For years, schools have banned the use of cellphones in schools.

But today some schools are cautiously embracing smartphones as a student-friendly technology that can enhance lessons at little or cost to schools.

“This is their life,” said Barbara Horner, an eighth grade language arts teacher at the Emma C. Attales School in Absecon.

She shared student projects at the 15th annual “From My Classroom to Yours” technology conference Wednesday sponsored by the Southern Regional Institute & Educational Technology Training Center, or SRI & ETTC, at Richard Stockton College.

The all-day conference offered workshops on a variety of technology, from Smart Boards to online programs such as the virtual-dissection program Froguts. Patricia Weeks, director of the SRI & ETTC said a major advantage to smartphones is that students already know how to use them.

“The teachers are interested in integration, how to use the technology to improve the lesson,” Weeks said. “With a smartphone or tablet they don’t have to teach the students how to use the technology itself.”

Speakers stressed that no matter how cool the technology, it is still only a tool, not an end in and of itself.

“It’s not about the iPad, it’s about how you can use the iPad to enhance the lesson,” said Kathleen Fox, curriculum coordinator for the Brigantine Public Schools, which got a cart full of iPads this year. She and teachers Melissa Knoff and James Wilkinson discussed applications they are using in their classrooms, including a Macbeth app that included a family tree and a social studies app on presidents.

Wilkinson, who teaches science, said teachers have to make sure they focus on the lesson, and not the app.

“Kids treat it like a game, and it keeps their interest,” he said. “It’s up to the teacher to keep them focused.”

Horner said using the smartphones have given students the freedom to explore and challenge themselves beyond the lesson.

“It’s really an empowerment for them,” Horner said as she showed slides of photography projects, and instant quizzes she has used with her eighth-graders as part of a pilot project. She said students got parental permission to bring their phones to school, and a special wireless router was installed in her classroom to get Internet.

Absecon technology coordinator Scott Sarraiocco said online access is still limited by the district’s filtering software.

“There is an issue about how to set this up and still filter the content,” he said. Teachers also must use programs accessible to all, since students may have different brands of phones.

“This does give students more personal responsibility,” he said. “But it is also great for being able to differentiate instruction for each child.”

Attales School Principal Andrew Weber said the district is implementing the process slowly and developing a new “bring your own device” policy. Since phones are still technically not allowed in school, students must keep them turned off and in their lockers until they go to Horner’s class. As usage expands, the new policy will list how and when they can be used.

Horner said the biggest resistance has been from staff members having a hard time accepting that the phones can be a useful classroom tool.

“They are so used to the policy not allowing phones,” she said.

Staff at Brigantine and Absecon said there have been no problems because the students don’t want to lose the privilege of using the technology in class.

Weber said allowing the students to use their own e-readers, smartphones or iPads saves the district money and gives students the freedom to work with them at home. Students worked in groups and shared with those who did not have smartphones, and the school also has computers students could use in the classroom.

The ability for students to use their own technology does highlight the “digital divide” between suburban and low-income urban students. The Atlantic City Schools District has purchased technology with grant funding, but can’t assume students can complete work at home. Teachers said while students may not have a computer or Internet access at home, it is likely they know someone with a smartphone.

“Not many of my students have computers or Internet access at home, but their parents have smartphones and the students know how to use them,” said Kimberly Little, a teacher at New Jersey Avenue School in Atlantic City.

Carol Zarrilli, a fourth-grade teacher at the Reeds Road School in Galloway Township is part of a pilot iPad program in her district, and she came to the conference for new ideas on how to use them.

Horner said she believes smartphones have expanded options and saved time in the classroom.

“I generate almost no paper in my class anymore,” Horner said. “I’m not dragging a big bag of papers home to grade. It’s all transmitted electronically. The classroom is more efficient, and I’ve learned some new things myself from the students. ”

Contact Diane D'Amico:

609-272-7241