The three primary motives for early European exploration were God, gold and glory, teacher Mark Walter told his freshmen Honors World History class at Egg Harbor Township High School on Thursday.

“What do you think was the main reason?” Walter asked.

Not one student raised a hand to answer, but almost all quickly tapped out an answer on their smartphones. As they finished, the results popped up as a bar graph on the electronic white board at the front of the room.

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Long banned as distracting, a few local schools are instead embracing student-owned smartphones and tablets as tools that can enhance education without tapping school districts’ budgets. School officials said the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” philosophy has resulted in fewer disciplinary actions since students don’t want to lose the privilege of being able to use their phones during lunch or between classes.

“If you had asked me a few years ago, I would have said we’d be crazy to do this,” said Thomas Normile, principal of Pinelands Regional High School in Little Egg Harbor Township, which instituted a “bring your own device” — or BYOD — policy this year. “Now that we have it, I don’t know why we weren’t doing it before. Once we explained the parameters and the responsibility that came with the right to use their phone in school, discipline problems actually went way down.”

Mainland Regional High School in Linwood was the first in the area to begin a BYOD policy last year. The Emma C. Attales School in Absecon is in its second year of a pilot project and is developing a BYOD policy for seventh- and eighth-graders.

“The concern is always discipline and kids misusing them,” said Attales Principal Andrew Weber. “But the students don’t want to lose the privilege, so we’ve really had no problems.”

Recent surveys have found that students are actually ahead of their teachers in their use of handheld technology to do schoolwork.

A November survey by the Verizon Foundation found that while a third of middle school students are using mobile devices to complete homework, two-thirds cannot use a tablet in the classroom, and 88 percent are not allowed to use their smartphones in class.

Attales eighth-grade English teacher Barbara Horner, who piloted the school’s project, said she added smartphones last year for special projects, but this year she is using them for almost everything. She posts class assignments and notes online for students to download either on their phone or at home on a computer.

“They have more of the responsibility to get the material, but I’m saving a lot of time that used to be spent making copies and handing out paper,” Horner said. “And this is their life. This is how they do things. I do think eventually we won’t need books.”

Horner’s students started a recent class using their phones to find and then discuss a current event. The lesson for the day was on the book “Tuesdays with Morrie,” which a few students have in e-book form. Students scanned a QR code to get the assignment: “Identify a theme in the book, and find an abstract object or image that demonstrates the theme. Then write a poem on that theme.”

“It has to relate to the book,” Horner warned them as they began Googling “greed,” “love” and “forgiveness.” “Do not take the easy way out.”

After class, she said she is concerned that students rely too much on technology, so she stresses it is a tool, not a replacement for their own thinking.

“They are so used to just getting answers on Google,” she said. “I don’t want to enable them. I want them to think first.”

Principals said they are moving slowly toward integrating BYOD into the classroom, letting teachers take the lead. Schools also must have the wireless capability to handle the usage.

“Teachers are assessing their comfort levels,” said Egg Harbor Township High School Principal Terry Charlton. “No one is pressured to use it in class. And this is also teaching students how to use technology responsibly. If they abuse the privilege, they lose it.”

Using phones to cheat on a test or take potentially embarrassing photos are among the concerns of having hundreds of students roaming a school armed with with smartphones. The 2012 McAfee Teen Internet Behavior Study found 16 percent of teens surveyed admitted cheating on a test by looking up answers on their phones.

Students at Egg Harbor Township High School said some teachers are strict about not wanting to even see phones in class and others are more lenient. Jena Lasewicz, 14, said she’s used hers to look up a word using a dictionary app or as a calculator for math, but most of her teachers are not integrating them into lessons.

Walter said quick online quizzes give him instant analysis and feedback on what students are missing and what he should review. He used the results of his survey to introduce a PowerPoint project on the screen, which would also be available for students to download on their phones.

“If a student is absent or just wants to review, they can access it themselves at home,” he said.

Honors U.S. History teacher Stephen Schweizer let his sophomore class use their phones to comment on court decisions during their study of the Bill of Rights. Using Poll Everywhere, students texted their views, which appeared on a screen in front of the room. Those texts spurred additional class discussion, and students said they loved doing it.

“We can all say our opinion without having to wait and take turns,” student Anna Nammor,cq 15, said of the texts.

“It’s anonymous, so you can say what you really feel,” added Katelyn Garthaus, 15.

“And sometimes you want to say something, but you are not confident enough to say it out loud,” added Towsif Nasor, 15.

While allowing students to use their own devices can save a district money, accommodations have to be made for those students who don’t have smartphones or tablets. Teachers and students said they will share with a friend or use a classroom computer, and so far it has not been a problem.

“I can still get the work on a computer at home, or here,” said Egg Harbor Township student Andrew Katapodis, 15.

And for those who wonder how students can work on that tiny screen, some admit they prefer a larger one for school assignments. Absecon eighth-grader Dawson Kuhn, 14, has both a phone and a tablet, which he uses to take notes and write.

“I like the bigger screen,” he said.

Contact Diane D’Amico:


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