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Digital Dilemma: Why Can’t All Districts Filter Internet Device Access from Home?

One of this blog’s themes that regular readers are familiar with is the power of digital technology to help transform the capability and productivity of public education. Combined with the right policies and innovative direction of resources, this technology has tremendous potential to effect positive change. Digital Learning Now’s Roadmap for Reform released last October — not to mention a forthcoming (or so I’m told) Colorado version — highlights some great ideas.

One policy action endorsed by Digital Learning Now is that the “state ensures all public school students and teachers have Internet access devices.” Definitely a worthy goal, inasmuch as it helps to equip students for a 21st century career. But it also can be a double-edged sword. As a new article by Kristina Iodice in the Colorado Springs Gazette points out, giving students take-home access to iPads is fraught with danger if not done right:

Manitou Springs School District 14 is in the middle of a two-year rollout of iPads to many of its roughly 1,420 students. In the fall 2011, about 490 students in fifth through eighth grade, and 90 high school students, received the devices. About 500 high school students will get them in the coming 2012-13 school year.

Some parents are concerned that the district is not doing everything it could to safeguard students, although school officials insist it is compliant with state and federal law. Internet browsers on the iPads do not include parental controls….

In Manitou Springs, students are allowed to take the iPads home as long as parents sign forms. The school sent letters explaining home Internet security and filtering, and families have the option of not permitting students to bring home devices, officials said.

It is terrific that more and more Colorado schools are taking advantage of digital technology to provide blended learning options that include the opportunity to access learning materials at home. But the focus also should be on keeping kids safe online. I’m not a legal expert, so others can figure out whether Manitou Springs’ policy complies with the law. But local parents definitely have raised some valid concerns about a problem that appears to have a very practical solution.

As a January 24 Denver Post article by Kevin Simpson point out, other Colorado schools have figured out how to keep the filtering security on iPads and other Internet access devices that travel home with students:

Legacy [Academy K-8 charter school] principal Jason Cross gave iPads this year to every student. But when he discovered that the tablets would allow unfiltered access at home, he balked at letting them leave school….

It took months before the school found a software solution to adequately filter online activity away from the school’s system.

The Gazette piece highlights not only Legacy’s ability to find a workable software solution, but also the same capability of online programs in Academy 20 and Colorado Springs 11. Meanwhile, the Post story says that “software solutions proved problematic” for Manitou Springs. It’s entirely unclear to someone like me, who isn’t a tech geek, why things are so much different that solutions which have worked elsewhere also couldn’t apply in School District 14.

Implementing technology as part of an innovative new educational approach can be done well or can be done poorly. The use of the cutting-edge often means hitting a few bumps in the road along the way. But leaders at Legacy and the other two programs are to be commended for making student online safety a priority while sticking with the innovation.

Schools and districts considering similar programs should talk to them first. So it seems should Manitou Springs, which could better engage both students and parents by making sure the school-issued devices can’t be used to access the bad stuff off site, too.