are designed to help kids remember that their job is to be a "professional student," Davis said. "I've found, in my own experience, if they start the school day in a school frame of mind, then they're going to be in a school frame of mind. If they start the school day playing games or doing something off task, that's another thing."

Davis cites work by researchers such as Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who has found that once a person is distracted, it can take something like 23 minutes to get him or her back on track. Davis added, "You can't control when people text you. Your pocket vibrates and you just want to look at it. That gets you off task." The best approach, she believes, is to "make friends" with cell phones and help students learn how to integrate them into life.

Testing Your Network With a Secret Pilot

According to Hysaw, the only reason the Garland ban lasted so long was because the network infrastructure couldn't handle BYOD. The district has never had full funding for a wireless network, so it has built its capacity piecemeal. Over the years, Garland schools have gone from putting access points down the hallways to placing one AP for every four classrooms, then “slowly but surely” moving to one AP per two classrooms. Hysaw added that the cell phone ban was always a campus-based decision, and most principals never really enforced it.

Last year, with support from school principals, the IT department decided to test how well the district’s WiFi could support student device usage, so Hysaw opened up the network without telling students. One day a new guest network just appeared on students’ phones. Of course they logged onto it, and when one student posted news of his discovery on a social media site, the usage abruptly doubled. By March of this year, the guest network was averaging 13,000 to 14,000 users, out of a student population of about 58,000. "We really had a yearlong pilot," Hysaw laughed. "The kids got onto the network, and we tracked the usage. It didn't overwhelm what we were doing."

Only two problems really surfaced during the pilot. One was students building their own private hotspots with their phones and choosing names for them that weren't publicly acceptable. Whenever IT came across an inappropriately named hotspot, they'd simply shut it down, not even bothering to say anything to the offender. After all, the guest network was still supposed to be a secret.

The other difficulty occurred during an online testing pilot at the district. Hysaw said, “The kids were just slamming the wireless network, so we had to choke down the bandwidth to make it work just okay. That way we could let the testing go on." When the testing was over, the network was restored.

Overall, Hysaw saw very little misuse, so he feels "pretty good" about the pilot. He uses Cisco Identity Services Engine to authenticate and define network access. Only staff, faculty, students or BYOD students are allowed access to the filtered Internet, which is managed with ContentKeeper so that the district is compliant with Children's Internet Protection Act regulations.

Now that the board of trustees has approved new BYOD guidelines, Hysaw can come clean about his experiment. Even so, he has no intention of encouraging students to use their cell phones at school. He is leaving that decision up to the curriculum department, principals and teachers. Meanwhile, he is planning for the day when the district puts a 1-to-1 program in place. “I'm the construction team,” he said. “I built the road, I set the speed limit. I built a whole bunch of lanes. I don't have quite enough lanes for 1-to-1, but I have enough lanes to keep us going until we make the decision.”

Should an upcoming bond issue pass, Hysaw confirms that he's ready to add more lanes to Garland's bandwidth highway. "If you can build the infrastructure, and you can be device-agnostic, then you just need to get with the teachers, get with the principals, and let them tell you they're either ready for it or not,” he said. “And when they're ready, then you need to be."

3 Tips for Teaching With Cell Phones

Connect Via WiFi: On the first day of school, Vicki Davis has her class play a game with Kahoot! or Socrative, which requires students to connect their devices to the school's network. That way, she can make sure they're not using data from their families' plans or spending money they don't need to spend. And when students are on the network, they're behind the school firewall so their surfing is filtered.

Work the Room: Davis said classroom management is crucial to managing cell phones. That requires having the "language in place" to handle each aspect of usage: "This is what I'm going to say when they get them out. This is what I am going to say when they turn them on. This is what I'm going to do if I catch them off task…." And since students do go astray, she likes to have them all facing outward in a circle so she can stand at one point inside the ring and see all of their screens at one time. Then, she added, "You have to very quickly catch it the moment somebody is off task and deal with it."

Mind the Sign: Although middle school science teacher Philip McIntosh banned cell phones from class this year, for the new school year he's trying something different that will actually be in place for all mobile devices, whether they're student-owned phones or school-issued iPads. Over the summer, he built four portable traffic lights for himself and his three team teachers. Now, when a student walks into class, the teacher will have a warm-up exercise posted on the board. If the traffic light is red, "then make sure no one sees your personal device." An amber light means that the device may come in handy but it's not necessary. If the light is green, the teacher expects the student to use his or her device in order to complete an assignment.

Letting Teachers Decide

According to its official policy, Academy School District 20 (CO) allows its students to carry "electronic communication devices" as long as they're approved by the school's principal and are turned off and put away during class time. In reality, the district pretty much leaves it up to the teachers to decide whether phones can be out during class. Philip McIntosh, a seventh-grade science teacher at Challenger Middle School, said, "We're encouraged to use technology wisely." Students get a lot of practice with mobile devices, since the school’s 1-to-1 program gives them access to iPads in school and at home.

McIntosh said that the “vast majority” of teachers at his school have a no cell phone policy, but his team had been "pretty lax" because they wanted to give the kids some freedom. But last year, he said, "We just got tired of trying to monitor it. They're so attached to those devices, it got to the point where they felt like it was their right and privilege to do whatever they wanted with it at any time, without any respect for what anybody else thought they should be doing." After four or five interruptions caused by the phones during every class session, McIntosh realized the quickest solution was to ban phones in class. "And,” he marveled, “all the problems were solved." (Students can still use their phones in the halls and during lunch.)

When the ban was put in place, "there was some minor grumbling, but not nearly so much as you might expect," McIntosh recalled. He blogged about the decision and “never heard anybody saying it's a bad idea." In fact, some students even thanked the teachers for banning phones. "If they were working in a group with someone else that had a personal device," he explained, "instead of being part of the group, they'd stop every three minutes and check their Twitter feed instead of being actively focused on what we were trying to do in class."

Who’s on the Phone?

According to a survey published in Project Tomorrow’s "The New Digital Learning Playbook," the following students have personal access to cell phones:

  • 89% of high schoolers
  • 73% of middle schoolers
  • 50% of elementary students in grades 3 to 5 
  • 21% of elementary students in grades K-2

McIntosh has only had two students defy the ban. In both instances, he said, “I took the phone away for the rest of the day and they came and picked it up on their way home after school. And I said, 'If it happens again, you have to go to the principal to receive it. If it happens again after that, your parent has to go pick it up from the office.' It never really gets that far."

While McIntosh is relieved that the ban has made his students less distracted, he sounded wistful, too. "It's no fun to constantly be hassling people about their cell phones," he said. "There's no joy in it."

Setting Goals and Refurbishing Your Teaching

Julie Evans, the CEO of Project Tomorrow, has spent her career consulting with school districts about their use of technology in the classroom, and she has learned two major lessons. First, there has to be a "very clear understanding" of what's to be derived from the use of devices. "I see way, way too many times where districts are making big investments on the devices or walking down the road of letting kids use their own devices, but they don't really have a clear plan of what they want to accomplish by integrating those devices into the classroom."

Second, teachers can't overlay devices on top of existing lesson plans. "You actually need to re-engineer your lesson plans, how you approach instruction, even how you have your class set up to really take advantage of the features and functionality of the devices," she asserted. If "kids were bored before with the way you were teaching, they're still bored,” no matter what device they’re using. “The difference now is they have a device that could be more compelling and interesting to them."

Evans is convinced that strong pedagogy trumps mobile devices’ potential to distract students from the task at hand. "If you change the way you're teaching and incorporate the devices into instruction — the teachers tell me, the kids tell me — they're way too busy learning to do that kind of stuff."