Amy Thiam, a fourth-grader at Harlem’s P.S. 129, is staring at her cellphone in class — just as her teacher instructed. She’s typing questions about their recent lesson on Native Americans into school software. Later, her classmates will share their questions and they’ll answer them together.
These students in Stacey Nealy’s and Ryann Geldner’s classroom only began using their cellphones in class the day before, in early June, but they had no trouble adjusting.
“We are learning and having fun at the same time,” Amy said, pointing to her Android smartphone. Its bright pink case matches the scrunchy in her hair.
New York City public schools looking for new ways to bring technology into the classroom received a potential boost with the lifting of the cellphone ban in March. The Department of Education now encourages schools to leverage students’ devices — such as smartphones, laptops and tablets — as instructional tools by asking students to “Bring Your Own Devices,” a program referred to as “BYOD.” It’s part of a national trend of bringing student devices into classrooms.
According to a study published by Amplify, a company that creates digital tools for schools, 29 percent of school districts encouraged BYOD in 2014, and another 20 percent had a BYOD program in development.
While the city's education department reports that many schools are excited about the new development, there are concerns about fairness. For students who don’t own devices, schools can provide them in the classroom, but those students may miss out on some of the broader benefits of BYOD — such as being able to consistently use the same device both at school and at home.
Jackie Patanio, the technology coach at P.S. 16 on Staten Island, which will introduce BYOD in the fall, said her school understands "this isn't a perfect world where every student will have a device." To help out those students, she is looking for ways to provide families with opportunities to find refurbished devices or grants that would allow students to take school devices home.
At a May 28 training session for BYOD, teachers were taught how to use a variety of apps and programs that will work across multiple devices. Lisa Nielsen, the director of digital engagement and professional development for the Department of Education, said the goal was to give teachers a broad introduction, and then provide follow-up support as teachers figure out what works in their own classrooms.
“We really believe in empowering teachers with tools so they can do what is best for them” when it comes to lesson planning and classroom management, said Nielsen. “We’ll also learn a lot from the schools that have chosen to do this, and be able to hold them up as exemplars for others.”
While 10 schools participated in the May 28 training, P.S. 129 was one of the few that decided to implement the program right away, allowing a single fourth-grade classroom to try it out.
“When you look around the room, you don’t see distracted kids, you see kids who are engaged in what they are learning,” said Nielsen during a recent observation visit.
While all students were encouraged to bring technology from home, it was not required, said Alena Gabriel, the school’s technology director. So about half were working from their own smartphones and tablets, and the rest were using school laptops plucked from a laptop cart in the back of the room.
“We were actually surprised at how many students had their own devices,” said Gabriel, who added that the expectation was never for every child to bring a device, but to make the school’s existing technology stretch further.
Getting technology in the hands of every student is one of the main reasons many schools are interested in BYOD, said Nielson, because many schools still cannot afford to buy a device for every student. The students’ devices allow schools to buy fewer of their own and update them more frequently.
That’s the goal at P.S. 16, said Patanio. “Most fourth- and fifth-graders do have their own devices,” she said. “We just have to learn how to harness that, and teach our teachers how to use those tools in the classrooms.”
Patanio will introduce BYOD in the fall in four fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms. Over the next several weeks, she will train the teachers who have volunteered for the program, in the same way she was trained at the district-wide sessions. But Patanio said she plans to give teachers plenty of room to experiment, so that they can use the devices in ways that best fit their own teaching styles.
“I want my teachers to feel comfortable to try something new and not feel that they are going to be penalized if they fail,” she said. “I want them to take a risk, and then have the students see that and try something new as well.”
She saw one of the main benefits of BYOD is the consistency between schoolwork and homework — students can save their material onto their devices and continue the work at home.
“I don’t want to limit this to the building,” she said. “When they are on their way home, they can do their assignment. When they are at home, they can research in the same way we taught them in class. I want it to be fluid — the home-to-school connection where schooling is continuous.”
At P.S. 129, that fluidity is important, said Ryann Geldner, a special education teacher at the school. The fourth-grade class using BYOD has a mix of gifted and talented students and special education students, which presents unique challenges that Geldner said BYOD can help solve.
“If one of the students doesn’t finish an assignment, they might be able to take their phone to the library during lunch and finish then, or take the program home with them and get caught up there,” she said. “It lets students take the time they need, instead of feeling rushed because of the limited time students have to access school computers.”
Although P.S. 129’s BYOD program has launched in only one classroom, and P.S. 16’s will launch in only four, as the program grows and more schools adopt it, they will have to plan for the additional stress on their wireless networks.
Tim Clark, the director of learning innovation at SAFARI Montage, a company that produces instructional technology, said schools should begin to think about this future step at the beginning stages of planning.
“A lot of teachers and schools skip this step,” Clark said. “But you have to think about bandwidth and a security structure that allows all of the students’ devices to safely access the Internet.”
Nielsen said the department planned for this. During BYOD training teachers were taught how to monitor bandwidth and how to request an upgrade if necessary. While schools must “make a case” for such an upgrade, she said, BYOD schools will likely be prioritized.
Patanio said P.S. 16 parents “had a knee-jerk reaction to say ‘no’” when she first presented BYOD, “because they associated it with off-task behavior.” She thinks that parents will be more positive about the program once they see its success in the four starter classrooms at the beginning of the school year.
P.S. 129 faced similar parent hesitation. “Parents were initially very concerned,” said Principal Odelphia Pierre. “But I think our tight rules on phones help make them feel more comfortable. Now we find that parents are really excited about what their students are doing.”
In Geldner’s classroom, students put their phones in a bin when they come in, and then the bin is locked in the closet. Students are only allowed access to their devices when they are needed for classwork.
Amy said her parents were “really happy” about the rules.
They were worried I was going to lose it or break it,” she said, exiting her keyboard and leaning over to show her tablemate her question. “But now it’s fine, because they know about the bin.”