Handheld devices and laptop computers are now seen as essential school supplies for students from coast to coast–but many schools have only just begun to take the steps necessary to obtain the educational benefits the devices can provide while blocking their potential for inappropriate text messaging, photo swapping, cheating, and chatting.

In the heart of Silicon Valley, Calif., Palo Alto High School junior Anna Luskin freely uses her cell phone between classes. Senior Sean Slattery taps notes into his personal digital assistant (PDA) as his teachers give lectures.

And like many other students, senior Stav Raz has memorized her cell phone keypad so she doesn’t even have to look at it while quietly sending messages to friends during class.

Nearly a third of American teenagers now carry cell phones. And an estimated 7 percent of school districts, according to the U.S. Department of Education (ED), now provide some students with handheld computers or PDAs, thanks in many cases to corporate grants.

Students who bring their own PDAs to school today mostly use them as organizers and notepads. But many newer models have wireless internet access, making it ever more difficult for teachers to detect students exchanging gossipy notes or test answers.

If schools haven’t addressed the PDA issue yet, “it’s something they’ll have to wrestle with in the next couple of years as students bring more of these kinds of gadgets to schools,” said John Bailey, ED’s director of educational technology.

Handheld devices remain verboten in most classrooms, but that doesn’t mean students aren’t quietly tapping away under their desks.

Palo Alto High is ahead of the curve. Its school board updated its computer policies in June to include PDAs, basically allowing their use as long as they don’t interfere with class.

“They’re common-sense restrictions,” said Chuck Merritt, Palo Alto High’s assistant vice principal.

When Slattery, the Palo Alto senior, first got his PDA a year ago, teachers told him to put it away whenever they caught him playing games on it. Now, he says he uses it only for taking notes and keeping track of assignments.

He knows he is lucky, because most other schools in the high-tech region and elsewhere aren’t so lenient.

“It’s not that we discourage technology here, but we want the kids to not be distracted either,” said Alice Pearson, an English teacher at East Dubuque High School in Illinois. Pearson herself uses a PDA from PalmOne to stay organized.

About 10 percent of the 600 East Dubuque students carry PDAs, said Joe Ambrosia, the district’s technology coordinator.

Though no formal policy exists, teachers there generally apply the same rules they have for computers: no exchange of information between devices, and no personal eMail or chatting unless it’s part of a class exercise.

When East Dubuque does consider a PDA policy, Ambrosia said he’ll want to ban the combination cell phone-PDA models.

“It shouldn’t be so easy to have all these other functions at their fingertips,” he said. “It’s hard enough to keep a young teenager on task.”

California and Illinois are among only a handful of states that have lifted campus bans of cell phones and pagers, which date back to the 1980s when the devices were considered the tools of drug dealers, not of soccer moms and their kids.

A few states now let school districts set their own cell phone policies. Some have decided to keep bans in place; others restrict usage to before or after school.

Schools are adapting in other ways, too.

Some teachers configure student seats in a U-shape instead of rows, for easier monitoring of computer screens. They set rules on when laptop screens can be up or down (most have as yet to take tablet PCs–which need not be “up”-into account). They listen for keyboard taps, knowing that if a student is typing a mile a minute during a lecture, the youngster is probably sending someone a message rather than transcribing the teacher’s remarks.

And cell phones that ring in class are often confiscated until school’s over.

Schools also have strict rules for when students can use their powerful graphing calculators, which are often required for advanced math classes. Newer graphing calculators have better memory, creating more possibilities for cheating.

In addition, vendors of educational software have responded to the cheating potential-for instance, Scantron Corp. makes a quiz program for PDAs, called Classroom Wizard, that automatically disables the device’s infrared beaming function.

Still, policing the use of these devices “is a new skill in terms of teachers knowing what to do,” said Cari Vaeth, principal of Independence High School in San Jose, Calif., which issued laptops last year to the entire class of 1,000 sophomores.

Bard Williams, who has published two books about handhelds in schools for the International Society for Technology in Education, said one of the worst decisions schools can make is to issue an all-out ban on the devices. As educators, he said, teachers are required to prepare students for their future–and in today’s world, that includes the proper use of technology.

Instead of hurriedly banning the devices, Williams recommends that schools promote responsible use and sound technology etiquette to kids who use them.

“This teaching of technology etiquette really mirrors what we have seen with the internet,” Williams said. “This is not a fad. It’s a long-term commitment.”

See these related links:

International Society for Technology in Education
http://www.iste.org

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov