Published: 8:24 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 6, 2011
Starting this semester, some Eanes school district elementary students will be asked to write book reports as short as a Twitter message 140 characters or fewer. And an Eanes middle school principal is lifting the ban on cell phones for eighth-graders.
No, it's not Armageddon — though the principal did joke that the thought of giving middle school students access to cell phones during the school day was initially frightening to some.
Carl Hooker, Eanes' instructional technology coordinator, said the changes are among the forward-looking innovations the district is testing to bring more technology into the classroom.
Eanes is among districts across the country that are embracing technology ubiquitous among today's youngsters — smart phones, PC tablets and anything else that keeps "Generation Net" constantly plugged in to online social networks. The Austin district expects to deploy 20,000 netbooks by spring break, and many area district libraries check out iPads to students who receive lessons on "digital chalkboards."
Some private schools, including the Khabele School in downtown Austin, have put laptops on the school supply list. But Eanes is among the first public districts encouraging teachers to make use of tech that has often been forbidden, such as cell phones and social media, particularly in the early grades.
"There's a lot of collaboration and communication" among teachers, administrators and technical staffers in this pilot stage, Hooker said. "I really wanted to bring an openness to it, but we also need to be sure we are spending our money wisely. As a result, we've really tried to create an environment where people feel comfortable piloting things on a small scale. And if they work, then we look at expanding."
West Ridge Middle School Principal Karl Waggoner said his decision to end the longtime ban on cell phones for eighth-graders was prompted mostly by "having a group of teachers brave enough" to test it out last semester, while the rest of the school adhered to the rule that cell phones be turned off and left in lockers.
The move is quite a departure from the student conduct policies at other middle schools. In Austin, using a cell phone during the school day can result in its confiscation. Austin officials said it will consider whether to change the rule this year.
Waggoner said about 80 percent of students bring a cell phone to school anyway, and most others have one at home. "I think a lot of schools are looking for ways to truly reach students where they are," he said. "Certainly, we have computers and smart (chalk) boards, but when you think about what's growing in the palms of their hands — it's their cell phones."
West Ridge's new cell phone privileges come with several rules, Waggoner said. The phones must remain on students' desks in silent mode and can only be used for purposes allowed by their teachers, such as adding tests to calendars, texting an answer to a question asked in class or using the Internet for research.
Students are still expected not to send or receive calls or unauthorized texts at anytime during the school day, he said.
Waggoner, an iPhone user, said his appreciation of the device as a tool for research and organization played a part in his decision to allow their use.
"Would I have done it without using it myself? Probably not," he said. "Technology is scary and it freaks people out. But what I've found is if you get in and start driving it, you lose that fear, you gain confidence and you start using it as a tool."
Don Knezek , the CEO of the Oregon-based International Society for Technology in Education, said, "This opening up of school networks to nontraditional applications and devices is clearly a trend that's gaining momentum."
Knezek, who also is an advisory board member of the South by Southwest Interactive Conference on technology in education that is being held in Austin in March, added: "I think schools are becoming much more aware that they can't just outlaw these things and that, in fact, it's now their job to help teach kids how to use them responsibly."
In using new technology, Knezek said, teachers are finding that different types of students are becoming more engaged. Teachers using wiki groups for online discussions have often discovered that a whole different group of students lead discussions than in the classroom.
"We're finding girls, in particular, are much more participatory in those settings," he said.
At Eanes' Forest Trail Elementary School, reading specialist Alyson Collins will be asking her third- and fifth-grade students to write book reports this semester in 140 characters or fewer. She said the students — who all signed up for private, anonymous Twitter accounts last semester — will be asked to tweet on computers as part of a lesson on how to summarize.
"I was brainstorming on how to use more technology in the classroom, and that's where Twitter came in," Collins said.
Of course, students are still writing traditional book reports, Collins said, but by employing Twitter in this case — as opposed to the old technique of using Post-it notes to get students to summarize an idea — Collins is taking advantage of the excitement that using social media has with today's students.
"Some have already seen their parents use it or even had access to their own personal accounts, but getting to do it together at school has been very exciting for them," she said. " If it's something they're excited about and engaged in, then it's a great avenue for teaching traditional skills in an innovative way."
The new technology comes with new responsibilities, Hooker said. Teachers who use social networking with students need to be trained on what's considered appropriate behavior. Changes to the Texas Educators' Code of Ethics that address electronic communications with students took effect last month.
Collins said the Twitter exercise also has not only gotten her students talking with one another about books they have read, it also has led to conversations about using the Internet and social media responsibly — something that parents and teachers are realizing they need to do more of as young students spend more time online.
At Forest Trail, parents had to sign releases before students could use Twitter. The student accounts were set up so that they would only be allowed to tweet with one another. Collins said the students have been instructed in what's appropriate to share online — they all use pseudonyms — and were also told to ignore requests from "followers" they did not know. West Ridge parents signed forms saying they had read and understood the new cell phone rules.
Hooker said allowing students to use their own cell phones is only the first step in a new initiative the district is planning on rolling out with laptops in the next few months called "Bring Your Own Technology," something the Bastrop district is also considering.
If students can bring some of their own equipment to school, Hooker said, the district might be able to save on those costs. However, that idea brings up questions about access and questions about whose network students will use and how secure that network will be, he said.
"Again, like everything we're working on, it's something we want to start out slow on and then scale it out real thoughtfully," he said.
Several parents wanted assurances that students who don't have cell phones would not be required to get one and that such students would have access to alternate modes of participation in social media-related activities.
How the school will be able to keep students on task — and from texting one another — remains unanswered. The effect all the additional usage will have on parents' cell phone bills is another issue.
"There is, no doubt, going to be some bumps and tweaks as we go to scale," Waggoner said of the coming semester. "But gosh — if we were so afraid of those bumps and those tweaks that we decided never to even try, well, we'd never get anywhere."