TAMPA — Some Hillsborough County public school children will soon be able to use personal tablets, laptops and other Internet-enabled devices in class.
A pilot program, beginning at the end of this school year, involves a practice known as "bring-your-own-device" that seeks to match content taught in school with the way today's students access information.
"Students are very comfortable with their own device," said Sharon Zulli, the district's manager of customer service and support. "They know how to use it, and they know how to use it better than we do."
The practice, discussed Thursday at a School Board workshop, at first will be limited to some classes in a small number of schools.
Most are newer schools with wireless access — a fact that caused School Board member Susan Valdes to ask if older schools will be at a disadvantage.
The hope, however, is to expand the practice as the district moves toward complete wireless access. Officials hope to see that happen around December 2014.
The district surveyed students at eight elementary, middle and high schools and found that more than half have laptops, smartphones or Internet media players. Close to half have tablets and about a third have e-readers.
For all devices, between 78 and 87 percent said they'd like to take them to school. The devices can be used for interactive lessons in class or for independent study periods, such as those in the International Baccalaureate programs.
Chairman April Griffin said she'd also like to give teachers the option of having students text message parents when they need to buy supplies for an assignment.
"We need to step back as a board and revisit our overall phone policy," she said.
Caveats and safeguards surround the project. The schools will not be responsible if personal devices are lost, broken or stolen. They will not be used for standardized tests, although they could lessen the strain on media centers, which are now closed part of the year because of testing.
Students will be disciplined if they chat with their friends without a teacher's approval, or if they download inappropriate material to view at school.
A model for the project is Wiregrass Ranch High School in Wesley Chapel, which has enjoyed a texting- and laptop-friendly culture for years.
But board member Carol Kurdell, who toured Wiregrass recently, warned the board against assuming that model will be easy to replicate.
Wiregrass is almost brand-new, she said, and Internet-friendly from the start. Teachers were hired with that goal in mind. "They were hand-picked for their technological skills," she said.
But Zulli, who has examined the practice in other school districts, said the transition is not as difficult as some might think.
Bring-your-own-device has been successful in school districts that, like Hillsborough, have pockets of poverty.
"Surprisingly, students are very nice about sharing devices," she said.
Not only that: Reports show that even in families earning less than $25,000, a lot of kids have smartphones.
"The important thing is not the device," Zulli said. "It's the imagination of teachers and students and what they can do with it."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org.