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More School Districts Welcome Cell Phones in the Class

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Innovation in ISD

No longer afraid of giving kids access to the Internet, a growing number of school districts are developing digital media policies that emphasize responsibility over fear.
By Heather Chaplin

Since early 2001, every school accepting federal funding for discounted Internet access through the government’s E-rate program had to do two things – block “harmful” sites and create an Acceptable Use Policy.

The mantra of schools back then was pretty simple: Keep it out. The standard approach to this government mandate, the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), was to build the equivalent of walls, fences, and moats to keep kids from the web.

“It’s a historical hiccup in the history of learning,” said Rich Halverson, a learning scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the lead researcher on KidGrid, a mobile app that helps teachers study and analyze student data. “Here we had the most sophisticated advances in the history of learning banned from schools out of fear.”

Fear was definitely the word you heard when talking to school administrators – no doubt partly because in the age of the Internet, 2001 was a long time ago, and the Web was still unknown territory for plenty of people back then. Also, all it takes is one student downloading pornography and sending it around the school, or one case of sexting that makes it in the news, for a school to find itself in serious hot water.

But recently – in the last two or three years - something has changed. Schools seem to be getting over their fears and want to bring the Web and social media and all the attendant digital tools into the classroom. You can see this change reflected in a slew of new Acceptable Use Policies (AUPs) across the country that emphasize responsibility over mere acceptance and the implementation of school-wide blogs and even the distribution of smartphones for classroom use.


“This isn’t happening in the majority of schools,” said Jim Bosco, principal investigator at the Consortium of School Networking’s Participatory Learning in Schools initiative. “But it’s not the rarity anymore, either.”

Bosco said that while he had no empirical data to track these changes in schools, he estimated that between 40 and 50 percent of school districts were developing more forward-thinking policies. The Consortium of School Networking (CoSN) is working with school leaders from 13 districts to collaborate on creating models for district-level digital media use policies in K-12 education.

COSN released a paper this month called “Making Progress: Rethinking State and School District Policies Concerning Mobile Technologies and Social Media.”

“The advantages of digital media now greatly outweigh the disadvantages and require that schools update their thinking and policies to provide guidance on the use of these tools to improve student learning and achievement,” the paper says.

It simply makes no sense, the paper argues, to try and keep students out of a world – a digital world – that is going to be paramount to how they live and work as adults. In fact, says Bosco, it’s not even possible to keep them out.

“You can build as big a moat as you want,” he said. “But it’s not going to work if for no other reason than they go home at night. A lot of people say, well, what they do when they get home is not my problem. But I think that seems borderline unethical.”

According to Bosco, administrators at schools ought to be providing safe environments for students to learn how to be responsible digital citizens – not just protecting themselves from lawsuits by keeping the Internet out of the classroom and leaving kids to flail about when they go home.

“One of the most powerful reasons to permit the use of social media and mobile devices in the classroom is to provide an opportunity for students to learn about their use in a supervised environment that emphasizes the development of attitudes and skills that will help keep them safe outside of school,” the CoSN paper reads.

The Children’s Internet Protection Act requires Internet filters, but the changing thinking over the last two or three years is that maybe those “filters” aren’t best enforced by draconian AUPs.

“When I talk to colleagues in Finland, they say, how do you filter?” said Jim Klein, director of Information Services and Technology at the Saugus Union School District in Southern California. “They say, our kids’ filters are in their heads. You do this by giving them a safe environment to educate themselves instead of sticking your head in the sand and pretending these technologies don’t exist.”

This doesn’t mean that students in Klein’s district have unfettered access to anything online. But Klein has a different approach to blocking. Instead of buying a commercial filter that blocks URLs, Klein, who uses only open source software, has created filters based on content. This means YouTube, for example, is available as a site, but a particular page – pornographic or hate-based – won’t be.

Klein also said that when he’s building filters, he doesn’t work with the mindset of keeping out every kid who desperately wants to get around them – those kids are going to get access anyway, he said, whether by breaking through the filter or waiting until they go home. Rather, he sets out to prevent students from accidentally stumbling on something harmful or upsetting.

“You have to understand the purpose of filters,” he said, “and change your assumptions about what you’re doing.”

When Klein was loosening the filter system, he spent a lot of time talking to teachers about what he was doing and why. Teachers have to be responsible for what happens in their classroom, Klein said. And the expectation has to be that students are responsible for their own behavior. His message of responsibility is echoed by the new CoSN paper and by other forward-thinking tech administrators at districts around the country.


