Education Opinion


By LeaderTalk Contributor — April 10, 2009 14 min read
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[This post was co-authored by Greg Farr, Principal, and Randy Rodgers, Instructional Technologist]

My family owned The Farr Best Theater in Mansfield, Texas. My grandfather opened the theater in 1917. When Gone with the Wind was first released in 1939, my grandfather, Milton May, refused to show it. He objected to the vulgarity it contained.

Pressure from his nine children (my dad, my aunts and my uncles) finally convinced him to show the movie. As it turned out, Gone with the Wind was the theater’s highest grossing film for all of 1939 and 1940 combined.

What does this have to do with allowing student access to technology and applications? More than you might realize. My grandfather was a mild-mannered, well-intentioned businessman who had accepted and paid for significant upgrades in technology: from silent movies to sound, from black and white movies to color. But he drew the line with this movie, wanting nothing more than to protect his customers from exposure to the one word vulgarity uttered by Rhett Butler. The technology of movies had been fine up to this point, but now he felt a duty to limit its application - especially when something he felt inappropriate was being put out for public consumption.

Matters of technology and the use of its various applications often boil down to issues of appropriateness. Despite all the training, policies, safeguards, and technology itself, there comes a point at which local norms, personal interpretations, and the discretion of decision-makers come into play.

Thus, while I believe in, and argue for all students being allowed a broad, open access to technologies and their applications within the school setting, I cannot tell you what is “educationally appropriate” for every child of every ability level in every class.

My grandfather lost the debate with the younger generation. I can just hear my dad saying, “It’s not like we haven’t heard the word before.” (An argument that I still hear from my students when we discuss issues of access to certain materials or sites.)

If you read my previous post (From Mad Magazine to Facebook...), you may have had questions regarding how to actually implement student access to technology in your school or classroom. This post is written for those who want follow-up to the whole idea of allowing students access to various technologies and their applications.

Do the benefits outweigh the risks? If you agree that, in fact, the benefits far outweigh the risks, and if you are interested in how one district is working toward implementation, then I encourage you to keep reading.

As I gathered information and made notes for this post, the philosophies, policies, procedures, and various methods of implementation fell into three broad categories:

I. Administrative Support ((Policies, Procedures, Practices, and Processes)
II. Teacher Support (Policies, Procedures, Practices, and Processes)
III. Student / Parental Support, Awareness, and Agreement

I. Administrative Support

This takes the form of having philosophical, policy and financial support. Clearly, unless the board and central administration back the philosophy of student access to tech apps, the entire process stops dead in the tracks. If sufficient backing on the local governing board is present, and if the superintendent is a progressive, open-minded, cutting-edge leader who “gets” the role and significance of technology in today’s educational setting, you are in a position to begin putting appropriate policies, procedures, and practices in place.

Our TIMS department is often asked, “How did you establish such strong administrative support?”

If you have any hope of creating a progressive and open climate for technology use, you have to work at demonstrating its possibilities to all levels of district leadership.

A key turning point occurred three years ago when our TIMS department briefed the district’s leadership team about new sites collectively referred to as Web 2.0. The Leadership Team was excited about the potential and the superintendent wanted to check out one website in particular...a site named YouTube. He found that he was blocked by the district’s filter. The block was removed in order for him to view it, and he ultimately saw so many videos of educational value that he had the block removed permanently.

There is also a financial obligation that accompanies any decision to allow student access to a meaningful variety of tech apps. And this is NOT just a yes/no decision to buy a piece of technology. Any commitment of funds must also address the initial matching of funds to the precise type/purpose/use/and desired outcome of any technology being purchased. For example, agreeing to purchase personal desktop computers versus lap tops can be based on two very distinct justifications. My staff had a lengthy discussion before choosing to buy iPods instead of laptops for one of our programs because they are two very different technologies and applications.

A significant factor which must be taken into consideration when budgeting technology is the long tail which comes attached. Rarely is a purchase of technology a “stand alone” proposition. Everyone involved must understand the long-term commitment and support costs which accompany technology. Specifically: software, site licenses, maintenance, and periodic up grades must be taken into consideration. Technology is a very hungry pet, and its upkeep and feeding take a large and long-term commitment.

