When 'Acceptable' Becomes Unacceptable

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The growth of virtual schools is forcing districts to reconsider their AUPs, whoserestrictions on new technologies can stunt online teaching and learning.

The 'Net STUDENTS ENROLLED IN Wisconsin's AppletoneSchool do not have school e-mail accounts, nor are theygiven access to their home accounts when they are workingon campus. To facilitate communication with teachers andother students, they utilize the embedded e-mail accountsand discussion boards built into their learning managementsystem. Why such impediments put before students whosesuccess relies so heavily on internet technologies?Because the use of e-mail accounts and discussion boardsis in conflict with district policy.

And therein is the snag now entangling the growing number of virtual schools, whose attempts to implement emerging technologies can run afoul of school districts' acceptable use policies, which monitor technology use and try to ensure safe student internet activity. This clash between the needs of virtual schools and the restraints of district AUPs is not going away soon, as online K-12 education continues to expand. Thirty-eight states now have established state-led online programs, policies regulating online learning, or both. In 2006, Michigan became the first state to require its students to have some sort of online experience prior to graduating high school.

The growth of online learning has required districts to constantly reevaluate their acceptable use policies, as forward- thinking educators are putting new technologies to the service of innovative teaching and learning. A prime example is the issue districts now face on how to handle Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs, wikis, and social networking sites. The demonstrated educational appeal of these tools means school districts need to make accommodations for them in their AUPs.

A virtual school such as Appleton eSchool has to find sufficient spaces in the text of the district AUP that it can safely work within to make effective, innovative use of specific technologies. For instance, while gaming is not allowed on school computers, an approved algebra course that includes a gaming element could be available to students. Once the course or the websites used by the course are approved by the curriculum committee, the content of the course is acceptable even if the technology (in this example, gaming) is prohibited.

Of course, the AUP giveth and the AUP taketh away. Some Appleton eSchool classes require downloading of programs onto school machines—something the Appleton Area School District AUP does not allow, which makes equal access to the eSchool an issue.

"It becomes a balancing act," says Connie Radtke, Appleton eSchool's program leader for online learning. "If our AUP requires students to use e-mail from home and to download software at home, we are assuming they have the equipment at home to do those tasks. They may not. Our solution is to try to provide computers at each school that have the software students need. Getting websites into the filtering system, downloading new software, and helping adapt courses [e.g., internal messaging instead of e-mail] means more work for the instructors and the IT staff, but it does help balance policy and access."

A Proactive Approach

The state of Michigan's 2006 Educational Technology Plan included a section on "Digital Citizenship" that discussed the ethical use of technology and information. Earlier technology plans in the state also recommended that school districts require schools to have acceptable use policies if the district itself does not have one in place. Therefore, Michigan Virtual School, an online resource that enables the state's high schools and middle schools to provide courses that students wouldn't otherwise have access to, created its own acceptable use policy in addition to whatever students must sign for their local school districts.

For instance, while gaming is not allowed on school computers, analgebra course that includes a gaming element could be available tostudents....The content of the course is acceptable even if thetechnology is prohibited.

But as MVS has found out, dual AUPs aren't a fix for online schools if the two policies aren't compatible. One of the latest MVS achievements is an online Chinese language course that utilizes Second Life, the popular 3-D virtual world. Although the program was successfully launched in a Michigan community college, it has yet to be implemented into K-12 due to schools' concerns about the Second Life environment.

According to Jamey Fitzpatrick, president of Michigan Virtual University, the parent organization of Michigan Virtual School, MVS employs a number of strategies to reconcile cutting-edge educational technologies with current AUP boundaries. First, the school ensures that every course description has a detailed account of the technologies used within that course. These prerequisites give high schools and middle schools time to download software or to add sites to their firewalls.

Michigan Virtual School also has multiple yearly meetings with its constituents through professional development conferences, an online learning symposium, and meetings with local school districts. Fitzpatrick says that these meetings provide opportunities for MVS to promote the benefits of new technologies with school districts that may be unsure of how to implement innovations while keeping their students safe and within their existing AUPs.

This proactive approach is most evident in the latest partnership between MVS and the Michigan state police and attorney general's office, which led to the creation of the Michigan Cyber Safety Initiative (CSI). MVS worked with both groups to develop an online presentation of the material; MVS also invited the CSI team to make a presentation at its annual professional development conference.

"We understand the importance of AUPs for student safety," says Fitzpatrick. "However, we also believe that media literacy and internet safety programs may be the newest strategies for addressing appropriate or acceptable use issues."

The Need to Collaborate

Online learning presents educators with new opportunities to deliver content to students they may not otherwise be able to reach. However, the danger is that the potential safety risks of new media compel the development of strict acceptable use policies. These policies, in turn, impede imaginative pedagogical strategies. In many cases, the fear of what could happen trumps the opportunity for innovative instruction. Because the course provider may not be in the same district or state as the course consumer, resolutions are not necessarily easy to come by.

Radtke says that a group effort is the only way forward so that the technologies students find so appealing and motivating can be incorporated into the educational process without undercutting the safety and suitability of the learning environment. "That can only occur with ongoing collaboration and communication with instructional technology staff, administrators, teachers, parents, and students," she says.

Fitzpatrick agrees, and also suggests that districts revisit their acceptable use policies periodically. "In an age of virtual schooling, it is critical that school districts and virtual schools continually review and potentially align their AUPs with one another," he says. "In this way, virtual schools can incorporate new pedagogical strategies based on affordances of revised AUPs, and school districts can revise AUPs based on research-based best practices afforded by leading virtual schools."

And hopefully, constant communication between the eschools and the district and the ongoing review of AUP policies will enable classroom work to be guided not by fear, but by good pedagogy.

Richard E. Ferdig is an associate professor of educationaltechnology at the University of Florida.

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.

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