Search form

The IT Crowd

Who We Are Together, Not Apart

"Miguel," asked my supervisor, "don't you think it's time to revise our district's Acceptable Use Policy?" A good leader, I've been told, encourages action by asking questions of his/her subordinates. Even though I knew what was happening, there was little I could do about it. Revising an acceptable use policy is about as enjoyable as an afternoon in a dentist's office, albeit a bit more painful.

The changing landscape of teaching and learning online has profound implications for us all, especially curriculum and instruction leaders. Yet, often, teachers and leaders are reluctant to embrace the changes; reluctant to embrace transformative learning environments. Just as politicians make critical decisions based on which way the wind is blowing, technology administrators ask questions like this one, which I received while drafting this article: "Does your district block or unblock Wikipedia?"

As one might expect, the answer is not a simple "Yes," or "No." Often, administrative procedure and policy is written apart from the practice it's meant to support, imposed from above, rather than crafted together with the very people who need to be present.


At the 2008 NCTE Conference, educators participated in a session entitled Refreshing ISTE's National Education Technology Standards for Administrators (NETS-A). The session, facilitated ably by San Antonio, Texas, based leaders Rick Martinez (Alamo Heights ISD; Assistant Superintendent of Technology) and Dr. Sandra Zuniga (Our Lady of the Lake University) focused on a few questions:

  • How can we best meet the needs of a digital generation?
  • How are we going to develop our own skills to coordinate this?
  • How can we lead our teaching staff?

References That Extend Your Learning

* A revised Acceptable Use Policy
* Acceptable Use Policies

In the conversation, the discussion centered around transforming learning environments. Some of the educator perceptions shared included the following:

  • Kids are so much farther ahead than we are.
  • It took three years to get teachers to do e-mail, [how can we expect them to embrace new technologies that are ubiquitous OUTSIDE of school?]
  • Teachers don't want to look stupid in front of their students.
  • Students need to be able to construct knowledge from multiple information sources and experiences. There is a difference between using note cards and pulling information from Web sites and using social annotation and bookmarking tools like that allow users to highlight Web pages, and more.

It's clear that conversations about transformative uses of technology in schools are not taking place in a systematic way. While brave teachers are appropriating Web tools that were never intended for use in the classroom (such as, the infamous image-sharing site that is used for both digital storytelling and displaying nude teachers as art), school districts collectively ignore the issues, except to ban and filter. In fact, "ban and filter" is the new credo of school district administrators and lawyers, deathly afraid of having real conversations with those they serve. Acceptable use conversations may go to the heart of governance, leadership, and our conceptions of teaching and learning. Whether we believe we are prepared to have those conversations or not, they are upon us. Are we meeting the needs of a digital generation when we fail to have the conversations we need to have?


In the "ban and filter" campaign, the Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) is the ultimate weapon. "You violated the district's AUP; you are dismissed," whether from your job or from class. The sad truth is that AUPs have been written to benefit school districts, not learners. "Ban and filter" is the antithesis of "share and then filter," a different approach to wading through content that acknowledges that creativity and sharing come first. Yet, the latter approach involves developing information literacy (learning to be discerning).

In the past, acceptable use policies were designed to protect school districts from liability resulting from inappropriate use. As such, many "acceptable use" policies list what is unacceptable, and then ban it. That approach worked to a limited degree when technology access was not ubiquitous as it is today. Now, there is a definite need to shift from banning inappropriate use to modeling appropriate and responsible use.

Dr. Mike Ribble's digital citizenship recommendations definitely play into this conversation, but often educators continue to practice "ostrich" leadership. In a recent interview of a candidate for an assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, a colleague reflected on what was not asked: "What role does technology play in teaching and learning?"

Avoiding the question by focusing on instruction -- to the exclusion of technology that transforms our learning environments -- signals a problem with district leadership. The problem? Failure to learn while promoting lifelong learning among is hypocritical.

In one of the stories from "The Heresies of an Ostrich Leader," a leadership series as yet unpublished, the author shares how fearful people are of meeting and having a conversation about tough issues. The story was inspired by the musings of school district technology leader Pete Reilly.

"Affective leaders," said the grizzled face set atop an extended neck, his long nose a prop for spectacles that half-hid bulging dark eyes, his business suit creased from a long meeting, "use their heart to see beyond the words."

"I'm not sure I understand," I responded as I continued to hold the paper in my hands, a half-hearted defense against what I could feel was coming, but had no defense against. I joked, "Aren't meetings supposed to be effective, rather than affective?"

