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Some districts shine, others falter in coupling of learning and online media

Five years ago, Noah Geisel made what seemed like a simple request of Denver Public School officials: could he have a set of iPods for his students to use in class?

“It was about putting a computer more powerful than those that got the first man landed on the moon in every kid’s hands,” Geisel said. “We knew then that we were at the tip of the iceberg in what we would eventually be doing, but at the time, using the coolest device in the land for digital Socratic Seminars, virtual field trips with GoogleEarth and finding celebrity tweets in Spanish felt like we were changing the world.”

And as far as the school district was concerned, he might have been.

“It was the first time the district had dealt with this,” said Geisel, who is now a teacher trainer at the professional development firm An Estuary. “At first I ran into a lot of hurdles and messages about what I could not do and would not be supported in doing.”

Geisel and school officials were eventually able to work out their questions and concerns, and now Denver teachers are able to access more support from the district to help them integrate new technology in the classroom.

That trajectory — from confusion around how to support technology in schools to integration into the daily workings of the district — is playing out around Colorado, but at vastly different speeds. And districts are taking a variety of approaches to balance two sometimes competing concerns: how do you meet students’ and teachers’ need for increased access to educational technology and online media while simultaneously protecting their privacy?

Some districts, like Denver, have been relatively proactive about establishing procedures and support for teachers who want to use online material and educational technology. Last school year, DPS introduced Google Apps for Education (GAFE), giving schools the option of using Google Docs, Gmail and Google Drive. In one year, 16,600 students logged into their accounts, said Kristen Savage, the district’s web communications senior manager.

With thousands of students and teachers using GAFE, the district has to take certain measures to ensure schools’ safety. Students’ Gmail accounts are filtered for inappropriate words and pictures, even if they are accessing them from outside of school.

By contrast, other districts have either avoided the issue or have created policies that are, at best, outdated or worse, possibly illegal.

Take Pueblo County School District 70, for instance. The southeastern Colorado school district of about 9,000 students’ current web policy allows students to create personal web pages, but also says that the district will not consider it an infringement on students’ right to freedom of speech if the student is required to remove any “material that fails to meet established educational objectives or that is in violation of a provision of the Student Acceptable Use Policy or student disciplinary code.”

Although the policy could ostensibly be used to protect students from harmful online content, it’s also “transparently illegal,” said Adam Goldstein, an attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, who works on student freedom of expression issues.

Goldstein said districts are not obligated to allow students to create personal websites, so they cannot curtail their freedom of expression. Colorado state law, he said, protects students’ freedom of expression, unless the material is obscene, defamatory or creates clear and present danger. Despite all three of those stipulations being in the district’s Student Acceptable Use Policy, the district can’t control the content on students’ personal web pages, Goldstein said.

Tim Yates, Pueblo 70’s district of technology, said that its policy, which was adopted in 2002 and reviewed in 2009, is very outdated. But the issue hasn’t seemed very pressing: in Yates’ two decades at Pueblo 70, he said, he has never encountered an instance where a student wanted to create a personal or classroom webpage.

The onslaught of new technology can be intimidating for school districts who are concerned about protecting students’ privacy, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects students’ and parents’ right to access and correct educational records kept by institutions. But, since content created online is not protected by this federal mandate, LoMonte said there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the use of online media.

And some of those concerns are warranted, said Khaliah Barnes, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s Student Privacy Project. For example, one online tool that teachers increasingly use to communicate with their students, Edmodo, made headlines last year after parents found out the company was not encrypting users’ connection after logging in, thus threatening users’ information security. The issue has since been fixed.

But for many teachers, those risks are often outweighed by the appeal that technology like Edmodo offers them for their classrooms.

“I need tech that makes my job easier,” said Nathan Grover, an AP biology teacher at Denver Youth High School. He started using Edmodo in order to connect with students in a digital language that they understand.

“For me, it was just adding another communication piece to the classroom and utilizing what they already know how to use for education,” he said. Grover now trains other teachers how to use Edmodo and other tools in their own classrooms.

And for some educators, district restrictions that are intended to protect students, like blocking social sites like YouTube, can actually interfere with instruction.

Mike Clem, principal of Denver Online High School, said that because schools have to get approval before they can use blocked sites — like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube — students do most of their work from home, keeping students from coming into the school’s brick-and-mortar facility.

“We encourage students to use YouTube for instructional purposes and we ask our teachers to help students link to those sites,” Clem said. “If they’re blocked at the school level, they can’t access it, so there’s no reason for them to come in.”

Slow progress toward integrating online media with teaching and learning is to be expected. Geisel said such large districts inevitably take a long time to evolve.

“We can’t expect the necessary slow change to keep pace with tech innovation and I think that’s OK,” he said. “It’d be great to throw open the firewalls and give students the same open access to content that they are going to get outside of school so we can prepare them to handle that responsibility, but I don’t believe we’re there yet.”

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