Driving to work a few weeks ago, I listened to a completely unsurprising story on NPR. The story, titled “Students Find Ways To Hack School-Issues iPads Within A Week,” highlights the Los Angeles Unified School District’s early challenges in attempting to provide devices to 600,000 students.

Students quickly discovered ways to get around software meant to block Facebook and other sites, with some entrepreneurial students even charging classmates two dollars to hack the iPads. Think students were trying to hack their way into access for better educational apps, games, and websites?  Heck, no!

Most students employ a deeply ingrained practice of using digital devices primarily for entertainment, and this is the paradigm we must chip away at.

The alluring qualities of social media interaction, on-demand YouTube music videos, and taking instagram photos will continue to attract students.  The entertainment factor isn’t going anywhere with mobile devices. In fact, it only seems to become more individualized by the minute.

With that said, I’m still a proponent of thoughtfully integrating a healthy dose of digital devices and open internet access in as many classrooms as possible. But don’t implement one-to-one policies or open cell phone access unless…

1.  All teachers are trained and comfortable with resources, tools, and classroom strategies for using digital tools instructionally. I still have my own struggles in my classes–I have to deal with students seemingly addicted to instagram and Twitter–but I’m trying to encourage their use of cell phones to create reminders and lists, access our classroom Schoology site, and use Google Drive if computers are unavailable. The digitally connected world forces individuals to make constant choices about how to use devices, and I’m trying to provide students with an arsenal of tools.

2.  Teachers and students have meaningful conversations about mindful technology use.  If students are going to better understand how and why they use technology and the effects their own habits have on their productivity and school work, we’ve got to have honest conversations. I’ve had many students admit that extreme multitasking and constantly responding to tweets and texts does inhibit their learning and efficiency, one small step towards becoming more responsible device users.

3.  Students are held accountable if they can’t handle the freedom of being connected. There must be boundaries. If I have students who can’t handle the allure of entertainment, they place their cell phones on my desk for the class period. I also treat headphone use as a privilege, allowing students to listen to music while working on most Fridays. Even though students are often using devices other days of the week, I’ve decided that on most days, the academic tasks at hand are more pressing than being able to work, create a playlist, work a little more, browse Youtube music videos, work some more, etc.

4.  Teachers are ready to engage in constant assessment and evaluation of how effectively the technology use is promoting learning outcomes.  This is true for any lesson, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of using cell phones and tablets in the classroom and being pleasantly surprised with seeming student engagement. If you’re new to implementing technology in the classroom, you’ll soon look out into the classroom and see every student glued to the screen, no matter the task, and think wow, this is great!  I’ve been there, only to realize that a weak lesson plan can seem much better than it is when the iPhones, iPads, and Androids are out.

I expect one-to-one digital device policies to eventually become the norm in schools, and we’re all in the midst of a grand experiment and reworking of the most effective ways to encourage teachers and students to harness the power of digital communication and tools. To do this well, we all must work on helping each other shift the digital device balance a little more from the dominant entertainment paradigm towards continual exploration of the educational promise of the digital world.

What successes and failures have you had with cell phone or tablet use in your classrooms? What advice would you give a teacher or school that is about to implement one-to-one initiatives? Do you think school districts are rolling out one-to-one initiatives too quickly, or is it productive to “jump right in” and troubleshoot along the way?

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