Editor's note: This post draws from World's Simplest Online Safety Policy, coauthored with Lisa Nielsen in April 2011 and appearing on Tom Whitby's blog.
Where are we today with banning the Internet in schools? It was all the rage about three years ago. It would seem that technology has taken us farther away from the dark ages of the scary Internet. Mobile devices have underscored the fact that people have access to the Internet almost anywhere and at any time. Social media has gained a much larger acceptance with the public. Learning through social media has achieved a legitimate place among educators. Even the airlines have revisited their policies on in-flight Internet access. It is becoming more and more apparent to educators and parents that kids can gain access to the Internet without the help and guidance from schools.
The very laws -- FERPA, COPPA and CIPA -- that schools often hid behind in order to justify banning were originally designed to protect kids from unscrupulous profiteering companies that attempted to acquire personal information from minors. It was never the intention of these laws to require schools to ban teachers and students from accessing the Internet for the purpose of learning. How districts felt the necessity to ban adult educators, as well as kids, always baffled me. Nevertheless, these were the laws many administrators cited as the reason for doing so. I imagine that there are still some misguided people continuing to invoke these laws, while feeding into and off the fears of parents, fueled by tech companies selling security software. Yes, access to porn is always the big consideration, as it has been for as long as I can remember, and I go back many decades to before the Internet. I question whether a school-wide ban of the Internet is an effective and efficient counter measure when consideration is given to what else has been shut out by such a ban.
Common sense should be guiding force of Internet security for schools. Certainly the early grades of elementary school need less access and more monitoring, but the best thing educators can provide is the proper attitude and a huge emphasis on digital citizenship. The very best example that will benefit kids is the proper modeling from adults, teachers and parents. The more kids know early on about their personal responsibility, as well as the consequences of poor judgment on the Internet, the better prepared they will be when they become less monitored and less controlled.
A common sense policy for kids would reduce the restrictions as the kids got older. Certainly, teaching kids early insures at least a preparation for the realities of the Internet whenever the time comes, inside or outside of school, that each child is personally exposed in an unfettered way to the Internet. One thing we can be sure of is that day will come, and when it does, knowledge will be that kid's best defense.
Training and Guidance
We prepare kids to drive with driver training courses. We require a minimum number of hours before they get behind the wheel on their own. They do, however, get behind the wheel on their own. This most often takes place before they leave high school. We need a similar approach to driving on the Internet. The world in which our kids will live already requires them to be Internet savvy in order to exist in a tech-driven culture, let alone to effectively compete in that world.
We can say that if a teacher is effectively engaging kids in meaningful learning, then there should be no problems with discipline or kids freely accessing their devices. In reality, however, that doesn't always hold true for even for the best of teachers. The fact is that older students may need guidelines for when and where to use mobile devices. We do as adults, so why would kids be any different? We are often asked in certain establishments or venues to turn off our devices, and we comply. The best school policies for acceptable use should spell that out for kids as well.
My favorite policy is for red, yellow and green zones. The green zone is free use of devices. This would account for cafeteria, library and common areas. The red zones, where devices cannot be used, would be the auditorium, gymnasium or a pool area. The yellow zones would be places where devices could be used with permission -- classrooms and labs.
Teachers have the right to maintain classroom guidelines, as classroom discipline has always been a primary function for teachers. Today, however, that requires many more decisions for many more complexities, far more than teachers had to face in previous years. That can be scary, but not insurmountable. We need to teach our educators new methods to deal with new technologies that will continue to develop. Banning the use of technologies is a shortsighted fix that does not enhance learning. With a newfound focus on expanding broadband in all schools, these are policy considerations we need to address now, and not after the changes have been made.