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Michaud: Instead of banning cellphones, schools should teach responsible use

If we use it to teach students to

If we use it to teach students to approach the digital ocean of information with skepticism, the risks of BYOD will be well worth it. Credit: Paul Tong

On a recent morning, my eighth-grader grabbed her cellphone as she was leaving for school. In my house, this calls for an explanation. She told me in a rush: "We can use them in art class. We listen to music, and we look up images."

With that, she was gone.

This is a big change from two years ago, when her teacher summoned me to the school to personally retrieve my daughter's phone. He had confiscated it after she was caught with it a second time.

Cellphone bans in school are widespread. A friend told me about a deli that makes a good living holding cellphones for kids while they are in school, for $1 a day. Kids want their phones, and schools want them phone-free. At least, that's what the rule seemed to be until the other morning at my house.

A couple of days later, I received an email from a publication called Education Week, saying that it would be hosting an online chat with two school administrators who were deploying BYOD -- bring your own device. It appears that my daughter's teacher is not alone in inviting technology into the classroom.

One of the first to try it was the Forsyth County School System in suburban Atlanta, which allows students to use their own Wi-Fi-capable devices, such as iPods, Kindles and iPads. Students use them to take notes, conduct research, produce videos and access online apps. Here in New York, my daughter is taking photos of an art project as it progresses.

It sounds chaotic -- and potentially exclusionary for kids who don't have any D to BYO. That can lead to envy and, worse, unequal opportunities to learn. Each school district must judge those perils for itself. The Oak Hills district in Ohio works with a local vendor to provide low-cost refurbished devices for kids who don't have them.

With that caution in mind, BYOD seems like an amazing opportunity to reach kids where many are already -- in front of a screen -- and help them explore the promise and dangers of our digital age.

First, the dangers. Students could be accessing inappropriate content online. But this could happen outside of school as well. Forsyth has set up a Wi-Fi network that works like one in a coffee shop, with filtered Internet access.

Another danger: Students can use devices to look up test answers and commit other creative cheating. According to Education Week, the George C. Marshall High School in Fairfax County, Va., came up with color-coded zones, where different cellphone use is allowed. A green zone might be the cafeteria, which indicates general and open use. In blue zones, like classrooms, the devices are permitted for instruction only. In yellow zones -- hallways and non-BYOD classes -- devices must be silent and out of sight. And red zones mean devices are strictly prohibited; usually, these are test areas.

Might BYOD contribute to cyberbullying? That's possible. But, more optimistically, having the devices on students' desks might spur a classroom discussion of appropriate "digital citizenship." What are inbounds behaviors when you're online? What's polite? What's safe? What won't come back to bite you in 15 years when your employer-to-be performs a search on your name?

That's one promise of BYOD. But the greater good will probably come when a teacher throws out a question and the class works together to research the answer. That's a lesson in collaboration. It's dynamic and engaging, and it offers invaluable lessons for students about which online sources are reliable.

My daughters' teachers tell them not to trust anything on Wikipedia. Frankly, I think Wikipedia is usually pretty credible. It's some of the other stuff -- conspiracy theories and gossip -- that's more treacherous.

If we use it to teach students to approach the digital ocean of information with skepticism, the risks of BYOD will be well worth it.

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.