The Tide Is Turning on Mobile Devices in Schools

Is the smartphone's value as an educational tool greater than its potential to distract? Increasingly, school districts and educational groups are saying it is.

Smartphones were once seen as a major nuisance for schools, but that time may be ending.

Bans on mobile devices—often seen as a common tool for bullying or plain distraction in schools—are starting to fade out, with New York City reportedly looking at lifting the ban for its estimated 1.1 million students, according to The New York Times.

I think the horse is pretty much out of the barn in general.

So what changed? To put it simply, they became too ubiquitous to ignore. According to a 2013 Grunwald Associates study [PDF], more than half of all high school students bring smartphones to school with them every day. The study was sponsored by the Learning First Alliance, a group of 16 education associations and unions that includes the American Association of School Administrators (AASA). AASA Executive Director Daniel Domenech suggests that schools universally allowing the devices are becoming more common than ever.

“I don’t think it’s going to be very long before it becomes very standard,” Domenech told The Times. “I think the horse is pretty much out of the barn in general.”

Other reasons behind the shift:

Becoming part of the educational landscape: We’re in an era where tech devices are becoming essential tools, rather than opportunities to goof off or gossip, and when they’re used as tools, parents generally give the practice a thumbs-up. According to the Grunwald study, more than half of all parents wish schools used mobile devices more in educational contexts. Just 17 percent of K-12 schools do so, the study states.

Mobile’s growing safety value: In some school districts, administrators have found ways to turn the devices into safety tools, rather than the opposite. Anne Arundel County, Maryland, for example, launched an app in 2012 that can be used to report bullying concerns or safety risks—something that drew a positive response from the National Association of School Resource Officers. On top of that, school officials are seeing mobile devices as increasingly important for team collaboration and parent communication during crises.

Trying different management approaches: With teachers becoming more accustomed to the devices in school, they’ve learned ways to handle the distraction factor better. In a 2013 resource article, the National Education Association recommended that teachers keep an eye on students using cellphones in the classroom when they’re using them for classwork. The association even recommended that teachers allow students to stream music while doing classwork. “It’s amazing,” ninth-grade teacher Ken Halla says. “The noise level in the classroom goes down, and the work amount goes up when you let them listen to their music.”

Sure, the distraction issue still arises—and is one of the things NYC is grappling with as it tries to change the policy. Some organizations, like Generation YES, recommend taking the opposite approach—deeply integrating the technology so students learn how to use it as a tool, rather than a distraction.

“Did kids never doodle in the columns of their textbooks and always pay rapt attention to their teachers?” Sylvia Martinez, a former president of Generation YES, asked The Times. “Blaming the cellphone or laptop for kids being distracted is kind of silly.”


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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