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Tenzin Namgyal, 17, (right( uses his cellphone outside Parkdale Collegiate Institute in Toronto on Sept. 6, 2011. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Tenzin Namgyal, 17, (right( uses his cellphone outside Parkdale Collegiate Institute in Toronto on Sept. 6, 2011. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

It's back to school for cellphones in Toronto Add to ...

Students went back to school this week with some controversial gadgets tucked into their backpacks, devices that are changing from classroom contraband to educational tools.

It was the first day of classes since the Toronto District School Board, Canada’s largest, decided to lift its ban on most handheld technology. Although many students were oblivious to the new rules – they’ve been sneaking their phones and iPods into class all along – the move is symptomatic of educators’ evolving attitude toward technology.

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“Kids need to be challenged to use these things properly,” said Todd Sniezek, a technology consultant for the District School Board of Niagara, who spent the first years of his decade-long teaching career trying to keep phones out of his class, then switched his approach. “[Teachers]just can’t sit at the front with the chalkboard any more, because that won’t engage them and we have to engage them using their tools.”

When he let his students use their phones in moderation – to research a question, for example – he found his students were more attentive. “It wasn’t a challenge any more to manage my kids,” he said.

Students agree the change is more than overdue – it’s inevitable.

“Bans don’t work because we’re going to use our phones if we want to,” said Tenzin Namgyal, 17, a Grade 12 student at Parkdale Collegiate Institute. “And sometimes they can be helpful, like if you have a smart phone you can use it to do research.”

That’s the feedback student leaders, including TDSB trustee Jenny Williams, got when they consulted their peers and found many wanted to see a better integration of technology in the classroom. The TDSB’s ban stood in the way, so Ms. Williams became part of a successful campaign to end it.

“It’s a first step toward 21st-century learning,” said Ms. Williams, a Grade 12 student at Martingrove Collegiate Institute.

But while the TDSB’s new rules allow cellphones back in schools, they don’t mean the devices will necessarily be used in the classroom. Like elsewhere in Canada, teachers in Toronto have the ultimate say, and many are unwilling to put up with the potential for electronic cheating, never mind the everyday distraction.

“Usually we’re sneaking around with our phones, texting behind our teachers’ back,” said Gobika Karunanithi, a 16-year-old, Grade 11 student at Parkdale Collegiate. “Under the desk, behind a textbook. … There’s no point in banning and having debates over it because it’s useless, we already know how to hide our phones from our teachers.”

Although cellphones have been banished from New York City’s public schools since 2005, Toronto’s approach was unusual in Canada, where the ministries of education and school boards have generally left the decision up to principals and teachers.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has suggested that schools remain open to the idea of allowing students to use their cellphones in class, but the competition, Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, has said teachers ought be allowed to ban them.

Teachers at Mr. Sniezek’s district have used cellphones to direct scavenger hunts and take polls. Mr. Sniezek points them to new apps and programs available online that enable teachers to text students without divulging their personal cellphone number, and shows them how a smart phone can become a portable classroom.

He says the majority of teachers remain skeptical, but that most schools have at least one or two teachers who have begun integrating mobile devices into their classrooms in some way.

“There are some educators who are starting to see the potential of mobile devices as a learning tool, but overall there is a lot of resistance,” said Matthew Johnson, director of education for the Media Awareness Network, an Ottawa-based non-profit.

His organization is seeking funding for a survey that would quantify the degree to which Canadian classrooms are embracing new technologies, and explore the reasoning behind the bans. While not every student has a cellphone, research out of the United States suggests that access is not as strongly connected to family income as might be assumed: Low-income and African-American students are among the most likely to have smart phones, Mr. Johnson said.

“When such a large number of students have access to this technology, considering the things that even a low-end smart phone can do that are relevant to education, it really is a wasted opportunity to not be using them,” he said.

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