IT Trends

4 Steps to Providing More Access in Schools

opening up access to content for students

A frequent conflict that educators have with their IT departments is over access to content for students — content that's often being blocked at the behest of administrators and parents. And many IT directors are becoming less interested in being stuck in the middle. But often IT directors who want more control are trying to protect educators and students from not only what can be seen on the Internet but often what is not seen (viruses, adware and malware).

Is there a compromise that can address all the needs while still protecting everyone?

Firewalls in school environments are often seen as counter to education. The perception of lack of academic freedom of access is often a major concern for educators, as it does not allow for the teachers and students to search without boundaries.

Many districts have worked to find a compromise for this issue, but it still divides some districts. Often it is seen as an all or none situation, either complete freedom or a locked-down system that does not allow students to stretch their experiences. While there are still concerns from some groups, support for more openness is growing, particularly in light of the fact that so many students already have unbounded access on their personal devices, such as smartphones and tablets.

To begin addressing this reality in districts, these are four steps to help everyone feel more comfortable with the access being made available.

Step 1: Open a Conversation
Everyone needs to understand what is at stake. E-rate funding still requires some filtering (if you are receiving these federal funds) and for some districts this can account for thousands of dollars each year.

Administrators and teachers need to know that students now can search the Internet and that there may be images and words that might be objectionable to some that will be seen.

A plan must be prepared on the front side so that when the eventuality happens everyone knows the procedure. Many stakeholders need to be involved. Parents, teachers and administrators need to be involved. At the middle and high school levels students should be engaged as well.

Before the gates can be opened more information needs to be shared throughout the school or district. There may be a process to continue to open access as students learn more about the technology and what can and should be used in the classroom.

Step 2: Work with Parents
The group that will have the most concerns and questions will be the parents. Why do we need all these sites open? Who is going to monitor where the students go? If there is an incident what will happen?

All these and other questions will come out, especially at the younger grade levels.

Teachers and administrators need to be able to address each and every one of these questions. There needs to be some level of comfort and confidence that their children will not just be surfing the Internet without guidance. The more that teachers and administrators are knowledgeable and understanding of their concerns the better the situation will be. Use this opportunity to share what the students will be learning about when using these tools.

Step 3: Educate your Faculty
Every staff member who works with students needs to understand where they are searching and how the technology should be used. Computers in a modern classroom are not toys but tools to be used to finding information, taking exams and expanding the possibilities of what they can do in their classes. Some need to go back to the basics on how to evaluate a Web site (just as they do a textbook).

  • What makes the information worthwhile? What does the site's terms of use or privacy statement mean? How do I prepare for students to use this information?
  • When students do their own searches, are their parameters that are placed on them so that they get good results?
  • Are there tools to get the best search results, and do the students know how to use them?
  • What about social media: Are their good sites and not-so-good sites for educational purposes?
  • When, where and how should they use these technologies?

There can't be an assumption that just because someone shares a site with a group at a meeting or conference that it has been vetted. Some sites that look good on the surface can have a very different message when it is searched. Some sites are also meant for different grade groups; read the terms of use to see if there is an age cutoff. Evaluate whether the site will be asking for personal information and why.

Every teacher needs to know if there is a code of conduct in their school or district and what the consequences are for anyone who does not live up to them.

Step 4: Educate your Students
Often this is where everyone wants to begin: Teach the students good search methods, where to surf and what to say, and everything will be okay. Students will take their cues from the adults around them; if they see good online activities then often that's what they will follow.

These discussions also need to start young, the younger the better. The more they are exposed to good role models and shown solid, proven use of technology, the more likely they will grow up with a healthy sense for using technology advantageously. Too often there are educators who do not know, or are not comfortable with, the technology, and there are more questions than good direction. This is not to say that a teacher shouldn't use a solid onliune resource just because he or she isn't 100 percent comfortable using it. But be prepared for students helping to guide the teacher or classmates on how to use the tools. This does not mean that this student will know everything about all technology, but at that particlar moment, he or she might be able to assist.

Today's students have grown up around technology and many are not afraid to use it when given the opportunity. But also know that their maturity may not be as advanced as their technology skills. Even those with good skills, students need to be monitored and directed in doing the right thing when it comes to technology.

This is a time of transition with respect to the technology tools in the classroom, and it will take time for everyone to know what works and what doesn't. Now is the time to open up the discussion of what technology tools should be used and when.

Many school and district faculty and staff have deep-rooted beliefs that can make it challenging to bring in new technologies or ideas that seem to change year to year. The entire school or district — from the teachers in the classrooms to administrators to IT staff — all need to be working together as a team to make decisions on what is the best technology for their students. Once everyone works toward this goal, then will the opportunities be truly available for everyone.

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