Policy | Feature

Developing a 'Tech Bill of Rights'

As more technology has infiltrated America's schools, technology policies from district to district have diverged wildly. Some allow or even require students to bring devices like smart phones and laptops; others limit these technologies or even ban them outright. Is there a way to take the capriciousness out of K-12 technology policy development?

Some K-12 schools have liberal policies concerning technology. Students walk around toting laptops and PDAs and using the institutions' WiFi systems while on campus. They can bring up Web sites without worrying that their favorites will be "blocked" from the systems, and--at the right times--use their phones to call, text, and e-mail as they wish.

Other schools take a different stance, banning individual technology altogether. They don't allow phones on campus; they discourage the use of individual laptops and block; and they block any and all Web sites that the administrators and teachers deem inappropriate. Social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace are taboo at these schools, where technology is looked upon as nothing but a distraction and where such Web sites are vehemently blocked and filtered.

Somewhere in the middle of these two scenarios is a happy medium that few K-12 institutions have yet to reach but should be striving for, according to a new report. Conducted by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's Online Safety and Working Technology Group, the study investigated online safety and found that blocking access to social networking sites and alarming students about the dangers of the online world usually does more harm than good.

Released in June, the "Youth Safety on a Living Internet" report said that parents and teachers should "promote online citizenship and media-literacy education, and actively encourage the children's participation in the process..... Teaching children civil, respectful behavior online and offline is the key to fostering a safe Internet environment," the group stated in its report, which warned adults to avoid "scare tactics" and to instead take an approach to online risk prevention based on social norms.

"While shocking stories can sometimes mobilize people, scare tactics simply do not work when it comes to long-term behavioral changes among youth. Scare tactics should be avoided in favor of educational campaigns that model positive behavior and marginalize improper behavior," the report stated.

So how does a school district go about finding the middle ground between student safety and the quickly evolving world of technology? David Stoloff, the professor of Eastern Connecticut State University's education department, said striking the right balance requires a "community" approach. Teachers, parents, students, stakeholders, and school administrators should all be involved in the planning, said Stoloff.

"Take a step back; form a planning committee; and talk about what should be integrated into your students' rights as it pertains to technology," said Stoloff. "Know the local laws and attitudes in your region, and factor those into the planning process as well."

Districts that haven't already embraced technology on campus will have to go a step further, drilling down to the simplest issues first (such as how individual teachers should handle cell phones in the classroom setting). Then, consider bigger challenges like Internet usage, WiFi accessibility, and Web site access. When in doubt, Stoloff advised, schools should look at what other districts are doing and then replicate those policies that most effectively balance student needs with restrictions and educational excellence.

"The most important thing to remember is that you're not alone," said Stoloff, "everyone is struggling with the issue of technology limitations within the classroom and on campus. If it's not already an issue in your district, it will be soon."

The Online Safety and Working Technology Group found that getting students involved in the "technology bill of rights" development process can result in a more stable, useful set of policies. "There is a commonly held belief that young people need to be protected from either criminals who are out to get them or from their own lack of judgment," the report stated.

"While both can be true, it's also important to pay attention to research that shows that many young people have adopted and continue to adopt effective strategies to deflect dangers from both adult criminals and their misbehaving peers," according to the report. "This is not to suggest that youth don't need adult supervision and support but prevention campaigns need to take into consideration the resources that young people bring to the table, both as participants and as leaders. Young people need to be involved in all aspects of risk prevention."

Seth Cirker, president and CEO at emergency awareness solutions developer SituCon Systems of Fort Washington, NY, concurred with the report's recommendation and said the more people who are involved in setting technology policies in schools the better. School resource officers and local police departments, for example, can provide valuable input in terms of local laws, common safety concerns, and privacy expectations.

"For the 'bill of rights' to be effective, there must be complete transparency with the polices, which should be based on input from teachers, parents, administrators, and anyone else who should have a say in clarifying the policy's [mission] and goals," said Cirker. "And while individual students shouldn't necessarily be the decision makers, they shouldn't feel like they are in jail either. Aim for a balance that factors in safety and technology without compromise."

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