Kids are usually told to put their smartphones or iPads away during class — but this year, teachers in several Thunder Bay schools will encourage their students to turn them on.

The Lakehead District School Board is activating wireless internet in about 10 elementary schools and launching a program called Bring Your Own Device

[BYOD].

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Ellen Chambers, local president for the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario welcomes the Bring Your Own Device program, provided teachers receive the training they need and have control over when mobile devices can be used in the classroom. (Supplied)

"We know that kids are coming to school [at] five and six years old having played on an iPad or a touch-screen computer," said A.J. Keene, principal of McKellar Park Central Public School.

"We need to teach them how to use them to be creative, how to connect," he said. "We need to teach them the ethics around technology."

Keene, who is also the chair of the Lakehead school board's information technology committee, said instant access to information through devices like smartphones and tablets changes what and how children need to learn.

'The right way to deal with this'

Thunder Bay's local president for the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, Ellen Chambers, said she views the new program as "the next step" in teaching.

"For us to not acknowledge that children are living with all of the iPads and smartphones and not to incorporate it into our teaching I think would do a disservice," she said.

"There's the worry of what children can access through the internet and we need to teach them ... the right way to deal with this."

Keene said incorporating social media into education is an important way to show students how to use tools like Facebook and Twitter responsibly, adding that teachers have a role to play in preventing bad online behaviour, such as cyberbullying.

"I think now that we're starting to see more educators using social media and technology, kids are starting to realize that 'hey, this isn't just a bunch of kids online here, we can say whatever we want. There's a way to conduct ourselves and to act'," he said.

Teaching the teachers

Keene emphasized that teachers will receive comprehensive training on how to incorporate the Bring Your Own Device program into their classrooms — something Chambers said is critical.

"Knowing that the board will be training ... will certainly allay a lot of teachers' concerns about it," she said. 

Chambers added teachers should also have a voice in how the program will work, and also be made aware of potential risks. 

"It's a great thing, but there are cautions as well," she said. "These are electronic devices that ... can take videos, they can record voices, they can take pictures and ... that can be used inappropriately."

Keene said students will only be allowed to use their smartphones and iPads at school when teachers tell them it's OK, and will have rules they must follow.  

He said the board is encouraging students to bring the mobile devices they have at home because they're familiar with them, but stressed the schools will provide devices on loan to children who either don't own one or can't bring it to school.

Just under half of Lakehead District's elementary schools will incorporate the BYOD program this year. The board plans to have it running in the rest of its schools in time for the 2014 school year.