Image: Luke Bott

“Ten years ago the rules were, if we see your cell phone we’ll take it away,” says Curtis Null, Conroe High School’s principal. Three years ago, however, the school made the decision to permit phones, even encourage them. These days, many teachers are telling kids to pull them out instead of put them away—after all, they can do almost everything a regular computer can. 

Walking the halls of Conroe High and looking in on the classrooms, the first thing you notice are the devices—some brought from home, others school property. Some students have more than one—a laptop, say, or a checked-out iPad, as well as a phone—and headphones are a common sight. “A lot of teachers use a lamp,” explains Null. “If it’s on, the students are free to use technology. If it’s off they can’t have headphones.” 

Increasingly common are “flipped” classrooms, in which lectures—traditionally a part of the school day—are watched outside of class, whereas activities traditionally known as homework are done in school. And today more than ever, students collaborate. “Now kids on different campuses and different classrooms work together,” says Conroe ISD Instructional Tech Coordinator Jarod Lambert. “They can create documents and presentations, they can edit things simultaneously on two different computers, they can work on schoolwork. That’s really the biggest difference.” 

Over at HISD, future facilities are being planned with collaboration in mind. “Every piece of furniture will be movable in libraries and classrooms,” explains HISD Chief Technology Officer Lenny Schad, who adds that students learn differently today, and educators have to keep up. “The teacher used to be up front lecturing at a white board,” he says. “Now they’re more the facilitator, also learning in the classroom. A kid will raise his hand and say, ‘What about this?’ The teacher will say, ‘You have the computer, you go tell me.” 

The “digital divide,” which separates homes with computers and Internet access from ones that don’t, remains an issue, but districts are working to cross it. HISD, where 80 percent of students are on free or reduced lunches and many don’t have their own computers, plans to provide a laptop to each high school student, teacher, and principal in the district by 2016, thanks to the new PowerUp program. And to help kids on free or reduced lunch get Internet access at home, there’s a program offering wi-fi for about $10 a month, although some still go without—so far, it hasn’t been easy to convince parents to sign up. Schad thinks they’ll get there. “When they understand the importance of this,” he says, “then it becomes ten bucks they can carve off.”

Still, “this is not about the device,” he insists. “It’s about changing how we deliver instruction.” That is to say, make students self-sufficient learners and help them sort through information. Lambert concurs. “We talk to kids about how to look at a website and determine if it’s valid information,” he says. “Those are skills that wouldn’t have been taught before.”

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