Posted by: schooleducator | September 9, 2009

Acceptable Use Policies in Schools: From the Call of the Wild to The Old Man at Sea

Acceptable Use Policies:  Extreme Makeover

It is never easy to figure out a way to go over the rules for proper computer use with middle school students. There is a fine line to straddle between paternal guidance and student voice to arrive at a workable plan to live cooperatively with technology in a school community.

Fortunately, the news of the last few weeks presents a golden opportunity for educators across the country to frame the conversation around acceptable use with real world problems that grown ups are wrestling with. One formidable institution, the U.S. Military, finds itself trapped in the cross hairs of trying to leverage technology for advancement and progress, while at the same time trying to figure out ways to shield and safeguard the precious vault of information that undergirds its organization.

Another organization, the National Football League, combats the use of Twitter during training camp, for fear of players leaking team secrets and playbooks. Notorious hothead Chad Ochocinco Johnson responds: “Damn NFL and these rules, I am going by my own set of rules,” the Bengals’ receiver said on his Twitter page (@OGOchoCinco).

Of course, NFL coaches are living in a bygone age. Miami Dolphins coach Tony Sparano admits: “I’m naïve to the whole thing, I don’t really know what this is,” Sparano said, after warning his players about Twitter. “I just learned how to text a couple months ago.”  The younger Denver Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels, in his early 30s, even acknowledges: “I don’t really have a Twitter policy. I don’t know what it means. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know that ‘MyFace,’ ‘Spacebook’ or ‘Facebook.’”

It appears that the NFL won round one in the Twitter battle.  Ochocinco gave up his Twitter account, claiming that the NFL had too many rules and restrictions on use.  The NFL ended up banning players from using Twitter and other social media during games.

And, lawyers are even being hushed, as bar associations put the clamps on blogs by lawyers, who air courtroom happenings.  The New York Times reported the fining of Florida lawyer Sean Conway, who blogged about a judge, calling the judge an “Evil, Unfair Witch.”  With more and more twenty-somethings entering the legal profession, the problem of inappropriate postings will only worsen, according to Stephen Gillers of New York University Law School.  In the same article, he is quoted:  “Twenty-somethings have a much-reduced sense of personal privacy.”

The military is toying with an extreme technology makeover, harnessing the tools of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr to overhaul their image to bring in recruits, and influence public opinion. However, the military is expected to unfurl a new policy to limit the uses of social networking, over increased worries about cyber security. This may thwart whatever progress has been made in recent months and sink such popular blogs, like Embrace the Suck, which chronicles life at the front in Afghanistan. The debate, The New York Times writes, “reflects a broader clash of cultures; between the anarchic, unfiltered, bottom-up nature of the Web and the hierarchical, tightly controlled top-down tradition of the military.”

Funny, that is just what students say about school authorities trying to implement an acceptable use policy for school computers.

Students want to have control over their computers at school. They want to download and personalize their music libraries, chat with their peers using iChat, clog school bandwith with YouTube videos, and bypass any effort to regulate network security, all in the name of technology independence. Schools have the obligation to provide safe learning environments, but they also are charged with fostering innovation and creativity.

The question is how wide to open the window of use to enhance teaching and learning. There is simply no way to stop the flow of information, as Noah Shachtman, editor of’s national security blog, Danger Room, commented in the New York Times article about the military. Schools are in the same pickle. Schools must help students to makes sense of information, to synthesize, analyze, and judge the credibility of material.

But, schools also need to draw boundaries for students around issues like chatting, texting, downloading, and gaming, much to the chagrin of freewheeling students, many of whom are accustomed to more lax rules at home surrounding technology.

Is there a way to find a win-win solution? One way is to invite students into the conversation about setting boundaries for proper use in school. This is a tricky process, and one that can fast spin into open revolt.

Schools can devise laptop boot-up days to introduce students to both the perils and possibilities of technology. These boot-ups can include workshops on care, ethics, and appropriate use guidelines, but they should also give time and attention to authentic media creation projects and experiences so that students, with the guidance of teachers, can experiment with the tools, make mistakes and missteps, and learn. Also, schools can invite guest speakers in the field of technology to share success stories of innovation and risk-taking. Technology educators can also be brought in to run aspects of the boot-up camp, to bring an outside voice into the community dialogue.

An additional, critical component of the rollout of computer use in schools is to engage the parent community. Parents are spokes on the wheel of the school community and for the ride to go smoothly, schools need to educate parents around appropriate use at home, on tools like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and Flickr. If students come to school, after a night of unfettered computer use at home, they get mixed messages and this is where conflict arises. Organizations like Common Sense Media, a national non-profit organization based in San Francisco, have created a family media use agreement for schools and families to use together to arrive at agreements for appropriate use. Bringing families to school to talk with administrators and teachers helps to bridge the gap that can exist between children and adults around technology.

In terms of the actual policies that schools implement, schools need to provide wiggle room to allow for the policies to be modified and adapted according to circumstances that arise during the school day.  Having an acceptable use policy in a Question and Answer format leaves room for new questions to be added, as issues unfold.  Not every situation can be addressed in an acceptable use policy and it is critical that the document convey a spirit of encouraging students to do the right thing. The last thing schools should do is box themselves into a corner with a document that interferes with the ability of teachers to help students act appropriately with technology.

This can be a challenge for teachers, not to become so wedded to the “letter of the law” that they lose the ability to act in the moment an educate students.  One teacher, running a study hall, grew worried that students were playing games and not doing homework on their laptops.  He sent me an email during the study hall, and asked me to contact the tech office to use Apple Remote Desktop to survey student activity in the study hall.  The result:  students were actually doing their homework and not playing games, as he suspected.  He felt paralyzed to deal with the students in the study hall, because the acceptable use policy did not mention study hall use of computers.  Schools cannot reach the point where teachers need to walk around with the AUP in their pocket, pull it out, and then point to code, paragraph, line to call students on their behavior.  Instead, schools need to foster a spirit of discussion and reflection, and impose appropriate consequences when there are clear transgressions.

But one thing is clear:  it is high time to break down the hierarchy. The U.S. military, lawyers, and the NFL are all learning this lesson the hard way.  Bottom up is the way to go with acceptable use with technology.  The days of giving out fines, as the NFL and bar associations are doing, are numbered.

Students are just a few steps away from entering the workforce, and organizations need to listen to the drumbeat of where technology is headed. It is not The Call of the Wild, but it is feeling more and more like The Old Man and the Sea, or The Old Man at Sea.


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