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Joe Henderson Columns

Henderson: Welcome to the 21st century, school board

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Published:   |   Updated: September 12, 2013 at 10:45 AM

For years, the Hillsborough County School District’s policy for cell phones in the classroom has been simple: If we see it, or if we hear it, we take it.

But a world where students can fit a library into a device the size of a wallet presents new challenges and opportunities for teachers and students. So the decision Tuesday by the school board to move toward allowing students to bring smart phones, iPads and other computing devices into the classroom, with teacher approval, is probably overdue.

“It’s a natural progression to bring them in during school time,” said Sharon Zulli, the district’s manager of technology.

Or, as Chairwoman April Griffin said, “We’re not going to fight it. If you can’t beat ‘em, join 'em.”

Students today don’t absorb information the way their parents did. Younger teachers are coming into the system with different methods than their veteran counterparts. But even though I like this move, there are a lot of “what-ifs” as the board firms up its new policies on this.

A not-so-hypothetical situation: Student sticks his iPad in his backpack and forgets it’s there. He leaves the backpack unattended, and the iPad takes a walk.

Current policy says the student is responsible for his own stuff, but that was also written to cover a period when electronics weren’t allowed in the classroom. I can hear the howls now from parents who just had their little darling say, “Daddy, I have no idea what happened to that new iPad you gave me last week for my birthday.”

Or, a student leaves a class where he could use technology, but it isn’t allowed in his next one. But he can’t resist fiddling with his brand new phone and the teacher confiscates it, sending it to the office. The phone winds up missing. Who is responsible?

And there is the obvious issue where a student is supposed to be researching material for lessons on his phone but spends the class time texting his girlfriend instead and gets caught. What happens then?

“This is change,” Griffin said. “Change can be uncomfortable.”

Having said that though, I’m all for this.

As these devices become cheaper and more powerful, students will be able explore their classes in much more interesting ways than opening their books to Chapter 6 and half-listening to another lecture. With increasingly sophisticated software, students will be able to solve problems in ways that couldn’t have been dreamed of even a decade ago.

Zulli drove that point home dramatically to open her presentation to the board.

“Twenty-five years ago when I was working for an elementary school, we bought some of the first computers in the district. The computers cost almost $2,000 apiece and they probably weighed 50 pounds or more. And if they even connected to the Internet or the world, there were probably cables galore and that noisy phone modem we all remember,” she said.

“At that point there was no consideration to children bringing them to school. They would have had to have a flatbed of sorts. It just wasn’t even feasible. That was then.”

Then she held up a tablet.

“This is today. This device weighs less than a pound and costs only $129. In this device are more books than I could ever read, more websites than I could ever research and more opportunities than we could ever imagine.”

So, yes, there will be issues – probably some no one has considered. Progress can come with potholes, but it does come. And my only real complaint is that none of this stuff existed when I was in school. I might have done better.

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