Area schools’ technology policies evolve to embrace cell phones and other devices

By Robin Miller • Last Updated 12:38 pm on Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Once a classroom nuisance, cell phones are becoming educational tools for many schools at the elementary, high school and collegiate levels. However, some school officials still see cell phones as a distraction and have adopted strict rules to keep students from using them during class. — Daily News/Robin Miller

Cell phones and electronic devices — once considered contraband in schools — are now being viewed as educational tools.

But some still believe they are a distraction and a discipline issue.

Following Central Montcalm Public School’s laptop distribution in 2010 and 2011, other schools are headed in similar directions. Greenville Public Schools officials are currently testing smart phones for educational purposes and Vestaburg Community School officials are looking into tablets.

The philosophy behind use of electronics in education is to individualize lesson plans, according to Vestaburg teacher Ben Steele.

“I am really excited about what technology can bring to our students and want to see it happen,” Steele said of the school’s tablet initiative. “It can be used for students who are not quite up to skill for extra practice and remedial teaching.”

Universities embrace, adapt to mobile technology

The issue of whether technologies like cell phones can be used to an advantage is still a hot topic in colleges.

Off-campus college students view lectures via satellite and weekly discussion groups are done on Skype, according to Vestaburg’s Tonya DeVerney, who’s completing her master’s degree online at Michigan State University.

Ferris State University (FSU) in Big Rapids uses similar technology for off-campus learning. There is no overarching cell phone policy at FSU and classroom rules are decided by faculty members.

William Culpepper, assistant professor of the Graphic Design Program at FSU College of Business, welcomes use of cell phones, smart phones, iPads and other forms of technology as part of classroom learning.
“Technology is important to interface and design students (are encouraged to) use these devices,” Culpepper said. “Since our program teaches classes about designing mobile applications and interfaces, it’s important to see how they are actually used.”

Culpepper mentioned the importance of defining the term “cell phone” in terms of educational purpose, as smart phone capabilities exceed those of a regular cell phone. The maturity level of his students demonstrates respect in matters involving personal use of a cell phone, he said.

“I have small class sizes of 14 to 21 students and have never had any problems with students talking or texting during class,” Culpepper said. “During presentations or lectures, I ask students to turn off phones and close laptops to give their attention.”

Mobile One to One

Greenville Public Schools’ Mobile One to One project is equipping a large group of students with handheld technology for use on the schools’ network for educational purposes.

Though texting options have been turned off, the phones are designed to give students the ability to communicate with other students and teachers outside of school and provide them tools, such as Internet access, that they may not have at home when doing homework, according to Superintendent Pete Haines.

The One to One technology provides around-the-clock connection between student and teacher through a Verizon 3G account. Though the account is protected and filtered through the school’s network firewall and protocols, it will allow students and teachers unlimited access to networked resources.

Transition a work in progress

Many schools have specific guidelines which extend beyond the educational purpose of tablets, laptops and most other electronics, including pocket pagers, cell phones, MP3 players, iPads, tablets and CD players.

The Central Montcalm Public School handbook prohibits use of these devices on school property to access and/or view blocked Internet sites. They may be used for educational or instructional purpose (such as taking notes, recording a class lecture, writing papers) with the teacher’s permission and supervision.

Even with rules in place, these mobile devices can be used to cheat during tests, send cyber-bullying messages or play games during study time.

John Kramer, whose stepdaughter attends Central Montcalm Middle School, is concerned about students having phones and laptops in class.

Kramer’s main worries are the ability to access social networking sites and the risk of damage to the laptop. He thinks computer research should be done at school in the computer lab, like when he was a kid.

“I understand kids need to learn computers, but to bring a $500 computer home is a big liability,” Kramer said. “Social networking is like a note-passing machine. It’s counterproductive when kids use Internet access to be on Facebook at school. My wife checked her Facebook and noticed posts that were made by students during school.”

Policies get more liberal

Montabella Junior/Senior High School Principal Shane Riley reported no increase in discipline issues following this year’s change to Montabella’s cell phone policy.

Montabella students previously were required to keep cell phones turned off and in lockers or cars during school hours. New policy allows students to possess them during school and use them in between classes, at lunch and before and after school.

“With the popularity of technology, we looked at the handbook and tried to be fair and still protect students,” said Ivan Renne, a Montabella school board member and school handbook committee member.

Vestaburg Community High School has a similar cell phone and electronics policy, except electronics are not allowed in between classes.

Speaking from experience in his own classroom at Vestaburg, Steele agrees his school’s policy and believes cell phones can be a distraction in the classroom, however, he sometimes allows students to use phones to share pictures with him and allows them to use their mobile devices when it concerns family issues.

Correspondent Robin Miller is an Edmore resident.

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