Educators and policymakers continue to debate whether computers are a good teaching tool.
But more schools are adopting a more controversial approach: asking students to bring their own smartphones, tablets, laptops and video-game players to class.
Officials at the schools say the students’ devices are the simplest way to access a new generation of learning apps that can, for example, teach them math, test them with quizzes and enable them to share and comment on each other’s essays.
Advocates of this new trend, called “BYOT” for bring your own technology, say there is another advantage: It saves money for schools short of cash.
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Some large school districts in Central Florida and near Houston and Atlanta have signed on, and they are fielding calls and providing tours to administrators from hundreds of other districts that are considering whether to follow their lead.
BYOT has many skeptics, however, even among people who see benefits of using more technology in classrooms.
“The schools are hoping, hoping, there’s going to be a for-free solution because they don’t have any money,” said Elliot Soloway, a computer-science professor at the University of Michigan. “If you look at initiatives in public education, this has the momentum.”
But Soloway also said he was “frightened” by the notion of schools using BYOT as a quick budget fix because there was no evidence that a classroom full of students using different personal devices would enhance learning.
Roy Pea, a professor of learning sciences at Stanford University, also has doubts. He is the co-author of a National Educational Technology Plan published in 2011 that advocates for technology-centric classrooms.
But he said the BYOT approach could be counterproductive if teachers were forced to build lessons around different devices.
“Why are they so happy to have these devices when just a few years ago they didn’t want them in the classroom?” Pea asked about school administrators.
The Volusia County School District in Central Florida, bordering Daytona Beach, used to have signs at its schools that admonished students: No cellphones allowed. The signs have been replaced in the past two years with new ones that read: BYOT.
Volusia school officials say they felt they should take advantage of, rather than fight, students’ connections to their devices. At the same time, the district found that the cost of providing and maintaining computers for students was becoming prohibitive.
Since the change, Volusia officials say, they have not encountered many tech-support problems or complaints from teachers. Rather, students are more engaged, they say, and about the only problem crops up is that students forget to charge the batteries.
“It’s almost like bringing your homework,” said Jessica Levene, manager of learning technologies for the Volusia school district, where 21 of 70 schools are using BYOT. “Make sure you have your device and that it’s charged.”
While district administrators worried initially that poorer students would not own devices, it hasn’t been a problem, said Don Boulware, the district’s director of technology services.
At Woodward Avenue Elementary School in the Volusia school district, fifth-grade teacher Dana Zacharko said she had found apps that allowed her to teach all kinds of subjects. For instance, a recent assignment entailed learning about fractions by using “Factor Samurai.”
A number appears on the screen, and the student is supposed to cut it with a finger — as if slicing with a Samurai sword — so it gets cut into smaller values. Students lose points if they try to slice through prime numbers.
Zacharko will also start class discussion on a reading assignment by asking students to use their devices to write comments in an online forum. “Their typing is amazing on these devices,” she said.
That students in the same classroom can use different devices is not a handicap because they are all accessing the same lessons on the Internet, said Lenny Schad, former chief information officer in the Katy Independent School District near Houston, which started a program with a different moniker: BYOD, for Bring Your Own Device.
“The Internet is the great equalizer,” he said.