Last year, if David Fisher used his cellphone during the day at River Hill High School, he would have gotten in trouble. His phone could have been taken away, and he could have been written up.
"If I had to email or text someone, I would have kind of have to do it on the sly," the River Hill senior said. "Not that I ever did that. Maybe."
It was a problem, Fisher said; as president of the school's Student Government Association, he said his phone is an extension of his work because he frequently has emails or texts to respond to. Now, however, the Howard County Public School System has relaxed its restrictions on student cellphone use, and some schools — like River Hill — want their students to use their smartphones, tablets and laptops in class.
The relaxed cellphone guidelines are part of the school system's recent work to encourage the use of technology in schools, said Coordinator of Instructional Technology Julie Wray. Earlier this year, the Board of Education approved a set of new and revised policies allowing for the use of social media and outlining acceptable uses of technology.
As a result, cellphone restrictions are down, a focus on digital citizenship is up and three high schools — River Hill, Mt. Hebron and Long Reach — are piloting a bring-your-own-device program to foster education in new ways.
"It's so much easier, so convenient," said Emily Thornton, a sophomore at River Hill. "Just being able to use your phone and not get into trouble."
The old rules were "silly," said Bailey Heneghan, another River Hill sophomore: cellphones could be used before the first bell and after dismissal, but otherwise they were supposed to be on silent, out of sight if not out of mind.
"I mean, to not even use them in the hallways or the cafeteria?" she said. "It was ridiculous."
Just because students weren't allowed to use their phones doesn't mean they didn't, said sophomore Sophia Knowlton-Latirm. They would just text under their desks, or make phone calls in the bathroom. Now the days of smart phone hide-and-seek are over.
"There's less resistance among the kids, and we have a more relaxed atmosphere," River Hill Principal Nick Novak said. "We were spending so much time focusing on the negative things surrounding cellphone use, we couldn't focus on the positive. This is a more balanced approach."
Wray also considers it a more enlightened one.
"That's the key thing: the ability for students to have access to technology and use technology that they're comfortable with," Wray said. "It lends flexibility so the students are more able to be more creative and express their understanding."
The bring-your-own-device pilot, in which students can use their phones, tablets and laptops in class as part of the instruction, is ramping up and will fully be under way at the three high schools in the next few days, Wray said. Many teachers at the pilot schools started taking advantage of the opportunity right off the bat.
"We're working on college application essays, so the kids can sit on their laptops, look at sample essays and work on their own," said Kristin Mitchell, who teaches AP English and the leadership class at River Hill.
Allowing cellphones in schools also opens up new opportunities for the school itself, Mitchell said. Now, students can vote for homecoming court, prom court and SGA candidates on their phones. Students on the yearbook staff can take photos just as good as ones from a digital camera, and teachers can send out notifications instantly to alert students about anything they need to know for an upcoming class.
Maddie Collen, a freshman, used her phone recently to type an essay and send it to her teacher. Granted, it was four paragraphs, and she took her time making sure everything was spelled correctly, but she said it's a relief to have cellphone use encouraged rather than disciplined.
"We'd have our phones taken away if we tried to do that last year," she said. "If it was a chill teacher, they'd give you your phone back at the end of class, or the end of the day. If it was a strict teacher, your phone would have to be picked up at the office by your mom or dad. That was embarrassing."
Fewer rules doesn't mean no rules, Wray said. Students have to sign acceptable use of technology forms before using devices in schools, and if teachers believe that students aren't abiding by classroom rules, the students are still subject to disciplinary measures.
"The main focus is on instruction," Wray said. "At the pilot schools, teachers are asking students, 'Take out your phones and look this up,' and if a student isn't doing what they're asked, if they're causing a distraction or not staying on task, there are still consequences."
Ultimately, using the cellphones in class as part of the pilot is an honor system, Mitchell said. Three weeks into the school year, Novak said, he was not aware of any students being written up for inappropriate cellphone use. Part of that, he said, is the focus on teaching good digital citizenship, and the students realize the need for them to be responsible and respectful.
"You have to be smart about it," River Hill senior Natalie Tran said. "There's a difference between class time and your time. Just because we're allowed to use this technology doesn't mean we're going to use it willy-nilly. We understand this. We understand having phones in class is a pilot and if we're not responsible, we could ruin it for everybody."
Wray said the bring-your-own-device pilot would be evaluated this fall, and a report would go before the board this winter. She said she hoped the pilot would expand to all high schools.
"We want students to build up their 21st-century skills, to give them the tools they need in the world," she said. "We want students to understand their roles as responsible citizens in the digital world, and we're starting as young as kindergarten with the curriculum — things as simple as 'don't talk to strangers when you're playing outside' translate to the digital world, too. There's also a social component, understanding the difference between digital friends and face-to-face friends. With communication, there's texting, but it's not talking, so it's about striking the right balance and making sure kids have the social skills to be able to talk to someone in person."
That was one concern when the cellphones rules were relaxed, Novak said — that students would stop talking to one another.
"But obviously, you can see a vibrant discussion happening," Novak said, standing outside the boisterous River Hill cafeteria last week. "Social interactions have by no means disintegrated."