I spent two days a week in a middle school last year. I was there primarily to drive Cindy who was recovering from a broken leg and who was not allowed to operate a car. I spent my time hanging around the computer labs and working in the teacher's lounge. Accessing the Internet from the lounge provided some surprises. I soon learned that parts of the Internet I use in my professional work were not available.
One of the greatest frustrations was that Gmail, the free email system from Google, was blocked. I prefer Gmail to my university account because it offers gigabytes of storage for old messages and my university account offers 30 MB. What could possible wrong with Gmail? It turns out that Gmail does not require users to incorporate their actual name into their email addresses. I use my name, but this is not a requirement and this is not a decision made on a case by case basis. This free service with great economic value is blocked because senders do not have to reveal their names.
It would be irresponsible and in some cases illegal for educators to involve their students in the participatory web without careful consideration of some of the possible risks and the institution of the appropriate safe guards. The dilemma we face is how to address the concerns without scaring educators and parents away. This is a difficult position to be in because the hint of danger may be enough to scare many away from what for them are unfamiliar experiences and practices that are optional.
We would not be involved in this project if we felt we were promoting overly dangerous practices. I suppose the logic of our position to encourage teacher and student involvement would be based on:
Let us be clear on what some of these dangers are. When online anyone may encounter:
How should students be protected?
There are several ways to protect students from danger. These methods include:
Filtering: Certain actions are required
Schools must meet two of these requirements (filtering and policy) before the school can qualify for e-rate funding. Educators must be aware of the dark side of the Internet and take steps to protect students. Legislation has made this responsibility clear. The Children’s Internet and Protection Act (CIPA) enacted in 2000 requires schools to filter incoming content to block inappropriate material and to monitor the activities of minors to prevent potentially harmful or dangerous behavior.
Filtering makes use of technology to control the flow of information through a central point. A computer with specialized software stands between the Internet and the school network (the local area network - LAN). Depending on the software, this computer can block sites included on a "black list" and/or allow access to sites appearing on a "white list". The software may also screen for dangerous activity and log what sites and services have been accessed by whom.
As this content was being written, legislators were considering the Deleting Online Predators Act or DOPA (legislation had been passed by the House). DOPA is focused on commercial social networking website or chat room through which minors—
An expectation of DOPA would be that educational institutions block (filter) access to such sites.
Legislation does allow educational institutions to unblock specific sites for specific activities. Our experience has been that the spontaneous nature of many activities makes this an impractical solution - modification of protection is a hassle and often not an opportunity afforded the average classroom teacher. Hence, the companies making the decisions about filtering end up controlling what sites and services are available in most classrooms.
Filtering is both not enough and too much
In our opinion, filtering is overemphasized. We say this because filtering:
Mandated restrictions and concerns that prompt protective measures do have an impact and these restrictions will often be in conflict with the practices and activities we promote here. For example, a 2007 study commissioned by the National School Boards Association (link to summary pdf) surveyed school district leaders and the data collected offer some insight into the restrictions schools impose:
This same study may indicate attitudes are changing. In addition to findings related to the restrictive approach taken in many schools, the study notes:
Students and often their parents or guardians need to be aware of policies that must apply so that educational use of the participatory web will be allowed. Guidelines sometimes must be created for legal reasons as in the example we provide of the inclusion of guidelines in the ''Code of Student Life'' provided college students where we work. Sometimes having such a document is not sufficient to meet expectations regarding awareness of official policies. Students and in the case of minors parent/guardian may need to sign a form that is retained by the institution to indicate awareness and agreement.
We regard these approaches as meeting only minimal standards and argue that awareness may fall short of the level of understanding necessary for self-regulated behavior. Why not take advantage of any requirement to create and disseminate expectations to also discuss the importance of the expectations for school activities and for other circumstances students may encounter outside of school. The is what we are attempting to promote by connecting ''policy'' and ''education''.
A common approach to organizing expectations is to generate a clear policy statement often described as an acceptable use policy (AUP).
We offer an AUP on a separate page.