It isn’t always easy to find the balance in cyberspace. Protecting students from Internet dangers and distractions while still reaping its benefits is on every district’s tech priority list.
Sharnell Jackson, chief e-learning officer for the 415,000-student Chicago Public Schools, and Miguel Guhlin, director of instructional technology services for the 55,000-student San Antonio Independent School District in Texas, give their suggestions on how to achieve this.
1. Get technological safeguards in place.
First make sure to have adequate Web encryption. Chicago standardized its wireless access points, using Cisco Aironet 1200. Adequate filtering is built into the system, Jackson says.
Filter content at local and core routers. Chicago use Virex 7 software for Macs and Trend Micro OfficeScan 7.3 for PCs. Set up online request forms for opening and blocking sites.
2. Put together a cyberspace safety curriculum for parents.
San Antonio is working on a series of lessons and presentations that teachers and staff can deliver to parents. The 10- to-20-minute video clips will be available to parents in a variety of ways—on the Internet, on CDs, and in face-to-face meetings, Guhlin says.
3. Take advantage of already available Internet safety education programs.
Chicago uses i-SAFE for teacher, student, and parent Internet awareness and safety education. The nonprofit foundation, which is endorsed by Congress, is designed to protect children from dangerous, inappropriate, and unlawful online activities. Internet safety is tied more to community awareness than software filters, according to the organization’s Web site, www.isafe.org. Its programs include K–12 curriculum and outreach to schools, parent,s and law enforcement. The i-SAFE videos that demonstrate what can happen when students let their guard down and start communicating with people they don’t know are the most powerful part of the program, Jackson says. Right now i-SAFE is not required in all Chicago schools, but Jackson thinks it should be.
4. Have an acceptable use policy for all employees as well as students.
Chicago’s Internet use policy is written into the discipline code. Consequences for violations are clearly spelled out. The code states that students who download “non-educational” sites, for example, can have their network privileges suspended for 5 to 10 days. Inappropriate sites include, but aren’t limited to, pornography and games. For repeated violations of the district’s computer use policy, students can have privileges suspended for up to a semester. And they are subject to other standard disciplinary consequences, including parent-teacher conferences, detention, and suspension.
5. Put an “early-warning system” into effect.
It’s public information when a student or school employee accesses an inappropriate site in Chicago—a siren, similar to a natural disaster warning, sounds. The noise, audible to everyone nearby, keeps going until the site is shut down. And while students can disable the siren, an administrator also receives e-mail notification whenever inappropriate site access occurs. Along with the siren and the email, a notice announcing that an inappropriate site has been accessed appears on the user’s screen. Inappropriate sites include pornographic sites and social networking sites, such as MySpace and YouTube, Jackson says.
6. Encourage teachers to become a part of the virtual world.
According to Guhlin, the education necessary for Internet safety isn’t really about sites like MySpace, though. “It’s how to be ‘digital citizens’ and get along in the virtual world we have all created,” he says. Districts need to help teachers get over their fear of the unknown—in this case, the online unknown. San Antonio, for example, has successfully introduced teachers to blogging. The district held teacher workshops and set up a Web site, http://itls.saisd.net/scribe, where students and teachers share their work.
7. Use the many Internet offerings that can contribute to educational creativity, but do it inside a “walled garden.”
San Antonio has blogs, wikis, podcasting, and image gallery access for its students and teachers, but those Internet tools are on school servers. For example, instead of teachers using a site such as blogspot.com, where the next blog is just a click away, San Antonio installed b2evolution, a free “blogging platform.”
8. A picture is worth a thousand words. Include an image library in your “walled garden.”
As with blogs, make sure you have some say over the content. For example, instead of Flickr, which provides easy access to inappropriate images, San Antonio uses Gallery, a free open-source image library that allows the district more control.
9. Create a repository for information about what works.
San Antonio has it all in one place. Districts can learn about how to set up their own safe cyberspace communities.
10. When it comes to social networking sites like MySpace, educators should encourage the critical element—parental involvement.
Ultimately, tech-savvy students can find ways to get around any filters at home or school. But, Jackson says, parents don’t have to make it easy for them. They don’t, for example, have to let their children have computers in their rooms. And remember who’s in charge. Neither parents nor schools should let children set up the administrative rights or parental controls on computers, she says.