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Schools put cellphones to work in classroom
Cellphones put to use

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

By BEN R. WILLIAMS - Bulletin Staff Writer

The youth of today are seldom found without their cellphones, even while they’re in school. But rather than fight the inevitable, Martinsville City and Henry County schools have decided to embrace it by turning cellphones into teaching tools.

“We are carefully implementing it,” said Pam Heath, superintendent of Martinsville City Schools. “We’re still in the piloting stage, but we anticipate that our formal policies will evolve in that direction.”

Cellphone technology is everywhere, according to Heath. “We’re not going to make it go away. We need to accept it and emphasize responsible use,” she said.

In the high school classes that are a part of the pilot program, the cellphones are used in two ways.

First, students with smart phones are allowed to use them as research tools. Smart phones generally are defined as cell phones that can download and run specialized applications, such as web browsers.

In the second instance, cellphones can be used as a “personal response system.” Teachers are able to go to the website and set up a free, private chat room. The web address of this chat room is then given to the students.

The students can use the chat room to submit questions, answer questions or make comments about the lesson.

According to Heath, some students are more comfortable using a cellphone application instead of pencil and paper.

“Today’s students are digital natives,” Heath said. “They have never known a time without technology, and for them, it is environmental.”

“In cases where we’re allowing them to use phones educationally, we are finding fewer discipline problems with phone use,” she added.

Although the cellphone pilot program is going well, Heath said steps must be taken to ensure that economically disadvantaged students have equal access to the technology.

“The issue that most concerns me about using cellphones is the resource gap between students who don’t have cellphones, or students who have cellphones but not smart phones,” she said. “We don’t want their lack of access to inhibit their learning.”

She is not concerned, however, that advancements in cellphone technology would make it easier for students to cheat.

“Knowledge is everywhere,” she said. “If we’re asking questions so easy that students can find the answer instantly on a cellphone, then we’re not asking the right questions.”

The key, Heath explained, is that teachers must ask questions that require critical thinking instead of rote memorization.

Another oft-cited danger of cellphone technology in the hands of minors is the issue of “sexting”: sending sexually explicit text messages or photographs. Heath said those problems are “very rare,” and to date, no such incidents have occurred on the school grounds.

“What few issues we have dealt with, the behavior has occurred outside of school, and then we find out about it at school,” she added.

There are dangers inherent to any new technology, but “just like we teach our kids not to talk to strangers and teach them how to behave, we have to teach them to use technology responsibly,” Heath said.

This begins with lessons on Internet and cellphone safety that start in elementary school. Students also are encouraged to report any online or cellphone harrassment, bullying, threats, illegal activity or other violation of the code of student conduct.

Amy Scott, coordinator of student services at Henry County schools, said similar programs are in place in Henry County. As in Martinsville, the phones can only be used for instructional purposes. Outside of teacher-directed lessons, the phones must be silent and out of sight.

Janet Copenhaver of the information technology department of the Henry County Schools said cellphones are used in limited teacher-directed exercises and for safety’s sake, there were many restrictions.

“Cellphone usage is beginning to be the big buzzword in education now,” Copenhaver said. “It’s very new.”

As a result, “You need policies in place. There are a lot of restraints, a lot of things you really have to work through,” she said.

Once usage regulations are firmly in place, there is talk of eventually moving to a BYOD, or “Bring Your Own Device” policy, Copenhaver said. This policy would allow students to not only use cellphones for instructional purposes in class, but also laptops and tablet computers such as iPads.

According to Copenhaver, many school districts already have made moves in the BYOD direction, including Virginia Beach and Spotsylvania County.

Although advancing technology offers many wonderful classroom opportunities, Copenhaver’s focus remains on using it wisely.

“You just have to make sure they’re safe, no matter what device they’re online with,” she said.

Additional information contributed by Kim Buck of Martinsville City Schools.


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