This district has a commitment to growing and extending the “fence line” further out. For example:

1) We have a committee working on updating our electronic communication device policy. Once finalized, and if approved by the board, it will take effect next year. In this proposed version, the use of electronic devices (defined as cell phones, iPhones, iPods, and mp3 players) is not only approved in school and at school activities, but will be encouraged in classrooms for educational purposes.

2) We are piloting a project in which students are being given email accounts sponsored by the district. While the accounts are open to district as well as outside email, they are able to be monitored. Students will be encouraged to use them for communicating with teachers and any other educationally beneficial use they may have.

3) We are “growing” our availability of on-line courses. Refer to our e-Learning website for more attempts to expand educational opportunities beyond our schoolhouse walls.

4) We offer a high school drama class in partnership with Theatre Link via a distance learning lab through which students located in several different states are provided live, real time instruction with teachers located in New York City.

5) We are beginning to offer professional development through on-line webinars using a program called Elluminate.

6) The superintendent recently attended a conference in Austin and sent summary statements from various sessions to a group formed on Facebook.

Once philosophical agreement and financial support are established at the upper governance levels in a district, focus can then be given to the next critical tier of implementation: the teachers.

II. Teacher Support

Let’s get this out on the table right from the start: the ultimate success of allowing students open access to the array of tech apps in the classroom is directly tied to:

a) the degree of teacher support;
b) the degree of specific tech app knowledge and awareness on the part of the teacher; and
c) the classroom management skills of the teacher.

Teacher support of student access begins with expectations being set at the top and a culture of acceptance gradually being built over a period of time. The use of technology is championed in our district from the top down, and we have a number of strategies being implemented to encourage teacher support and growth:

* There is a requirement for all teachers to demonstrate competencies in eight areas of technology use and application.
* Every school is provided with an Instructional Technologist to help teachers plan lessons with technology integrated as appropriate throughout the school day.
* Special one hour working lunch sessions are taught which introduce various technologies and applications to administrators. (These sessions may also be requested for staff meetings with different campuses.) Just this year alone I have attended sessions which covered YouTube, Twitter, Blackboard, PhotoShop, MovieMaker, PodCasts, Small Wonder Cameras, Skype, Sky2Go, and Google Apps.
* One of the Instructional Technologists runs a series he calls “The Twelve Second Tech Challenge”. District staff are encouraged to log onto his site, watch a brief video, and then perform a task. Meant to be meaningful and fun, they are a fast way to pick up awareness of one more small tool or trick. To try one, log onto to Mr. Rodgers’ site.

The goal of all our training is to establish exposure and familiarity with the most common tech apps out there. E.D. Hirsch calls it Cultural Literacy. To remain truly literate in today’s society, you need a certain level of awareness and familiarity with certain touchstones of our history, society, and culture. Staying current in the rapidly expanding area of computer technology requires true effort.

Examples of New Tech Literacy:

* If someone was not aware of a currently popular tech app, last week’s headlines here in Dallas would make little sense to them. The owner of the Dallas Maverick’s basketball team was fined because of something he entered on his Twitter account.

* Teachers who have no understanding of “social networks”, will be lost when students start talking about something that was said on MySpace or Facebook. If you have never created an avatar and gone shopping in Second Life, it would be impossible to describe a whole thriving and very real economic system based on Linden Dollars.

* And many of my students would consider me “illiterate” if I could not make out this sentence: ?4u I 1dr if u kwim w/ txt msgs. Yes? ^5 & cul8r

(“I have a question for you. I wonder if you know what I mean when I text message. If you do, high five and I’ll see you later.”)

It is not necessary for teachers to own iPods and download their music from iTunes. But it is not unrealistic to expect them to know what an iPod is and what it does.

Once we have a basic level of teacher support and a working knowledge/awareness base established, the rest of implementing student access to tech apps becomes an issue of good old fashioned classroom management. Please note that at no point have I said students should be granted unsupervised, unrestricted access to all technologies and applications.

A basic premise of trust is essential in implementing any level of student access to tech apps. But we must also remain realistic and acknowledge that, yes, wherever students gather there are bound to be those who will seek to bend the rules and a smaller group that will seek to break them altogether. Although there is plenty of room to debate “appropriate” supervision, I prefer to operate on the basic assumption that common sense survives in our classrooms, administrative offices and boardrooms. Professional educators are more than capable of setting limits and monitoring access to technology. While I am strongly opposed to blanket denials of student access to technologies and applications in our schools, I am equally as opposed to wanton disregard for safeguards and turning students loose with no restrictions/supervision at all.

