Seventh-grader Christian Verastegui, 12, sat at a lab table looking at his smartphone during his science class at Thomas Viaduct Middle School on Friday. But he was not texting friends or checking Facebook — he was using his phone to access an e-textbook.

The Howard County school system is implementing a "Bring Your Own Device" policy at all middle schools this year, which means that middle schoolers are allowed, and even encouraged, to use their devices during class. All county high schools have had the policy, known as BYOD, since last year.


"Personal devices are an integral part of middle schoolers' lives. They practically come with one attached," said Shiney John, principal of Thomas Viaduct Middle. "Instead of fighting against it, let's just accept it."

Thomas Viaduct Middle, in Hanover, opened last year and piloted the policy for middle schools during the 2014-2015 school year.

Across the country, 29 school districts have policies that encourage BYOD, according to the 2014 National Survey on Mobile Technology for K-12 Education.

Christian Verastegui's science teacher, Melanie Poknis, said she "loves the BYOD policy" because it addresses the growing role of technology in education and the workplace.

"Most of these students, when they go to college they will only be accessing their textbooks electronically," said Poknis, who is starting her second year at Thomas Viaduct Middle and her 16th year of teaching in Howard County. "And so there are definitely benefits to teaching them how to best use a textbook on a phone, tablet or laptop, and being able to teach them certain skills like how to highlight text, how to make notes, how to make bookmarks."

According to the Howard County school system's BYOD guidelines teachers decide when and how students can use their devices in class, and students must sign a "Responsible Use of Technology and Social Media" form before participating. The form contains rules about respectful, legal and ethical use of social media and HCPSS technology, and what can and cannot be created, accessed and shared while using technology for school-related purposes.

John said that, with these guidelines, BYOD creates an opportunity to teach students responsible use of technology and social media.

"A 10-, 11-, or 12-year-old doesn't know socially responsible use of technology. We can help them learn that." she said. "We have posters up reminding students that BYOD isn't a privilege. There are appropriate times to use your device, and there are inappropriate times."

At Thomas Viaduct Middle, teachers signal when students can use their devices with a small blue sign that reads, "BYOD Readiness: Devices may be used for instructional purposes only as directed by teacher." When devices need to be put away, the teacher puts a sign up reading, "Devices SILENT."

In the past, Howard community members have expressed concerns that, because not all students can afford a personal device, the BYOD policy will highlight student inequities and cause embarrassment. But John said that her teachers do whatever it takes to prevent this from happening.

"We have a wide continuum of socioeconomic backgrounds and a huge proportion of our kids don't have a personal technology device," John said. "So how do we maintain their dignity?"

Thomas Viaduct Middle students who do not have their own devices can pick up school-owned laptops at the beginning of the class when they pick up the rest of their materials, like notebooks and binders. John said that this helps to avoid embarrassment.

For the Thomas Viaduct Middle principal, these efforts are worthwhile because, she said, the devices tailor instruction to different students and learning styles and, by doing so, they help level the playing field.

"It opens up pathways to different learners and personalizes learning," John said. "We have a huge diversity in terms of academics. With BYOD, all students can find a way to access the same standards."


Not all on board

Not everyone in the Howard community is convinced that the BYOD policy helps students.

Howard County resident Christina Delmont-Small and her husband try to limit their children's use of devices, she said, citing an American Association of Pediatricians recommendation that children and teens should have no more than one or two hours of screen time a day.

"As a parent, we're now competing with the school system on how to make a determination in terms of how much screen time my family feels is appropriate," said Delmont-Small, former president of the PTA Council of Howard County.

According to the AAP's website, studies have shown that excessive screen time can lead to, "Attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity. In addition, the Internet and cell phones can provide platforms for illicit and risky behaviors."

Parents may choose not to allow their students to use devices during class time, but according to Delmont-Small, this can cause students to feel left out.

BYOD policies and resulting parent resistance are not new to the area. In April, parents in Carroll County requested limitations on the BYOD policy there, citing, "Negative effects on health, decreased social interaction among students, access to inappropriate material and inequality that results when students from low-income families can't afford the devices," reported the Carroll County Times.

Aside from what she thinks are the negative effects of BYOD, Delmont-Smalls is skeptical that device use has positive effects on children's learning.

"Communication and connections between students and teachers are what's valuable. Anything that comes between that — I'm not sure that's going to be valuable." she said. "We have amazing teachers in Howard County and we pay a lot of money to have great schools. They're great because of the people, not the devices."