The school district where I work has recently approved a computer access policy. The policy states that all employees and students who are given access to computers in the district must abide by certain rules. The two most important parts of the policy are that each user must sign a statement that he/she will not access any pornographic or inappropriate material on the internet; and that they will not load software onto any computer which has not been approved by the district technology committee or for which the district does not have a site license. This is a School Board approved policy which carries with it the potential for disciplinary action which could include denial of continued access to computers and the Internet or, in its extreme form, expulsion from school or termination from employment.
While the concept of this policy is a good and noble one, it is the enforcement which gives me concern. It is a policy which has a target population and which must be administered properly in order to achieve its goals. It will not happen on its own. Let's proceed to analyze the policy using the policy analysis question set.
1. Is the policy effective? Since this is a new policy, it remain to be seen whether it will accomplish its goals. Those goals are to protect the district from legal action by parents or by owners of various software copyrights, to protect the children of the district from being exposed to material which might be harmful to them, and to prevent employees from using the technology for illicit reasons. Having each user sign an agreement to abide by the policy is a beginning. When a person puts his/her signature to paper, that act alone tends to make some individuals take the policy more seriously. However, the target population of this policy is very diverse. Everyone from administrators and teachers to middle school students are the focus of the policy. My main concern is how we will enforce the policy. There are computers all over the district. They are in classrooms, computer labs, libraries, and there are even laptop models which can be checked out and taken home. It will be impossible to police every employee and every student in every location.
2. Is the cost of implementing and enforcing the policy minimized? I believe it is quite reasonable. There is the cost of printing the policy and the signature sheets. This is minimal as we have an in-district printer. Next is the cost of informing the school district population and distribution of the policy to existing and new employees and students. We will include the policy in each student handbook and employee handbook, requiring a signed agreement to be returned to the school principal or division head before the individual is permitted access to the computers. All new employees will receive the policy as part of their new employee induction and be required to sign the policy agreement as part of their preemployment paperwork. All of these processes are currently in place for the distribution of other district policies.
3. Is the policy equitable? The policy is designed to be enforced equally with all students and staff. There is no one who is immune to the policy. Of course, the enforcement depends on the good faith of the principals and administrators. However, they have also signed the policy and had training on the consequences of allowing violations of the policy.
4. Is the policy participatory? The policy was developed by the district technology committee which is comprised of representatives of all employee groups and even several students. In so far as is possible in such an endeavor, all of the groups effective by the policy have had representation in the process.
5. Who has responsibility to perform what actions? Each student and employee has responsibility to make sure that he/she is abiding by the policy personally. In addition, each student and employee has a responsibility to monitor the use of others in his/her peer group. Teachers are responsible to make sure that their students are not violating the policy, and district administrators are responsible to make sure that teachers are abiding by the provisions of the policy. Over all of the others, the district Technology Supervisor and the Director of Curriculum and Instruction have ultimate responsibility to make sure the policy is enforced in an equitable manner throughout the district. The one area which is extremely weak is the peer monitoring piece. While we might expect one teacher to question another when he/she sees a colleague loading software which has not been approved, the chances of one student questioning another who accesses an inappropriate web site are slim at best.
6. What motivators are provided to ensure that the participants will implement the policy?
There are some powerful motivators in place. Anyone found to have violated the policy will be denied access to the computers and to the Internet. This would greatly inhibit the ability of students and teachers to do research for papers or class work, or for teachers to prepare lesson plans using information and ideas from the Internet. Most of the students and the teachers love to use the computers, particularly the Internet. The second, and even more powerful, tool is the threat of suspension, expulsion from school, or termination from employment. For most student and teachers, these threats are serious business. Since nearly 90% of our students plan to go on the post-secondary education, such a blight on their records would be a great hardship. There are few teachers who would take the threat of the loss of their jobs lightly.
7. Are the benefits are worth the costs? As I see it, the costs are few, but the benefits to the district and to the students are many. First, the district could face large fines if found to be in violation of copyright laws regarding software. Many will say, "Who will know?" Believe it or not, we are reading every day about software companies sending law enforcement officers into companies and school districts to cite those who are violating their ownership rights. Often the result is a court case which costs the employer or school district a great deal of money. Secondly, and probably more importantly, we as educators have an obligation to protect the students in our care. We can not be responsible for students accessing information via the Internet which could do them irreparable harm. It is becoming a common occurrence for predators to use the Internet to reach their young targets. There are other equally harmful, and less obvious dangers which can attack students' minds, enticing them into activities which are just as harmful. Two of the students in my own school district were caught a couple of years ago sneaking into their high school with the makings of a homemade bomb. When questioned, they revealed that they had gotten the recipe for the bomb on the Internet. While policies will never eliminate all of these things from befalling our students, it is our obligation to do all that we can to minimize their existence and impact.
In conclusion, after analysis, it appears that our computer use policy is far from perfect. Its biggest flaw is in the enforcement of the policy. We will have to try the policy for a while and make adjustments as necessary to make it more efficient and effective. However, it appears to be a step in the right direction.
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