Published Online: March 31, 2008
Published in Print: April 2, 2008, as Districts Weigh Benefits and Drawbacks Of Setting Up Student E-Mail Accounts

Districts Weigh Benefits and Drawbacks of Setting Up Student E-Mail Accounts

Some school districts hoping to improve communication and student engagement in learning are taking a step many educators still view warily: providing students with their own e-mail accounts.

Making e-mail a regular part of students’ school lives raises a host of concerns about inappropriate use. And many teachers doubt that the benefits will outweigh the headaches.

But administrators in districts that have instituted such e-mail service say it is paying off.

Bill Jensen, the information-services manager for the 2,200-student Scappoose school district near Portland, Ore., recently made e-mail available to the roughly 700 high school students in his district and has plans to expand the system to middle school students in the fall.

“I wish we could have done this earlier,” he said. “Now, instead of e-mailing friends, [students] can use it for something productive.”

Students use their e-mail accounts mostly for school-related communication, Mr. Jensen said. Teachers send reminders about upcoming tests and projects, and students who are absent can use their accounts to keep up with missed work.

Some teachers also use the accounts to send students Web links and other resources that are related to what they’re learning in class, Mr. Jensen said.

School-provided e-mail accounts not only are helpful in the classroom, he added, but they also teach students the difference between personal and professional uses of e-mail.

“Our job is to prepare [students] for college or a job,” he said. “We need to help them understand there is a difference between text-messaging friends and what you do in an office situation.”

So far, though, only a minority of teachers expect much academic benefit from school e-mail service for students, results from a national survey suggest.

According to new data from the annual Speak Up survey, to be released by the Irvine, Calif.-based Project Tomorrow this month, 21 percent of all teachers polled chose student e-mail access at school as one of the technological tools with the potential to increase student achievement and success in a 21st-century learning environment, while 46 percent of middle and high school students chose it from the same list of 16 potential tools. Both teachers and students had the opportunity to choose multiple options.

The survey, which polled about 370,000 students, parents, teachers, and school leaders, also found that about 60 percent of middle school students and 75 percent of high school students reported using e-mail on at least a weekly basis.

Managing Student E-Mail

When planning a system of student e-mail accounts, school districts should consider several factors, experts say, including:

• How closely the e-mail will be monitored. Some districts may want teachers and administrators to be able to read all e-mail messages received and sent by students, while others may feel comfortable simply having filters and spam blockers to prevent inappropriate material from being received or sent.

• The district’s current hardware capacity. Technology departments will need to take inventory of what hardware is available in order to determine which kind of student e-mail system will be compatible with the district’s technology model.

• Ease of use for teachers. In many cases, students will be more familiar with email interfaces than teachers are. It’s important to choose a system that is easy for teachers to use. Otherwise, they won’t be as likely to incorporate it into their teaching or their regular communications with students.

• How the system will be introduced to students, staff members, and parents. Keeping all parties informed about decisions regarding a student e-mail system will make all parties more comfortable with the system and more likely to use it.

• Internet etiquette for students. Going over the differences between personal and school e-mail accounts will help make students aware of how the school’s e-mail system should be used and cut down on disciplinary issues arising from inappropriate messages.

“The kids are very enthusiastic about the idea,” said Julie A. Evans, the chief executive officer of Project Tomorrow, a nonprofit education group, formerly known as NetDay, that conducts research on K-12 math, science, and technology trends. “They don’t understand why their schools won’t give them [e-mail accounts].”

Students like the professionalism of having a school-provided e-mail account, especially when applying to college, Ms. Evans said. E-mail also gives students who may be too shy to raise their hands in class a more private way to communicate with their teachers, she said.

Teachers, for their part, are likely to warm up to the idea, she believes.

“In the same way that teachers were reluctant initially to give their e-mail addresses to parents,” Ms. Evans said, they may be afraid to use e-mail with students. Now, e-mailing parents is common practice, she noted, and many teachers say it has become an integral and important part of their jobs.

“The teachers are nervous about the workload, and they haven’t seen the benefits [of student e-mail accounts],” Ms. Evans said. But she is confident that once teachers put student e-mail into practice, they will see how valuable it is.

“I do think this is going to catch on,” she said. “It’s just a matter of time.”

Even districts that have had success with student e-mail systems admit to facing obstacles because of safety and disciplinary concerns.

Randy Wittwer, the director of technology for the 9,000-student Mead, Wash., school district, said his district receives about 50,000 spam e-mails per hour. To combat that influx of mass-mailed, often commercial outside messages, the district uses spam and content filters to scan each incoming message, and student e-mail accounts can be easily monitored by teachers for inappropriate messages.

‘Netiquette’ Forms

Under the Children’s Internet Protection Act, or CIPA, passed by Congress in 2000, school districts must protect students from harmful materials—such as pornography and obscene language—in order to be eligible for federal E-rate money, which can be used to subsidize up to 90 percent of schools’ telecommunications and technology costs.

“Our job is to keep that communication open and protect the students,” Mr. Wittwer said.

To be in compliance with CIPA, and lighten the workload of their technology staffs, some districts choose an outside service to handle their e-mail systems. For example, Gaggle.net, based in Bloomington, Ill., provides students with e-mail accounts, blogs, and other online technologies, and gives teachers full control over their students’ e-mail accounts.

SchoolCenter, a Carbondale, Ill.-based company that provides Web tools specifically designed for schools, and the New York City-based company eChalk also offer such services.

Gaggle.net filters each incoming e-mail and searches the document for words that may be inappropriate for students. Certain key words will automatically redirect the e-mail to a teacher’s inbox for approval.

In addition to protecting students from spam, the feature allowing teachers to access students’ inboxes cuts down on disciplinary problems, such as e-mails with inappropriate language or harassing messages that rise to the level of cyberbullying, the company says.

Most districts require students to sign a “netiquette” agreement, which describes the appropriate terms of use for school-provided e-mail, before they are given access to an account. Many districts also require that the form be signed by parents.

Tool for Collaboration

Keeping parents in the loop about student e-mail accounts is a key part of a successful technology program, said Lucy Gray, the lead technology coach for the Center for Urban School Improvement at the University of Chicago.

Digital Directions

Digital Directions online keeps you up to date on current trends and best advice for K-12 technology leaders.

 “[Schools] are so worried about lawsuits, but the more you educate parents,” the more supportive and involved they will be, she said.

At the same time, whether an e-mail system is effective

depends largely on teachers, said Michael D. Westbrook, a network manager for the 30,000-student Modesto, Calif., city schools.

“If the teachers lay down the expectation, the students have to adapt,” he said. But “a lot of teachers aren’t comfortable” using e-mail with their students, and “trying to get them to use [it] has been a bit of a challenge.”

In his district, each incoming 7th grader gets an e-mail account, but must complete an Internet-usage tutorial before the account is activated. The accounts follow the students through high school, although they must retake the tutorial once they enter high school.

The upside of providing e-mail accounts for students far outweighs the obstacles, Ms. Gray argued.

“E-mail allows for collaboration and communication between groups of people, as opposed to single students to single teachers,” she said. “Conversations through e-mail encourage a collaborative, inclusive culture and teach kids that they have to work together.”

Vol. 27, Issue 31, Pages 1,16

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