Students using Cell Phones in Class? It’s Happening Right in Bergen County!

BYOD program takes off at New Milford High School.

BYOD program takes off at New Milford High School.

Let me introduce you to New Milford High School in Bergen County New Jersey! There is something very special happening there. Under the leadership of the principal, Eric Sheninger, the students are learning in ways that are more familiar to them than the traditional styles that we grew up with back during the days when we were going to school.

Gone are the days of chalkboards and encyclopedias. New Milford High School is allowing students to use their own cell phones, iPads and laptops in the classroom to help facilitate their education. Eric Sheninger initiated a program called “Bring Your Own Devices” or “BYOD” at his school in order to prepare the students for college and the 21st Century work place.

Since Eric Sheninger’s school launched the BYOD initiative New Milford High School has been receiving national attention for how they have innovated learning and teaching during this dynamic time of high tech and low budgets. I sat down with Eric Sheninger and asked him how other schools can bring BYOD to their students and staff.

Before BYOD kicked off in New Milford High School, the environment was like many other places across the country when it came to cell phones and other personal devices. If a student was caught using their phone, it was taken and returned at the end of the day. Cell phones were not to be seen or heard throughout the school day.

Eric Sheninger and the staff began to work diligently in order to create a new environment for their students that would permit students not only to bring their devices to school, but use them as learning tools. Like many other districts across New Jersey, New Milford was faced with budget cuts and limited financial resources. The staff designed a plan allowing students the opportunity to use their own devices as resources since the possibility of the school providing a tablet, laptop or iPad wasn’t within the means of the school budget.

There were some steps that had to be taken prior to launching this BYOD experiment. First, the staff needed to educate themselves on how personal devices could be used as a learning tool. New Milford’s teaching staff set out to teach students about three main focal points when it came to allowing personal devices in their classrooms. They started with demonstrating digital responsibility, digital citizenship and creating positive digital footprints. These points would establish a learning environment that would inform students about what was expected of them, as well as set a foundation for years to come when they enter the work force.

They also conducted a survey of the students in their schools that owned certain devices and which didn’t. Some had iPads, while the majority of students had only cell phones with data plans. There were even students without any devices. The next question loomed before the program launched. How can we make this equitable for all our students? The staff designed a plan on how the teachers could use pedagogical techniques in order to ensure every student had the same opportunities during class. Students were paired up utilizing cooperative learning to make the BYOD initiative equitable.

New Milford High School launched BYOD as an experiment in the spring of 2011, which gave the seniors an opportunity to use their devices as learning tools in the classroom. This trial run would assist the staff in making adjustments for the following school year.  The staff set out to change the perception of personal devices by changing the perception of how the cell phones, iPads and laptops were being utilized. Devices that were once considered “banned” in school had now become known as “learning devices.”

The following September, BYOD was no longer an experiment, but a full-blown initiative that has proven to be successful for both staff and students. Teachers began facilitating students in creating learning artifacts via their mobile devices. Students have recorded field trips, created audio tours and used Instagram to complete language arts projects. If you walk the halls of New Milford High School you can’t help but notice QR codes posted in various places. Students participate in scan code scavenger hunts. Journalism students text live updates about what’s happening in school via Twitter. Great things are taking place at New Milford High School.

BYOD has also opened many new possibilities for assisting teachers with the Common Core Standards. Not only is this initiative preparing students for college, but it’s providing them with authentic skills that are used in the work force throughout thousands of careers. Sheninger allows teachers to use devices in their classrooms at their own discretion. This has empowered teachers to make decisions on how to use technology and take risks while facilitating their students’ learning. Eric Sheninger offers this advice to any educator that may hope to implement BYOD in their school. There are five main points to consider with Bringing Your Own Devices.

1) What is it that you are trying to achieve?

2) Survey your students to see what devices they currently have.

3) Encourage students to make suggestions so they can take ownership.

4) Establish guidelines and expectations.

5) Align school policies and practices.

So what has BYOD done for New Milford High School? According to Sheninger, bringing your own devices to school has demonstrated a dramatic increase in student productivity as they use their learning tools to take notes using Evernote. Teachers are using devices as tools for informal and formal assessments. Staff and students have also been using devices to communicate on Edmodo and Classlink.

In closing, the BYOD initiative has created a learning experience by bridging the school world to the real world. Eric Sheninger and the staff at New Milford High School are sending a clear message to their students. They value the fact that their students are growing up in a different time and the students know that the staff trusts them.

Written by Steve Gambuti

Steve Gambuti

Steve is has been a middle school teacher in Passaic county for fifteen years. He is currently a technology teacher and has spent the majority of his career integrating technology into classrooms. Steve has a passion for sharing his knowledge of technology in education with his colleagues.

Steve has also served as the Editor-In-Chief of a quarterly New Jersey publication entitled, NJEducationNow Magazine from 2012 to 2014.

  1 comment for “Students using Cell Phones in Class? It’s Happening Right in Bergen County!

  1. Chad Barrette
    June 15, 2013 at 1:14 PM

    I love the idea of having cellphones in the classroom for purposeful learning! The five rules suggested are helpful to getting this started. Cellphones are really not phones, they are more like personal computers that can make phone calls! I think their next step is to develop exams that ask questions that are deep enough that the students will need to use their cellphones for the exam. No one tells me to put away my cellphone at work or tells me to just use paper and pencil when figuring out a problem, if the kids are using the phones to learn then go for it!