"Meetings aren't exercises in objectivity," he replied, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down as he took a swallow of water, the bottle clasped in long, spindly white fingers. "They're a conversation between human beings trying to understand who they are together." He turned his soft gaze on me, leaning forward, his stooped narrow shoulders poking through the coat he'd wrapped around his lean frame. "Meetings are effective only when we consider the interplay of emotions, can rely on each other without fear, trust that the intent of our words will be accepted as gospel truth. When I walk into a meeting, I'm more interested in what is unsaid."

"Unsaid?" I prompted at his pause. "You mean the subtext of any conversation? Isn't that a bit exhausting? What happened with being professional and businesslike, setting aside all that encroaching emotional baggage you have to avoid tripping over? Isn't that what we have to do as administrators and leaders? Help focus a laser beam on what needs to happen and get the results?"

"While you may certainly get results," he chuckled in reply, "they won't be the results you desire for the organization."

In our first encounter with technology in schools, we chose to ban and filter. We had a valid reason -- to protect our children and learning spaces. It was easy to play the part of an ostrich leader, with our heads in the sand, and we could choose to not engage in learning conversations with our children and students. Yet, technology ubiquity increases and, as more of us arrive in virtual space, it is more difficult to isolate ourselves and create artificial learning spaces. In truth, everywhere there is virtual space, there is a learning space.

"I don't want to talk to my 9-year-old about what he saw at school today!" shared one district administrator. "I want to put off the conversation about sex and relationships as long as possible. I can't do that if he's going to ask me about the naked people he saw in the Google Images search results." Focusing on the results -- protecting schools from liability from inappropriate use by students and staff -- without the conversations will not get us the results we desire.

It isn't that we avoid the tough issues, but rather we avoid the emotions that come with those conversations. Given the choice of an emotionally charged conversation about appropriate vs. inappropriate uses of technology, how that impacts student learning and curriculum frameworks, many administrators may throw up their hands and opt out. As such, our policy of acceptable use is really the result of adults opting out of conversations because they fear confrontation -- with each other, with students, parents, and the community.


Most acceptable use policies have several core tenets: Here is why the district is providing access to the Internet; that access is not a guaranteed right, but rather a privilege; and students, parents, and the school enter into an agreement. The essential elements of an acceptable use policy can be divided up in this way:

  1. Purpose of the AUP: This portions tries to respond to several questions, such as:
    • Why is the district providing access?
    • What are the limits of that access?
    • What educational applications will that access be put to?
    • What kinds of devices--including wireless devices--are being used and to what purpose?
  2. Terms and Conditions: Like any contract, the AUP document strives to define in simple terms what is acceptable and what is not. Some inappropriate uses, as discussed in the Woodward School's AUP, violate the law and include:
    • Criminal Acts: Those include, but are not limited to, "hacking" or attempting to access computer systems without authorization, harassing email, cyberbullying, cyberstalking, child pornography, vandalism, and/or unauthorized tampering with computer systems. (A list of Federal statutes from the United States Department of Justice is below as Appendix A).
    • Libel Laws: Publicly defaming people through the published material on the internet, email, etc.
    • Copyright Violations: Copying, selling, or distributing copyrighted material without the express written permission of the author or publisher (users should assume that all materials available on the Internet are protected by copyright), engaging in plagiarism (using other's words or ideas as your own).
  3. Privileges of Use, Punishment of Misuse: Clearly delineating punishment for inappropriate use is done in this section. Punishment, of course, must match the violation. Some examples:
    • I understand and will abide by the above Acceptable Use Agreement. Should I commit a violation, I understand that consequences of my actions could include suspension of computer privileges, disciplinary action, and/or referral to law enforcement.
    • Any violation of district policy and rules may result in loss of district-provided access to the Internet. Additional disciplinary action may be determined at the building level in keeping with existing procedures and practices regarding inappropriate language or behavior. When and where applicable, law enforcement agencies may be involved.
  4. Agreements and Consents: These involve students and parents signing that they understand the terms of the AUP contract, that it is an agreement of what will happen if children violate it. What it rarely does, however, is explore what will happen if all goes well. It is assumed that if children use the Internet, there will be NO conversation between the school and the parent because the school is doing what it was supposed to do -- use Internet resources to support instruction. Yet, how can we engage parents and students if they are not part of a conversation that involves some risk, some navigation of learning spaces that present us all with ill-structured problems without neat solutions? And how well prepared are our students if the learning they get is perfectly prepared, canned, and lacking in problem-based learning elements? Online learning re-introduces problem-based learning, providing us all with an opportunity. Some examples:
    • I understand and will abide by the above Acceptable Use Agreement. Should I commit a violation, I understand that consequences of my actions could include suspension of computer privileges, disciplinary action, and/or referral to law enforcement.
    • As the parent or guardian of this student, I have read the Acceptable Conduct and Use Agreement. I understand that computer access is provided for educational purposes in keeping with the academic goals of the district, and that student use for any other purpose is inappropriate. I recognize it is impossible for the district to restrict access to all controversial materials, and I will not hold the school responsible for materials acquired on the school network. I understand that children's computer activities at home should be supervised as they can affect the academic environment at school.
      I hereby give permission for my child to use computer resources at the district.

The Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires two different AUPs, one for children under 18 and another for adults. CIPA's also has strictures that seek to accomplish the following:

  • Prevent unauthorized disclosure of personal identification information.
  • Restrict access to materials harmful to minors.
  • Restrict minor's access to the Internet.
  • Emphasize safety and security.
  • Expect parents to be informed of AUP.
  • What to do about unauthorized access.

Would it be too obvious to say that the only way we can change what CIPA is about --safety and security -- is by redefining our understanding of what constitutes safety and security online? In the face of Read/Write Web technologies, as the lines between personal and professional are blurred beyond recognition, a time when who you are is simply who you are, no matter "where" you are -- online or face-to-face -- isn't it time to achieve a more enlightened view of acceptable use?

Perhaps, instead of listing the behavior that is inappropriate, we could raise expectations a bit. Woodward Academy does this in their Acceptable Use Policy; here is an excerpt:

  • I understand that passwords are private. I will not allow others to use my account name and password, or try to use that of others.
  • I will be polite and use appropriate language in my email messages, multi-user role-playing and/or virtual learning environments (e.g. Second Life), online postings, and other digital communications with others. I will refrain from using profanity, vulgarities, or any other inappropriate language as determined by school administrators.
  • I will use email and other means of communications (e.g. blogs, wikis, podcasting, chat, instant-messaging, discussion boards, virtual learning environments, and so on) responsibly. I will not use computers, handheld computers, digital audio players, cell phones, personal digital devices or the Internet to send or post hate or harassing mail, pornography, make discriminatory or derogatory remarks about others, or engage in bullying, harassment, or other antisocial behaviors either at school or at home.
  • I understand that I represent the school district in all my online activities. I understand that what I do on social networking web sites such as MySpace and Facebook should not reflect negatively on my fellow students, teachers, or on the district. I understand that I will be held responsible for how I represent myself and my school, department, or district on the Internet.

Other suggestions, like this adaptation of The Science Leadership Academy's introduction:
We live in a changing world, where we have more and faster access to information than ever before. Students now can be both consumers and producers of information, and the district strives to be a 21st Century district taking advantage of the many new technologies and new methods of communication now available to our students.
We are trying to create an environment that provides guidelines for students and staff to use new technologies in a meaningful way and to embrace them in ways that align to the ISTE National Education Technology Standards for Students. With access to these new technologies, students will have opportunities to learn and create like never before, but with those opportunities do come new responsibilities.

And, a rather forceful suggestion from D. Rezac, a teacher:
The spirit of technology education is one of sharing. We create blogs, podcasts, videos, wikis, and other social media, but we don't create them for one person. We create them to share with the class, the school, and the district community and, perhaps, the world, because we understand that a global audience drives achievement. In blogging class, we share our writing work with students in other states, and perhaps other countries. In other media classes and projects, we share our work on web sites called VoiceThread, SchoolTube, TeacherTube. These are video hosting sites for educators and students. They're like YouTube, except teachers control content so that there aren't any inappropriate comments made. Wikispaces is another teacher moderated site, where students can collaborate on online documents, with teacher supervision. For other work, we use sites like, which allows us to place students work for sharing, but are password protected, so only students and parents that have the passwords can view the material. Student full names and personal information are always kept confidential and are not shared online....

Click here to see a larger version of the image above.


As we consider crafting a more enlightened approach to using technology in schools than a document that simply defines the limits of how technology may be used, it is clear that writing an AUP is not about writing in isolation. It can no longer be a policy-maker deciding how to best protect the district from liability, but rather must be a collaborative, conversational, transparent approach that facilitates a "conversation between human beings trying to understand who they are together."

About the Author

As director of instructional technology for a large urban district in Texas, past president of the state-wide Technology Education Coordinators group in one of the largest U.S. technology educator organizations (TCEA), Miguel Guhlin continues to model the use of emerging technologies in schools. You can read his published writing or engage him in conversation via his blog at Around the Corner.

Article by Miguel Guhlin
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Updated 11/05/2012