One of the sessions that I lead with school administrators focuses on acceptable use policies and many of the things that go along with those policies such as internet filters. My belief is that most schools have policies in place that are way too strict, and those policies limit how teachers and students can use the internet. There are times that this belief is certainly questioned. I’m frequently asked, “What harm does it do to have stricter policies in place?” I would argue that those policies drastically limit all of the positive experiences students can have online simply because we are afraid of the bad things that could happen. There are lots of similar examples you can think of in education, but as a former coach and athlete I like to use the example of high school football to make my point about this issue.
Each year thousands and thousands of student-athletes participate in high school football. There are lots of different benefits many people attribute to high school athletics including building character, working together, increasing physical fitness, and even improving academic success. Unfortunately, each year there are also some awful things that happen because students are participating in football. Student-athletes suffer injuries, including some that result in paralysis or even death. Other student-athletes are hazed or bullied and still others neglect their grades while participating in athletics.
The question is whether these negative things that happen to a few student-athletes outweigh all of the positive things that happen to thousands and thousands of other student-athletes. In the case of football a large percentage of schools and parents have decided that the positives outweigh the negatives. Schools really need to look at their policies through the same lens. They shouldn’t look solely at the negative things that can happen online, but they also must weigh the positive experiences students and teachers will lose if sites are blocked or access is restricted. Routinely, I see schools that block YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and many other sites. Have schools fully considered the things students are missing when these sites are blocked?
By now, some of you may be thinking I’m out of touch, and since I no longer work full-time in a K-12 setting I’ve forgotten what it is really like in schools. With that in mind, I’d like to reference some comments from reputable organizations about this topic.
The Crimes Against Children Research Center (CCRC) kicks-off its page about internet safety with the following sentence.
“The publicity about online “predators” who prey on naive children using trickery and violence is largely inaccurate.”
There were also some important findings in a recent federal online safety task force that were highlighted in eSchoolNews. This post and study are what really got me motivated to write this post. They included the following:
“the statistical probability of a young person being physically assaulted by an adult who they first met online is extremely low”
“young people’s use of social networking sites does not increase their risk of victimization”
“Restricting or forbidding access to social networking sites will likely do more harm than good, because social networking sites and the way young people use those sites have created not only places for social interaction, but also “informal learning environments”
“students would greatly benefit if educators are able to incorporate social networking sites into classroom instruction”
“Unless new media are used in schools and within families, youth are on their own in figuring out the ethics, social norms, and civil behaviors that enable good citizenship in the online part of their media use and lives”
“Avoid scare tactics and promote the social-norms approach to risk prevention.”
The purpose of this post isn’t to push schools to remove filters and throw out acceptable use policies. It also isn’t to argue that there are no threats to students online. They exist, and the media certainly sheds a spotlight on those issues. Instead, the purpose is to push schools to have serious conversations about these policies and for schools to weigh the negatives and positives of their policies. Once schools have done that, then and only then, can they truly make an informed decision in the best interest of their school.