Phones, Tablets, and Laptops in Class: Distracting or Enriching?

In a conversation about the state of education in Texas today, it takes less than three minutes for one word to crop up: technology.

When students bring gear like smartphones and iPads in their backpacks, should they be locked in lockers, hidden under desks, or brought out openly in class?

A panel discussion with three award-winning teachers Friday as part of the Texas Exes’ 19th annual Conference on Texas Excellence in Education took up such questions. Evan Smith, CEO and editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune, led the talk.

“We’re in a situation where 12 is the new 18 in terms of the technological sophistication,” Smith said. “These are digital natives.”

Sharme Ridley, a writing workshop teacher who won the Texas Exes Award for Outstanding Teachers in 1998, opened things up by admitting she was reluctant to allow personal computing devices into what had for so long been a pen-and-paper discipline.

Having moved to Peachtree City, Georgia, Ridley said she now teaches in a pilot “Bring Your Own Technology” classroom.

Teachers post signs instructing “Devices Up” or “Devices Down.” Instead of hitting students with a PowerPoint when she wants to present them a new concept, Ridley asks them to look it up on their devices. Instantly, she says, they all engage.

“Instead of fighting our students with the technology,” Ridley said, “we’re trying to embrace it and gently guide them to use devices in an effective way.”

In McCallum High School’s algebra and statistics classes in Austin, instructor Richard Cowles said he’s resourcefully collected 10 computers so that each student in his classroom can have access to a desktop. Using statistical software, he said, the students can get through three or four times as many data sets as they would have by hand.

And his students today are more comfortable with the statistical software than students were even six or seven years ago, Cowles added.

Panelist Connie Ramos, who leads a college prep program at San Antonio’s Earl Warren High School, had more mixed feelings about technology. For many of her students, she said, a roundtable discussion still works best.

Ridley and Cowles added caveats. The individualized technology often spurs her students to personal interaction, Ridley said; when an online editor tells students they have a clause issue, the students will then come up and ask their teacher about clauses.

“The technology can’t replace understanding,” Cowles added. He makes sure his students know how to perform a calculation by hand before they are allowed to do it on a calculator.

The two-day teaching conference, sponsored together with UT’s College of Education and Office of the President, allowed dozens of past and present teaching award winners to come together and share ideas through workshops and discussions.

Top: Connie Ramos (left) and Sharme Ridley. Below: Evan Smith. Photos by Jeff Heimsath.




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