The Katy Independent School District in Texas recently changed its AUP to focus on “responsible use,” said Darlene Rankin, director of instructional technology. “Digital responsibility is big.” Rankin said. “We’re teaching students how to operate in this new world. We wanted to change the wording in our guidelines because we don’t want students to accept them; we want students to be responsible for them.”

Do things ever go wrong? Of course. In the Katy ISD, one fifth grader did a search for and found videos of lap dancers. The parents, Rankin said, were irate.

“Things are going to happen,” Rankin said. “We talked to the parents – ultimately it was a great teaching moment.”

Halverson, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said one of the problems schools are now facing over responsible internet use is a legacy of the last 20-plus years of what he called an “accountability squeeze” in the school system. There’s been so much focus on “holding schools accountable” that school administrators have been living in a culture of fear – fear of innovating, fear of trying something that might be messy.

“Research-driven intervention like changing the curriculum or bringing in new textbooks leaves no room for error,” he said, “which is never going to be the case with digital technology. Of course there’s uncertainty and variation in what they’ve been doing – just look at the state of algebra in inner-city schools. But you can certify a textbook. Everyone wants a magic bullet that will solve all problems, but it doesn’t exist. We need to lay off schools and let them innovate.”

Katy ISD has been innovating by distributing Android phones to students. Three years ago, the district gave 150 phones to fifth graders at one elementary school. The next year, it gave out 1,500 phones at 11 schools; and this year, 3,200 students at 18 schools now have Androids.

Flickr: Flickinger

In the classroom, students log in and receive assignments, take quizzes and do research on their phones. The school has made certain apps available, including an online catalog for the library and reference books. Teachers also plan specific lessons taking advantage of the phones; for example, when students are studying 3-D objects, they watch a video and then take pictures with their phones. Afterwards, they open a drawing program, where they do work based on the image, and then send the work to their teacher.

Katy ISD, like many other districts that embrace mobile technologies and other digital media, uses the social networking platform Edmodo to facilitate online work. Parents can log on to the site to view student grades.

The Inner Grove Heights Community Schools in Minnesota use Edmodo. Two years ago, the district didn’t even have wireless Internet access. But six months later, administrators made the decision to add wireless to all schools, elementary as well as high school.

“Teachers were using digital tools, and we were getting more and more requests to open online sites and make it possible for teachers to, for example, use video from the web in the classroom,” said Lynn Tenney, director of technology for the district.

Now, Inner Grove offers hybrid classes. Students meet three times a week in the classroom, and twice a week they work independently online. One year after implementing the program in standardized 12th grade English, the failure rate dropped from 63 percent to 13 percent, said Deirdre Wells, superintendent of the school district.

Factors other than technology, including a different set of students, could have contributed to the decline. Wells couldn’t put her finger on one specific reason for the extraordinary drop, but she pointed to factors like increased flexibility and freedom, which students loved. Also, she said, struggling students could stay in class those two days a week and get more one-on-one help from the teacher, while the more confident students were off doing their online projects.

“The depth of thought and level of discourse gets much deeper when you add an online environment,” Wells said. The teacher can present information in class, and then the students are free to explore it online – they can look at other students’ work, or check out videos on YouTube. Time constraints are no longer a factor, the process becomes more individualized, and school becomes more relevant, Wells said.


The social aspect is certainly a big factor in these new learning environments. A fourth grader in the Saugus Union School District in Southern California, for example, posted a plea for help on a Saturday, saying he was struggling with his math homework. His math teacher saw the post and, using his own Macbook web cam, made a video of himself explaining the subject in more depth. He put the video online, and by the end of the weekend his post was filled with comments from students chiming in about the work.

For Jim Bosco of CoSN, these advances are absolutely key to providing real educations, not only to the “haves” but to the “have-nots” as well. Bosco grew up in Pittsburg, the child of Italian immigrants. His father had a fourth-grade education, and the Catholic school Bosco attended was less than ideal, he said. But Bosco happened to live within walking distance of a Carnegie public library branch, where he spent much of his free time. He still remembers being struck by the fact that his cousins, who lived 60 miles away in Newcastle, didn’t have access to all that he did by the simple accident of where they lived.

“By being walking distance to that library, I had access to all kinds of information and really to all that human culture had produced,” Bosco said.

The library of his childhood is like the internet today – a repository of “human culture and knowledge.”


“What you have access to has traditionally been determined by money and location,” Bosco said. “But the internet has the potential to change that.”

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