In many schools and districts nationwide, teachers are experimenting with the use of cell phones in the classroom, even where official school policies still prohibit student and teacher cell phone usage. At the direction of their teachers, students are being polled via their cell phones to provide their teachers with spot assessments on content knowledge and to collect and report data from science labs and field trips. Project Tomorrow is working with a project in North Carolina that is effectively using smart phones to extend learning beyond the school day with remediation-math video games (see story). Within that project, the students are peer mentoring each other by exchanging photos of how they worked through their polynomial equations. Most notably, the teachers in this project say their teaching practice has changed forever as a result of using this technology.

Despite what the Common Sense Media report notes about the ineffectiveness of cell phone policies at schools, students in our focus groups all across the country continue to complain about the rules and regulations that prohibit cell phone use at their schools–and the extraordinary means their school administrators and teachers are taking to protect the sanctity of test taking in this digital world. In many schools, cell phone collection boxes are now standard equipment in the typical classroom. Assistant principals in high schools are redefining their jobs as cell phone inventory managers, rounding up cell phones they see being used by students during the day and returning them at dismissal.

One innovative school in Maryland last year decided that it had more important educational tasks to worry about and tried a new cell phone policy, with great results. The school provided its students with an open internet café at lunchtime where the students can use any of their mobile devices to communicate, connect, or collaborate with peers–cell phones, smart phones, laptops, PDAs, MP3 players. The students understand that this mobile device “free time” is a privilege that requires them to keep the devices under cover during regular class time. Not only has the new policy eliminated the cell phone police routine, but administrators report that lunch time is now suddenly a quiet, orderly period. Most importantly, the students feel that their administrators respect their ideas, understand the value they place on using these devices, and are willing to address their needs.

The fact is, today’s students approach all aspects of learning differently because of technology. The Speak Up survey data shed new light on that topic each year. However, occasionally–as with the Common Sense Media report–educators and researchers want to roll back the clock and superimpose pre-digital-era techniques or learning approaches as a way to avoid the inevitable march of time.

During a recent focus group, some high school students told me how their English teacher was concerned about plagiarism from the internet, and so she told her students that their next assigned essay must be written in longhand. For these students, who have grown up writing with the power of editing at their fingertips, this new requirement seemed not only archaic but counterproductive. The students approached the assignment like every other, using their favorite word processer to write and edit their essay electronically as they have done for years. They then went through the tedious, time-consuming task of rewriting the electronically constructed essay in longhand to meet the teachers’ expectations. And while the teacher falsely felt that she had successfully nipped plagiarism in her class, her students gained a much different perspective on her competencies as a 21st-century teacher.

The conversation about academic integrity and values, and the use of emerging technologies within learning, is vitally important for students, teachers, parents, and the media.  While we at Project Tomorrow do not condone or encourage cheating or unethical behavior, we do not believe that these new technologies have enabled or empowered student cheating, no more than we believe that advancements in medical research have provided Major League Baseball players with the impetus to cheat with performance-enhancing drugs, or innovations in software designs have enabled business leaders to defraud their companies and investors. The sad fact is that people, including students, will cheat with or without technology.

What we have learned from the Speak Up project is that today’s students are looking at the use of technology for learning–and, in fact, the role of school in their learning lives–through a digital lens that is very different than the lens most of us bring to this discussion. We hope our insights about the context and perspectives of students have helped to advance this discussion, and we look forward to continuing the conversation with all education stakeholders through the Speak Up blog at http://speakupblog.tomorrow.org or via twitter @SpeakUpEd.

As we noted in our national data release in March, today’s students are functioning as a digital advance team for the rest of us, adopting and adapting these new technologies for increasing productivity beyond our expectations. Let’s take this opportunity to engage our youth in a new discussion about how to effectively, and appropriately, leverage these emerging technologies to reach the real goal we all are striving for–ensuring that all of our students are well prepared to thrive, compete, and contribute in tomorrow’s world.

Julie Evans is the chief executive officer of Project Tomorrow, which administers the national Speak Up survey on education and technology.

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Measuring 21st-century skills resource center. Graduates who enter the workplace with a solid grasp of 21st-century skills bring value to both the workplace and global marketplace. Go to: Measuring 21st-century skills