Some school systems are doing their best to encourage students to use handheld devices and laptop computers, but the Washington County (Md.) Board of Education is considering prohibiting students from using such technology during school hours.

On August 21, a divided school board gave preliminary approval to a policy that would prohibit students from displaying or using any “portable electronic communication devices.” The category includes beepers and cell phones, but members also said it could include laptop computers and handhelds, also known as personal digital assistants (PDAs).

Board members who support the proposed rule said such devices are a distraction when used by individual students. Handheld computers can beam messages back and forth, they said, and laptops can be used for eMail. But educational technology advocates say the policy goes too far.

If the board’s policy wins final approval, Washington County would join a growing collection of school systems that have taken steps to ban students’ use of personal communications technologies, despite arguments that the devices have educational merit.

Wired News reports that, according to International Communications Research, 23 percent of teens say their schools forbid them from bringing in Palm Pilots or other handheld computers. The figures point to a “lack of agreement on whether the devices stimulate learning in the classroom or detract from it,” Wired said.

Washington County’s policy would be in effect from the time students board school buses or arrive at school until the school day is over. The devices also would be banned during any school-sponsored transportation for athletic games and field trips.

The proposed policy calls for violators to face disciplinary action and confiscation of their equipment.

Ron Peiffer, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Education, said other school systems appear to be relaxing restrictions on computers. Howard County Public Schools, for example, is taking steps to incorporate PDAs into instructional programs.

The policy under consideration in Washington County “kind of runs counter to what seems to be a statewide trend,” Peiffer said.

Bill McKinley, the school system’s executive director for support services, said he believes the policy is intended primarily to target cell phones and pagers. Currently, Washington County bans cell phones and pagers from school property at all times.

McKinley said the policy could be changed by the board before final approval. If it does not mention handheld or laptop computers specifically, it would be up to principals to decide whether either device was being used “appropriately,” he said.

Board member Doris Nipps said she hopes principals would use common sense, and that students would not be disciplined for using handheld planners or laptops for educational purposes.

Board member Edward Forrest said the proposed policy was prepared after polling principals on their thoughts about the devices being used in school. He said of the 20 or 30 who responded, most felt that the devices should be permitted on school property provided they are turned off during the school day.

But the board’s president, J. Herbert Hardin, said the board should also seek advice from teachers and students. “I don’t think we’ve done our homework,” Hardin said.

Board member Paul Bailey called the issue an “administrative nightmare” for principals, and he suggested student governments might help make sure the policy is followed.

At least one student council member was willing to take on the responsibility.

“I would be more than happy to police any policy the board of education makes, as long as it’s a fair and just policy,” said Nathan Kennedy, vice president of the Washington County Association of Student Councils.

Kennedy, who is also president of the North Hagerstown High School Student Council, said he believes pagers and laptops should be banned but that cell phones could be useful for emergency situations. Handheld planners, meanwhile, can offer educational and organizational benefits.

Educators at nearby Howard County Public Schools say that although cell phones and pagers have little educational value, laptops and handhelds can be instrumental in assisting teachers.

Howard County schools use Compaq’s iPaq handheld devices for instruction in one of their high schools as part of a pilot project with Mindsurf Technologies.

“Instructionally, the wireless devices have made a big difference in the way teachers are teaching and students are learning,” said Richard Weisenhoff, educational technology coordinator for Howard County Public Schools. “I think in the future more schools will be encouraging the use of handheld and laptop devices.”

Because high school students in Howard County are permitted to use the handheld devices, certain policies have been adopted to ensure that kids remain on task.

Although it’s possible for students to use their iPaqs to beam notes back and forth, Weisenhoff said, “we use software that allows teachers to monitor what is on the screen.”

The proprietary software from Mindsurf allows teachers to see exactly what the students are doing.

“The teacher can send out an assignment, and while the students are working on it, she can monitor what is going on,” he said. “That way, if a student is not on task, the teacher can instant-message that student in a nonconfrontational, private way and ask, ‘Is something wrong, and can I help?'”

Even educators in school systems without large-scale deployments of handheld computers wonder about the effectiveness of a sweeping ban on communications devices.

“I disagree with [Washington County’s proposed] policy as a whole, but I believe there should be policies that govern the use of all kinds of technology,” said Marc Liebman, superintendent of the Marysville Joint Unified School District in California. “However, districts need to be careful about throwing out the baby with the bath water.”

Marysville’s internet policy focuses on appropriate use.

“If there is to be a policy on other technologies—laptops, pagers, cell phones, PDAs, et cetera—then it should be specific to appropriate use rather than just a blanket policy that will ban all use,” said Liebman. “I can find both good and bad applications for every type of technology.”

How can school systems control the use of personal technologies in classrooms where teachers are not equipped with software that monitors the work being done on the devices?

According to Liebman, teachers can do the same kinds of things with portable computing devices that they already do with paper and pencils, textbooks, and written tests.

“In all cases, there will be violations by a few and compliance by many,” he said. “The way to make sure that technology is used well is to make the work relevant and interesting and at the same time focus on the personal skills of integrity, responsibility, and honesty.”

“Proper discipline and accountability can be the best deterrent,” agreed Maribeth Luftglass, chief information officer for the Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools. “Banning valuable tools for all students because of the behavior of a few is not productive.”

The Washington County school board, on a 5-2 vote, approved the first reading of the proposed policy at its Aug. 21 business meeting. A second, final vote on the policy was scheduled for September. The board announced plans to seek additional staff and student comments before the second reading.

Links:

Washington County Public Schools
http://www.wcboe.k12.md.us

Howard County Public Schools
http://www.howard.k12.md.us

Marysville Joint Unified School District
http://www.mjusd.k12.ca.us

Fairfax County Public Schools
http://www.fcps.k12.va.us