The way we use technology changes in the blink of an eye, and in few places is this more evident than our schools. Finding the best ways to promote learning through digital means is a challenge all districts must continue to meet head-on.
Only months ago we began reporting on suburban schools issuing tablet devices to students, some on a one-to-one basis. Now a handful of districts are going a step further by allowing students to bring their own technology -- smartphones, laptops, iPads, e-readers -- for use in classrooms.
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But won't that just give kids free rein to browse websites, watch YouTube videos and socially network when they're supposed to be listening in class? The temptation to text or tweet may be too much.
That's not what's happening, say Naperville Unit District 203 officials, where a "Bring Your Own Device" pilot program has shown positive results in engaging students in learning. School board members heard an update on the program last week and plan to expand it. Neighboring Indian Prairie Unit District 204 is testing a similar initiative.
Of the 30 teachers in the District 203 pilot, about 82 percent reported "higher student engagement" and believed students had more learning opportunities. Parents who were surveyed largely agreed. The downsides for them, however, were worries about theft or damage to personal devices and the pressure to buy a device for their child.
Those are valid concerns, and they highlight the fact that BYOD is not something a district should just leap into. For financially strapped schools, it may be tempting to ask students to "supplement" a limited supply of school-issued devices with their own as a quick budget fix.
Even where it appears to be working, local educators have seen bumps, including valuable class time wasted while students try to connect their various devices to the Internet. Moreover, the practice, which has momentum nationwide, is too new to accurately measure whether learning truly is enhanced.
But where teachers can manage classes effectively and know how the devices can support the curriculum, the benefits are clear. Tech maintenance costs are lower, and educational apps can be found for any subject. Most school-age kids have never known life without computers and the Internet, and BYOD programs take advantage of the connection they have to their devices.
The Naperville-area districts are taking the right steps by communicating with parents, training teachers and discussing rules with kids. What's working there might not work everywhere else, at least at this point, and it may be a few years before the "No cellphones" signs come down from more schools. But adeptness with technology is vital to the success of our future workers, professionals and decision makers, and it's incumbent upon every district to consider how to best use it for learning, and then plan accordingly.