If there is one thing that the mobile-computing era has made clear, it's that kids love touch screens. Because those touch screens — smartphones, iPads, Kindles and the like — are an inevitable added distraction to the classroom, schools across the country are struggling to deal with the growing prevalence of the technology.
But a growing number of schools are embracing these hand-held, Internet-ready devices by creating policies that put them to use in the classroom.
For three years, Oyster River Middle School in Durham, N.H., has been letting students use their touch-screen devices in class. The kids learn how to make presentations on iPads, how to keep track of their homework on a smartphone, and what they should and shouldn't post on social media sites. The devices can be their planners, agenda books, and pocket reference libraries all day long.
Dave Montgomery, a fifth-grade teacher, says his daughter goes to another school that has no bring-your-own-device policy. At home, she uses her smartphone to look things up all the time, he says.
"Then she walks into what's supposed to be a learning environment, and she can't use her No. 1 source of learning," Montgomery says.
Of course, so-called BYOD policies come with their own concerns, says Matt Woodward, the director of technology at a middle school in Hooksett, N.H. His school district is rolling out a bring-your-own-device policy districtwide this year.
"The one concern we heard a lot was: What if my son or daughter doesn't have a device?" Woodward says.
There's never an easy answer when it comes to equity, he says, but Hooksett does keep a number of extra iPads at school for students who don't have one. While bringing your own device is seen as a cheap way to bump up the access to technology in the classroom, schools still have to make a significant investment in technology.
Hooksett parent David Pearl, who is also on the school board, worries that all these devices could create discipline problems.
"I have seen the thumb turn of the iPod, where you're looking at one screen and the teacher says, 'What's on that screen?' " Pearl says. "And as the student turns the iTouch, you just slide your thumb across the bottom and the screen changes."
Pearl says he worries about safety, too — whether the school's network is secure and well-filtered, and what happens if kids take and share inappropriate pictures. He also worries about distraction.
At Oyster River, where kids have been bringing their own devices for three years, seventh-grade science teacher Janet Martel says students will get distracted if their teachers let them get distracted, the same as it's always been.
"One of the big things is engaging kids in the classroom," Martel says. "If kids are engaged and they have a specific task, they're not apt to be out searching for other things, because they can't."
She says allowing the devices has actually decreased discipline issues.
Several teachers interviewed for this story say a combination of allowing devices, and setting aside times where texting is OK, has led to a dramatic drop in "pocket texting" or "sweatshirt texting" in class.
They also say teaching good digital citizenship in classes is what is really needed to head off issues like posting embarrassing photos, or cyberbullying.
Oyster River teachers like Dave Montgomery acknowledge that figuring out how to make class work with 10 different kinds of devices can be tough.
"You get really frustrated," Montgomery says. But, he says, "you have to work with it, because going back's not really an option anymore."
Allowing mobile technology in class has an "inevitable march of progress" feel to it, like when calculators were first allowed. And in classrooms around the country, this change is already occurring.