Educators and policymakers continue to debate whether computers are a good teaching tool. But a growing number of schools are asking students to bring their own smartphones, tablets, laptops and even their video game players to class.
Officials at the schools say the students' own devices are the simplest way to access a new generation of learning apps that can, for example, teach them math, test them with quizzes, and enable them to share and comment on each other's essays.
Advocates of this new trend, called BYOT for "bring your own technology," say there is another advantage: It saves money for schools short of cash.
Some large school districts in central Florida and near Houston and Atlanta have already signed on, and they are fielding calls and providing tours to administrators from hundreds of other districts that are considering whether to follow their lead.
But BYOT has many skeptics, even among people who otherwise see benefits of using more technology in classrooms.
"The schools are hoping, hoping there's going to be a for-free solution because they don't have any money," said Elliot Soloway, a computer science professor at the University of Michigan who consults with many school districts about the use of computers to promote learning. "If you look at initiatives in public education, this has the momentum."
But Soloway also said he was "frightened" by the notion of schools using BYOT as a quick budget fix because there was no evidence that a classroom full of students using different personal devices would enhance learning.
Roy Pea, a professor of learning sciences at Stanford University, also has doubts. He is the co-author of a White House-backed National Educational Technology Plan published in 2011 that advocates for technology-centric classrooms.
But he said the BYOT approach could be counterproductive if teachers were forced to build lessons around different devices in effect, subverting curriculum to technology.
"Why are they so happy to have these devices when just a few years ago they didn't want them in the classroom?" Pea asked about school administrators.
The Volusia County School District in central Florida, bordering Daytona Beach, is one of the places that used to have signs around its schools that admonished students: No cellphones allowed. But the signs have been replaced over the last two years with new ones that read: BYOT.
Volusia school officials say they realized they should take advantage of, rather than fight, students' deep connections with their devices. At the same time, the district found that the cost of providing and maintaining computers for students was becoming prohibitive.
Since the change, Volusia officials say, they have not encountered many tech support problems or complaints from teachers. Rather, students are more engaged, they say, and the only problem that regularly crops up is that students forget to charge the batteries in their devices.
"It's almost like bringing your homework," said Jessica Levene, manager of learning technologies for the Volusia district, where 21 of 70 schools are using BYOT. "Make sure you have your device and that it's charged."
She conceded that students could text each other more easily now but said the school was keeping them busy on their devices. And while district administrators worried initially that poorer students would not own devices, they discovered something of "an inverse relationship" between family income and the sophistication of their devices, particularly smartphones, said Don Boulware, the district's director of technology services.
At Woodward Avenue Elementary School in the Volusia district, fifth-grade teacher Dana Zacharko said her students tended to bring in smartphones or iPod Touches. She said she had found apps that allowed her to teach all kinds of subjects.
For instance, a recent assignment entailed learning about fractions by using an app called "Factor Samurai." A number appears on the screen, and the student is supposed to cut it with a finger as if slicing with a Samurai sword so that it gets cut into smaller values. But students lose points if they try to slice through prime numbers.
Zacharko will start class discussion on a reading assignment by asking students to use their devices to write comments in an online forum. "Their typing is amazing on these devices," she said.
The fact that students in the same classroom can use different devices is not a handicap because they are all accessing the same lessons on the Internet, said Lenny Schad, former chief information officer in the Katy Independent School District near Houston, which started a program with a different moniker: BYOD, for "bring your own device."
"The Internet is the great equalizer," Schad said.