David Warlick, an instructional technology consultant from Raleigh, North Carolina, is an internationally recognized conference speaker and workshop facilitator. The creator of Landmarks for Schools, one of the Internet's earliest educational Web sites, Warlick is also the author of Raw Materials for the Mind, a book about the powerful educational opportunities available through the Internet. This week, Warlick shares with Education World his thoughts about how the latest online tools can allow schools to rewrite their Acceptable Use Policies, permitting students to make better use of Internet resources.Few would deny that the Internet has impacted our lives in many ways, certainly faster, and probably to a greater degree, than any other communication tool in history. The fact that the global network has reached into nearly every school in the United States in the eight short years since the World Wide Web was created dramatically illustrates that impact.
The same freewheeling spirit that spurred the Internet's unprecedented growth, however, has also turned it into something of an untamed wilderness, where users often act -- and feel -- like pioneers in a lawless land. The result is a virtual landscape, rich in valuable educational resources but also populated by the ideas of people completely unconcerned with the well-being of children.
Many schools and school systems attempted to harness this vast, valuable, and problematic technology by establishing standards and regulations commonly known as acceptable use policies (AUPs). AUPs typically involve
School officials developed the model for most AUPs three or four years ago, when widespread implementation of the Internet in U.S. schools was in its infancy. At that time, very good reasons existed for implementing those measures, including a risk of access to harmful information and a clear potential for danger in unregulated collaborations. Those reasons were compounded by the near hysteria raised among novice users by a sensationalist media.
In the last few years, however, educators have learned a great deal about the uniquely powerful potential of the Internet and about how to integrate online opportunities into classroom instruction. We know that students learn better and that their communication skills increase when they have the opportunity to use the Internet to collaborate with experts or with students in other countries -- when they can communicate powerful ideas to authentic audiences for personally meaningful reasons.
In many schools, however, outdated policies that forbid the use of chat rooms, discussion forums, and e-mail prevent students and teachers from using the Internet for collaborative activities. Three years ago, safety in those kinds of collaborative environments could not be assured. Today, it can be. A growing number of sites provide tools that allow teachers to build temporary chat rooms and discussion forums and make them available only to those who are legitimately involved in the instructional activities of the students. These teacher-built virtual environments are invisible and inaccessible to the rest of the world.
One such site, bigchalk.com, provides a free feature called Community Tutorial. Here, teachers can create password-protected Web pages that include secure chat rooms, discussion forums, and Web forms. Each of the site's teacher-managed tools is available only to those identified by the teacher as essential to the instructional activities of the classroom.
Gaggle.Net, another interesting new site, offers a free e-mail tool designed with safety in mind. With Gaggle, teachers or administrators can provide e-mail accounts for students, identifying varying levels of e-mail usage for specific students or classes. For instance, the tool can be set to prevent third-grade students from exchanging e-mail messages with anyone outside their own classroom, while at the same time allowing fourth- and fifth-grade students to send or receive e-mail freely beyond the confines of the school campus.
In addition, Gaggle maintains a database of words, phrases, and Internet domains that have been identified as potentially inappropriate for student use. With this feature, incoming or outgoing e-mail messages flagged as questionable are automatically directed to the teacher, who can then evaluate the appropriateness of the individual messages.
One of the oldest and potentially most valuable online collaborative tools is the mailing list, or listserv, which can be used to exchange ideas, problems, strategies, and solutions with people around the world. Teachers, for example, have participated in public educational mailing lists for years, sharing professional insights and ideas with colleagues.
Now, with ListBot, teachers can create -- with only a few mouse clicks -- temporary or permanent listservs for their classes that are restricted to only those people who are essential to the instructional activities. (Click on "Sign Up Now" next to the description of ListBot Free!) One of the most valuable of the many features of ListBot is its ability to archive all messages posted to the list, creating a permanent (but secure) resource for later reference.
The availability of those and other online tools, as well as the growing technical sophistication of teachers, provides the potential for a new type of learning environment, in which the global network serves as a work space for students -- not merely a fancy encyclopedia. In order to realize that potential, however, schools must develop acceptable use policies that reflect both the new opportunities and the need for safety.
Probably the most prevalent and enduring aspect of school Internet service is filtering or blocking software. Anyone who has spent any time at all on the Internet can't help but be aware that many online information resources are simply not appropriate for children. Even though such sites represent only a small fraction of the available information, their existence is still a cause for concern. If a school decided in the past to use filtering software to protect students from inappropriate information, the reasons for making that decision have not changed.
We must be very careful, however, to ensure that the policies that protect students do not also prevent teachers from providing their students with valuable learning experiences. Too often, teachers have worked at home to identify and select Web pages for use in classroom lessons, only to find that a network filter prevents students from using those sites. Often, this kind of brick wall brings the learning activities to a screeching halt. At best, the teacher must spend valuable time working through bureaucratic channels to have the site released for use, which is often too little too late.
Teachers are the instructional leaders of their classrooms. Teachers develop lesson plans, produce learning materials, select books and other resources -- in short, they make countless constant decisions about how and what students will learn. Teachers should also control the information that enters the classroom via the Internet. If a teacher cannot use a Web page that he or she has evaluated and selected based on curriculum considerations, then that teacher should at least be able to type a password into the computer that immediately releases that page and makes it available for classroom use.
It is time for schools to rethink their acceptable use policies. Although safety should remain an important aspect of AUPs, such policies should also promote effective use of the Internet and ensure that every student benefits fully from the substantial investments schools have made in educational technology.
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