COMPLETE RESTRICTIONS - NO RESTRICTIONS. See that hyphen? THAT is where we need to focus our efforts.

One side effect of staff being aware and knowledgeable is that they can also help provide a higher level of safety. We were able to stop a case of cyber-bullying because an astute staff member knew what and how it was happening. And while we haven’t had a specific case yet, staff is being made aware to watch for any signs of the current trend called “sexting”.

Even as we open more gates and expand exposure to more and more tech apps, we also seek cutting edge methods to ensure both student safety and compliance with rules. We are in the process of installing a program called Vision on computers in all labs and libraries on our middle and high school campuses. This is a program which allows the teacher or lab supervisor to monitor each student’s computer. It has features such as one in particular that allows a teacher to shut down access to the internet on an individual computer, take over and instruct directly on the student’s screen, or even share student work from one screen to another.

When possible, we evaluate the physical set-up and arrangement of our tech areas. One example is here on my campus. We designed and installed wrap-around desks in two computer labs. These are one continuous desktop that runs along the wall and allows anyone standing in the middle of the lab to monitor every screen.

III. Student / Parental Awareness

Every student on my campus is exposed to no less than six waivers regarding their exposure to -or use of - digital technologies. There is approval for participating in video conferencing and distance learning opportunities. Permission is required for website / internet picture use. There is an agreement form for the computer labs that specifically outlines the district’s guidelines and expectations for use. And then there is the “king” of all forms: The Technology Acceptable Use Form which all parents must sign prior to students being allowed to use any district technology. We have a student email AUP, student email user agreements for students 14+, parental consent forms for students younger than 14, and contracts for blogs, and wikis. Following the first few days in any computer class or the first few days of school in general, there is no doubt that both the students and parents are well aware of our district’s philosophy and procedures and even consequences for misuse.

Student Art Work on Wall of Computer Lab

There is not room to include the Acceptable Use Form in its entirety here, but allow me to reprint some of the most significant content:

“The Birdville Independent School District provides technology resources to its students for educational purposes.”

“With access to the Internet comes the potential availability of material that may not be considered to be of educational value in the context of the school setting. Birdville ISD firmly believes that the value of information, interaction and research capabilities outweighs the possibility that users may obtain material that is not consistent with the educational goals of the district.”

“The district reserves the right to monitor all technology resource activity. The use of the network is a privilege that for any reason may be revoked by network administrators or authorized faculty designees at any time for violation of district policy and/or administrative regulations regarding acceptable use. While the district uses filtering technology and protection measures to restrict access to adult content or material on the internet that students (or their parents) might find objectionable, it is not always possible to prevent such access. It is each student’s responsibility to follow the rules for appropriate and acceptable use.”


How do you establish open student access to today’s technologies and applications in the school setting?

It starts at the top with a belief and philosophy that access to technology is vital to today’s educational process. It is carried out by teachers who develop buy-in through working in a culture which embraces, trains, uses and promotes tech apps at every opportunity. It is reinforced with rules and procedures which are widely disseminated and enforced, but built upon a foundation of trust that students will use today’s technology appropriately.

It grows with on-going financial commitment and becomes ever more valuable as students and teachers discover on a daily basis new ways to use applications to expand their educational opportunities.

How can you teach 21st century skills, digital ethics, and safety without access to the actual technology and applications? You cannot learn to swim by sitting on the beach. If application is one of the highest levels of learning, why do we still have school policies that prohibit exposure and use? Safety is critical. And students need the opportunity to practice responsible use in the security of the campus setting before they should be expected to apply them to the outside world.

Like it or not, technology is here and becomes more essential to the educational process every day.

And with all due respect to my grandfather...

Frankly, my friends, the time has come for all educators to really give a ....


There are way too many great books, but I would start any library on this topic with these classics:

Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Tools for Classrooms; Will Richardson;
Corwin Press, 2006

Don’t Bother Me Mom - I’m Learning; Marc Prensky;
Paragon House,2006

Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works; Pitler, Hubbell, Kuhn, and Malenoski;
ASCD, 2007

What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy; James Paul Gee;
Palgrave Macmillan, 2007

I encourage you to visit our TIMS department’s information-rich website.

The opinions expressed in LeaderTalk are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.