When students return to class this fall, a majority of them will be toting something that teachers themselves are still learning to deal with: a mobile device.

Whether it's a smartphone, tablet or laptop, survey after survey shows more and more — and younger and younger — schoolchildren have their own computing devices and are taking them to class.

A report last year found that just among Grade 4 students, 25 per cent had a cellphone; for high school students, close to 90 per cent have smartphones.  

School districts once tried to fight the trend. The Toronto District School Board, Canada's largest, banned cellphone use in class from 2007 to 2011. New York City had a cellphone-in-school ban for years. 

But most have relented, figuring it's impossible to police possession of the ubiquitous devices, and better to try to incorporate them into the curriculum.

"We all know that technology is here to stay, and so the school board has to get with the times," said Ryan Bird, a spokesperson for the Toronto board.

So while parenting magazines elaborate on back-to-school trends like colourful leggings and apps for lunch-making, one of the most significant developments gradually cutting across the curriculum is the incorporation of mobile computing into the classroom. 

1:1

At the most involved end of IT in the classroom are schools with so-called 1:1 policies — meaning every child gets a standardized tablet or laptop.

When 1:1 is done right, its advocates say, it can make students more engaged and informed, teach key 21st century technology and media skills, and address the needs of children with learning challenges.

Rob Costanzo, English teacher at Crescent School

'Kids spend most of their free time in the 21st century using technology,' but then learn in schools designed for the late 19th century, English teacher Robert Costanzo says. (LinkedIn)

One of the first districts in North America to implement 1:1 for every student was the Eastern Townships School Board in southern Quebec. It gave out 5,600 laptops — one to every pupil from Grades 3 to 11 — starting in 2003.

"They spent a lot of time training teachers and making sure students were using the technologies for learning and not other uses," said University of Montreal Prof. Thierry Karsenti, the Canada Research Chair in technologies in education, who assessed the program.

Karsenti's study found much to celebrate: The board-wide dropout rate has fallen from nearly 40 per cent to under 20 per cent, the school district's ranking among provincial boards has shot up, and students have actually become more attentive and motivated as they can research and collaborate online.

But he warned that laptops and mobile devices aren't magic bullets, and simply giving one to every student without first training teachers and revising their teaching styles can be a disaster.

Case in point: an abandoned $1.7-billion project to give every L.A. school student an iPad. The Los Angeles Unified School District tried to lock down the tablets so that students couldn't install games or stream TV shows. Instead, kids hacked them.

"The mistake was to believe that by putting iPads in the hands of students, they would start learning right away," Karsenti said. 

"Schools have to train teachers and teach students how to be more responsible, how to productively use technology."

BYOD

A 1:1 policy can also be prohibitively expensive for schools. That's partly why some provinces that have tested it, like Alberta, have since tailored their approach, preferring what's known as bring your own device, or BYOD. Even a mobile phone can often suffice.

"With a [Bluetooth] keyboard, I can essentially write an essay on my phone," said Robert Costanzo, an English teacher and BYOD pioneer at Crescent School, a private boys school in Toronto.

Costanzo said he uses technology in various ways. For teaching Shakespeare, he has his students read digital versions that come with annotations for all the archaic terms and concepts. He also posts audio of the plays to the class website.  

B.C. teacher Sarah Dalzell

B.C. literacy teacher Sarah Dalzell says cellphones are 'really a positive tool in my teaching practice.' (Sarah Dalzell)

"They're listening to it as they read it. It completely facilitates understanding," he said. "Shakespeare would be horrified to know that there are people reading paperbacks of his plays. It needs to be watched and heard."

He also has students do a 10-minute writing exercise every day that goes into a Google document so it can be shared with the class and critiqued. Writing assignments are often posted online, causing students to apply extra diligence because they know their output will be in the public eye, he said.

"The evidence shows if you use digital media, if you use digital writing, it will make gigantic improvements in their writing. I can tell you that's absolutely true from my point of view," Costanzo said.

One downside, of course, is students rarely learn cursive handwriting anymore, or practise much handwriting at all. Costanzo's take? "If we were living in the age of the carrier pigeon, that would be a concern."

Distraction

But what about the distraction? Surely kids with a cellphone or tablet in front of them will stop focusing on a lecture and start Facebooking or online chatting?

Technophile educators acknowledge the risk, but nearly all say it can be handled through good classroom management, clear expectations and rules for their students, and lessons designed to be engaging by incorporating mobile devices.

"Because we really set expectations as a class, my students were held accountable. And they recognized that being able to use their device — whether that's a cellphone or an iPad or a laptop — it was really there to facilitate their learning," Sarah Dalzell, a Grade 6 and 7 literacy teacher in Surrey, B.C., who allows cellphone use in her classroom, told CBC Radio last week.

Dalzell said smartphones have allowed her to assign texts that are individualized to students' reading levels and to engage students by having them research a subject online for a few minutes, then present their findings to a peer.

Ultimately, a half-dozen educators CBC News spoke to all agreed, the bottom line is that there should always be tech down times when students set aside their devices to focus on classroom discussions, tests, lectures or peers' presentations.  

Said Jim LaPlante, director of technology for Upper Canada College, a private Toronto boys school: "The most successful teachers are very intentional about how they use the technology, and when they're not using the technology, it's not in front of the kids."