Personal Devices: An Inevitable Paradigm Shift?

It’s hard to believe that it has been ten years since I started this blog. Over the past decade I’ve been privileged to share the DFHS journey on so many topics, including our IB DP and MYP Programs, our shift to a one-to-one environment that blended both Chromebooks and BYOD, and the long list of schoolwide activities, initiatives, and lessons that helped to capture the “story” of our school. In looking back at some of the posts from 2013 to around 2018, there was so much talk in those days about the power of technology, leveraging personal devices in order to enhance learning, and of course the “survival” skills that students would need beyond the walls of our school. While many of those principles still hold true, and while we clearly witnessed the critical role of technology during the pandemic, many high schools are now faced with some new concerns, questions, and perhaps lessons that are perhaps an unintended result of moving too quickly with technology. 

Since returning to in-person learning, a challenge that our staff is continually raising involves the distraction (addiction?) that personal devices now have for so many students in our classrooms. This shouldn’t surprise anyone since students were on their phones non-stop while being forced to stay home during the pandemic. This is coupled by the fact that we are now working with a generation of students who have had access to iPhones and iPads for their entire life. Having a device in hand, all day every day, is truly all that our students know at this point. So what to do? 

Our Digital Citizenship Committee has been tackling this question for the past several months and we have identified some strategies for turning this challenge into a learning experience for our students. The following is an excerpt of an email that I sent to our staff a few days ago that helps to contextualize the shift, share the historical context for our newer staff, and of course to discuss some immediate next steps that we are looking to take. 

My suspicion is that most public high schools have had a similar journey and are now facing similar challenges…

Historical Context 

DFHS was far ahead of the curve in 2012 when we made a commitment to one-to-one technology in our school (and district). At that time, our hallways were filled with “no cell phone zone” signs and we were way behind the times as far as how we were responding to what was fast becoming a whole new landscape in education. During that same year, we provided all teachers and staff with a brand new MacBook (a luxury we still enjoy), we took to social media with Twitter accounts that most teachers still use, and we piloted a one-to-one Chromebook program with our 9th graders while using a BYOD (“Bring Your Own Device”) approach in our other grades. 

We also spent a great deal of time in those early years discussing digital citizenship, and an important part of that discussion was rooted in the understanding that we were preparing students to enter a world (college, workplace, etc.) where they would always have a personal device in their hands. While personal devices offered wonderful opportunities in terms of always having access to information, it also raised important questions (and subsequent lessons) around distraction, managing urges appropriately, and of course creating a positive digital footprint for the world to see. 

By 2016, DFHS was a full one-to-one school and we quickly became a “school to visit” for many districts who were moving in this direction. We had fully transitioned to Google Classroom and Gmail at that point, and we also presented to a packed house at the IB World Conference in Chicago that year on this topic. It was also the focus of our Tri-States visit in 2017. At the time, in terms of “IB for All,” our work as a one-to-one school further connected to our goal of promoting equity and access for all students. 

The Pandemic

All of the work that our school (and district) had put in from 2012-2019 was truly put to the test in March of 2020 when the world went remote. While so many schools in our county (and nation) struggled with this transition, our teachers and staff were quick to spring into action so that the shift was significantly less bumpy for our students. All teachers were already fully operating out of Google Classroom, all students and teachers had been working with Chromebooks for years, and many of our teachers had become true “stars” in terms of using educational technology as a vehicle for enhancing student learning. As a result, we quickly created a plan for synchronous and asynchronous learning, and our focus for the next year was on how to become the most dynamic and impactful “remote teachers” given the multitude of limitations that were out of our control. All of these efforts resulted in learning experiences for our students that were predictable, certain, and ongoing so that content and skill acquisition could be maximized as appropriate at the high school level. 

Fast forward to the spring of 2021 and our students returned to in-person learning after a year of learning from behind a computer screen. While the shift back to in-person learning was pretty seamless in terms of schedule, routine, and overall pedagogy, it also became clear that many of our students were now distracted by their personal devices more than they had been pre-pandemic. This wasn’t necessarily surprising considering many students were likely multitasking with their phones during remote learning. We were now faced with the challenge of a new learned behavior, and we continue to see this spill over into our classrooms up to the present day. 

Digital Citizenship

One of the guiding principles that served as the underpinning for our digital citizenship work back in 2013 is now resurfacing with greater urgency ten years later. Specifically, we are faced with the question of how to instruct students on the proper use of personal devices, and more specifically how to manage the distraction that they can provide when a person is required to be engaged and attentive with an in-person experience. While this can include personal interactions, the greater issue that we now face is inside of the classroom. As a school, our job is to prepare students for college and/or the workforce. Both of these areas are what is coming next once our students move on, and both would be far less forgiving than we might be within the walls of DFHS. 

Next Steps

Our Digital Citizenship Committee has been meeting since October and it is composed of teachers who are exploring strategies to teach appropriate etiquette inside of the classroom. The committee is still meeting and is always interested in obtaining more strategies that might be working across the building. Please feel free to share any good ideas! For now, we are exploring the following:

  • Classroom Cell Phone Holders: Some of our teachers have been incorporating these and have had excellent results. We are going to place a larger order for any teachers who are interested. 
  • Chromebook/Chargers: We are also exploring the possibility of adding some spare devices in classrooms for students who assert that they need to use their phone because a Chromebook isn’t charged.
  • Digital Citizenship Curriculum/Lessons: Several years ago we did a schoolwide read of the book, How to Break Up With Your Phone. Some of our teachers have continued to implement these principles into the classroom while we discuss bringing this text back once again as a future schoolwide reading book. 
  • Class Expectations: Perhaps the greatest impact that improper cell phone use can result in for a student would be on how it impacts the overall grade. Some of our teachers have been successfully using the “phone tracker” that is included in our MTSS Tier 1 intervention bank. This is an excellent tool for helping to keep students accountable and can directly connect to a student’s overall course grade.  Please be certain that our administration will always support teachers who hold students accountable in this way.
  • Code of Conduct: As an extension to the point above, our Code of Conduct is very clear as it relates to insubordination. Specifically, all teachers have the professional discretion to create class rules and policies given the desired outcomes of a respective course. If students continue to disobey rules, and once all Tier 1 interventions are explored including parental contact, teachers can absolutely escalate the matter to administration for insubordination. The expectation is always that cellphones are put away if that is what is being asked by a teacher. Again, our administration will always support teachers in this way.
  • “Tech Down Day”: Our Digital Citizenship Committee is going to explore a “Tech Down Day” in March that will emphasize the importance of healthy habits with technology. Sarah will send more on this in the coming weeks. Our Digital Citizenship Committee is also surveying students today in our English classes on this topic and their in-class habits. The early data is already suggesting that this work will be well supported. 
  • Communication: Our plan is to communicate with parents and students about this topic and the importance of promoting digital citizenship. We will send this out once the committee has worked out the details for our “Tech Down Day.” Again, please feel free to share any and all strategies if you feel that they would be helpful.

While it’s important to recognize that we are really still learning as we go given the rapid advancement of technology in our culture over the past ten years, we also recognize that schools play a pivotal role in preparing students to properly balance its use. By no means is our intention to reduce or eliminate the use of technology. That’s neither realistic nor genuine in terms of day-to-day life in 2023. Instead, our hope is to pause, adjust, and to implement approaches that serve to guide and support students as we work to properly manage this potential distraction while continuing to harness the power that personal devices provide.


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