In “Making Progress” report, education leaders call for a reboot of schools’ restrictive technology policies

Most K-12 teachers have experienced the impediment of blocked websites and denied access to tools (Gmail, Twitter) they use everywhere else in their lives, and the frustration is doubly acute for those teaching journalism, for which social media increasingly is indispensable.

This week, a coalition of education and technology advocates — including the Student Press Law Center — set forth a series of conversation-starting recommendations aimed at rebooting school technology policies. The report, “Making Progress: Rethinking State and School District Policies Concerning Mobile Technologies and Social Media” recommends tearing down the barriers that prevent young people from using the tools with which they are the most comfortable — and which they will use in their workplaces — to learn during the school day.

“In today’s world, most students are attached to mobile devices of some kind whether in or out of school. When policy and practice are aligned, the amazing possibilities presented by this fact surely outweigh the challenges,” said Bradley J. Hull, deputy executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, one of the 14 signatories to the April 9 report.

Among the report’s recommendations are:

  • Move away from blanket bans on cell phones and social networking sites toward a “Responsible Use Policy” that — instead of speaking in prohibitions — speaks in terms of wisest and best practices.
  • Revise the way schools implement the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which is widely misunderstood and misapplied so that much of the Web, including entirely harmless research sites, is walled off for misguided “safety” reasons.
  • Offer effective professional development to everyone in the school community, in both comprehension and use of technological tools as well as the ethical and legal components of online information-sharing.

The report spotlights how high-performing school systems, such as the suburban Fairfax County, Virginia, schools, are incorporating students’ own smartphones and tablets into the school day by encouraging the use of social media for sharing ideas. Examples of this kind, the authors hope, will dispel some of the phobias on which school technology prohibitions were built when social networking sites first emerged on the scene.

The lead agency behind the report, the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), is a collaboration of school technology specialists and the industries that work with them. The report is part of a larger CoSN initiative, Participatory Learning in Schools: Leadership & Policy, which is funded by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The report was authored primarily by James Bosco, a professor emeritus of educational studies at Western Michigan University, and by Keith Krueger, chief executive of the CoSN.

At the SPLC, we hope that reports of this nature will be useful to embolden schools to consider whether a minimize-risk-at-all-costs approach to technology is educationally sound, or whether technology policy — like all school policy — should be grounded in fact and not fear.

As rapidly as technology is evolving, technology policy too is changing before our eyes. As recently as five years ago, the idea that students might be permitted to turn on cell phones during class or log into Facebook would have seemed like science fiction. But the most forward-thinking schools are coming to recognize that keeping online media out of their buildings is as effective as keeping the ocean from the shore. Instead of holding back the tide, it’s time to start giving swimming lessons.