Should schools establish policies to ban student cellphones, or take the opposite approach and embrace them as mobile learning devices? Will filtering out inappropriate online content on school computers have the unintended effect of denying access to high-quality material? Should policymakers restrict student access to social-networking sites at school or open them up as collaborative-learning tools?
Crafting school policy is often a delicate and controversial responsibility, but when it comes to educational technology in particular, policymakers are frequently criticized for failing to keep up with advances and then setting rules that are seen, especially by students, as too restrictive. Finding the right balance is a challenge in the digital age, as every year students begin using more-sophisticated technologies both in and out of school.
Part of the challenge stems from a disconnect between the technologies that adults and students are familiar with, says Keith Krueger, the executive director of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN, a nonprofit K-12 ed-tech advocacy organization.
“There’s just no question that kids today are living quite differently than how most of the people in charge of schools lived,” he says. “It’s not technology to kids; it’s their life.”
For example, using mobile technologies—such as cellphones and iPods—for learning was found to be the No. 1 technology trend in higher education by the 2009 Horizon report, which is produced by the Austin, Texas-based New Media Consortium. “But most school districts are banning [cellphones and iPods],” says Krueger.
And because of unfamiliarity with the latest technology tools that students embrace in their homes, educators may not be aware of the educational value technology may present, suggests Hilary Goldmann, the director of government affairs for the International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE, a Washington-based nonprofit group that aims to improve teaching and learning through technology.
“Some folks don’t really understand the promise of technology,” she says. “[It] is looked at as an add-on, instead of a seamless piece of the school.”
However, more educators and policymakers are taking the time to learn about emerging technologies, says Krueger, from CoSN.
Most educators now know what Web 2.0 tools—such as wikis, blogs, and other free online applications are used for, he says, but the next step is understanding the pedagogy behind them and how to integrate them effectively into curricula.
Another fundamental difficulty in writing technology policy for schools is the rapid pace at which technology evolves, says Ann Flynn, the director of educational technology for the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association, which offers schools advice on development of technology policy.
“Obviously, the technology moves more quickly than the average policymaking organization,” she says. For that reason, “you really should be writing policy around the action and the behavior [of the student] and not the technology device,” says Flynn.
For instance, it’s more efficient to write about proper Internet usage than to try to address how each mobile device with Internet capabilities can be used.
“Unfortunately, policy is often written to deal with challenges,” Flynn says, which can cause schools’ policies on acceptable Internet use to become laundry lists of restrictions. But by focusing on how students can behave responsibly when they are using technology—on and off the Web—schools can put ed-tech policy in a more positive light, she says.
To complicate matters, schools are still hashing out the consequences of some technologies, such as policies about social-networking Web sites, says Gregory A. Jackson, the vice president of policy and analysis for the Boulder, Colo.-based EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association that promotes technology in higher education.
“The major feature of our electronic age is that everything is connected to everything else,” he says. “Policies [about social-networking sites] can start feeling like schools are dabbling in students’ personal lives.”
Krueger says the key will be to find the right balance.
“We’re discovering this inherent tension between collaboration and safety,” he says, “and I think that will be something we’ll be exploring as we move forward.”