Tacoma schools launches pilot program to use cell phones in class




Posted on December 17, 2013 at 7:02 AM

TACOMA, Wash. -- When a teacher asks a question in class, he may just ask students to text him the answer.

It's part of a growing movement in school districts across the state:  to allow students to use their own cell phones and mobile devices as part of the curriculum.

As soon as students step into Mason Middle School in Tacoma, the signs remind them that cell phones need to be turned off and put away.  But in 7th grade Language Arts, the teacher tells the kids to do just the opposite.

"I want you to take your phone if you have it. Take it out,” Mario Penalver told his students in class Monday. He is using the personal mobile devices to teach kids about advertising.

Penalver has his students look at an ad on the overheard projector, and then gives them instructions.

"Find out what audience is being used, what audience this ad is speaking to, and then text your answer,” said Penalver.

The kids text their answers to a specific number, and the answers immediately appear on the overheard projector for the entire class to see.

The 30 day pilot program called "Bring Your Own Device" allows kids to use technology they already own as an added tool in class. Students who do not own a cell phone are given school issued laptops to use in class.

"The obvious advantage is everybody can get access to this stuff really quickly,” said Penalver. “In fact in some cases students go faster than I am when it comes to getting up and running with a program.”

"I think it's fun because usually we have to put them away, and it helps because you can go online and do surveys, or like reading is more fun,” said 7th grader Ashley Dawson. “It's different using a device.”

But the American Civil Liberties Union is taking a closer look at the program because of concerns over students privacy rights. In the permission slips sent home to parents it says the school reserves the right to search any device is misconduct is suspected.

"Personal devices have so much private information on them,” said Jamela Debelak, Technology and Liberties Director for the ACLU, which published a manual explaining students rights when it comes to personal electronic devices.

"In general we think that any broad grant of rights for schools to search a device under any circumstances would be too great,” said Debelak.

Debelak says the organization has contacted the Tacoma Public Schools district to discuss its policy and to get more information.

The district is still reviewing the policy and the program, but generally says searching a cell phone if wrongdoing is suspected is no different than searching a notebook or a locker.

"We could use their notebook, or something like that,” said Michael Farmer, Instructional Technology Director for Tacoma Public Schools.” It's just another tool they have for learning. There's nothing explicit about it being an electronic device.”

The district also points out that having mobile devices in class also gives kids an opportunity to learn about rules and responsibilities in a digital age.

When the pilot program ends in January, the district will decide whether to implement something similar on a larger level. The program required no specific funding except the time it took staff to research and implement it, since it uses devices already owned by students in class.