Appropriate Use

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bildeMy local newspaper recently interviewed me about cheating and cell phone use in the classroom (read the article).  While cheating and scientific integrity are important topics to talk about later, I have been thinking a lot about my new cell phone policy this year.

Overall, I am confident that allowing cell phones in the classroom was the right decision.  I encourage students to use their phones appropriately in labs and lessons, and even prompt them to search for answers (they seem to like texting queries to ChaCha most) There is no more hiding (at least much less) their texting shame underneath their desks.  While I have had to address using their devices at appropriate times, I haven’t had to confiscate a phone yet.

While the reporter got most of interview correct from what I said, the best quote came from my assistant principal:

We know they’ve got them, so it’s just teaching them to be responsible with them.

And that’s the idea.  I trust that my students realize the power of their devices, and that they can make decisions to use them in an appropriate manner.

Most importantly, I think that students feel more respected.

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My school district has finally been able to distinguish a teacher from a student, at least in terms of their online access.

We recently received an e-mail explaining that teachers would be able to access previously blocked sites (i.e. YouTube and many blogs) for educational purposes.  In order to get this access, teachers will have to sign a form explaining they understand what “Acceptable Use” and “Educational Purposes” mean.

The district is responding to staff requests for increased access privileges. At this time, the district will provide access to the previously blocked resources of YouTube and external blogging. The district will open additional resources that are identified and approved for educational purposes.

To be clear, Websense (our internet filter) will still be in place.  When teachers come upon a site that is blocked through Websense, they will be able to pass through – offering them a gentle reminder that there is reasonable cause to have the site blocked in the first place.

Under the district’s interpretation of CIPA, students will not be granted this level of access.

Finally, I feel like a professional who can make decisions about what should and shouldn’t be used in the classroom.

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img00139At the beginning of each year, I usually receive an onslaught of survey material for my students to fill out.   These surveys are not supplied by the school or district, and usually query students about their backgrounds, interests and future plans.

While some teachers diligently have students complete them immediately, others simply use this material for ‘filler’, administering the survey when they have a few extra minutes in class.  The ones addressed to me take a two-step journey to the recycle bin.

I have always been curious about how these surveys are used, and apparently I am not alone.  In fact, the Educational Research Center of America, Inc (ERCA) recently (October 2008) agreed to change its practices for obtaining and handling personal information it collects from high school student surveys, under an agreement reached with the Attorneys General of 36 states and the District of Columbia.  See press release from Maryland.

Wisconsin is not on this list.

Nonetheless, my policy has been to avoid distributing these surveys for a variety of reasons:

  1. Administering a survey to my students is clearly a waste of my precious classroom time.  I can think of a hundred curricularly appropriate things to do with 20 minutes than cater to the wishes of a company masquerading benefits to me and to my students.*
  2. This information is a marketing tool, and is sold to interested parties.  I believe it is irresponsible to use taxpayer money to facilitate their business model.
  3. I am always weary of surveys that collect student information other than for blind research practices.  As we continually preach to students about protecting their online identities, we should model the same practice in school as well.
  4. In this day and age, students have many more options available to them in finding information about their future.  The fact that I don’t need to say the “I” word simply illustrates my point.

*There are a few entities that sell “educational products” and entice educators with freebies and other benefits in the name of education.  The bottom line is that they are businesses whose fundamental goal is to make money; beware of the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

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As we start a new school year, I challenge all educators to do more with technology in your classroom.  I wholeheartedly encourage you to use online tools that can increase your productivity, join social networks that can link you to other educators, and generally make the most of the hardware and software that is already available to you.  But I mostly encourage you to do what you do best – teach students how to think critically and analyze, no matter what medium they are using to access information.

We need to realize that newer technologies are simply tools that only change the way we interact with how we already live our lives.  That said, technology should not inherently change what we teach, but only how we teach.

While it is easier to dismiss new technologies that threaten to nudge us out of the ruts that we are comfortable with in teaching, the classroom is much more interesting and satisfying when we discover new paths to the same destination.

We will always have distractions in life and in the classroom.  Newer technologies have only merged a wealth of useful information with every other distraction in life.  The bottom line is that we have to teach how to sift through these distractions to harvest what’s useful.  As I mentioned before, teachers are already good at this; we simply have newer tools.

David Wolman summarizes this idea nicely in his article “When Tech Attacks” (Wired Magazine, September 2008)

“It’s naive to think that the digital age will magically remedy stupidity.  We need better schools, as well as a renowned commitment to reason and scientific rigor so that people can distinguish knowledge from garbage.  The web is not an obstacle in this project.  It’s an unparalleled tool for generating, finding and sharing sound information.  What’s moronic is to assume that it hurts us more than it helps.”


If you follow a lot of tech blogs, you’ll notice how a lot of writers talk about how they are frustrated with e-mail. You might wonder why they are so upset about something that has revolutionized how we communicate in the 21st century.

Clive Thompson from Wired Magazine blames the asymmetric nature of e-mail, in that it is “incredibly easy to send but often devilishly burdensome to receive.”

For example, in one minute I can send an email to a thousand coworkers asking them to review a document. Let’s say each recipient spends five seconds disgustedly discarding it. Boom: In just one minute, I’ve wasted 5,000 seconds — 1 hour, 23 minutes — of my organization’s time. Equally insidious is the growing plague of semi-meaningful emails — friend requests, one-word replies from your boss. Email apps weren’t designed to recognize such idiocies, which is why our inboxes become unruly messes, with important messages pushed offscreen and out of mind.

So as you are getting ready for the upcoming school year, make sure you use your e-mail account appropriately.  It’s so easy to send out a mass message to your school and district, but think aboutthe ramifications – will it be a semi-meaningful message, or will it waste others’ time?

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My district has recently installed Microsoft Sharepoint.  This is a dynamic tool (albeit from the MotherShip) that allows me to create and control groups where users can collaborate though shared documents, discussions boards, blogs, and wikis (and many other features).

My initial observations of Sharepoint made me realize that it has a distinct Microsoft footprint – heavy on tools, but clunky to use.  It reminds me of that spoof video fantasizing if Microsoft had packaged the iPod.  In any case, I futzed around with it for a while until I was semi-satisfied.

I have to admit – the discussion board is a powerful tool.  It engages my students on a level that they would not comfortable with in the classroom.  It challenges them to raise questions they would not ask in class.  It actually brings more discussion into the classroom.  And this was only after a week of discussion.  (NOTE: the power of a discussion board is not new to me, but this is the first time I am able to use one under my district’s IT reign).

This is exactly a tool I have been looking for, as I have a colleague in Sweden who wants to have our classes collaborate on a project.  Since SKYPE is blocked, this would allow the students to actually have that collaboration – supervised by me and my Swedish colleague.

Sharepoint is quite powerful in that it allows multiple configurations for its users with many layers of permission.  There are a few no-brainers that I already have setup to protect my students.  First – they can only post, but can’t edit or delete their entries.  This helps to reinforce the idea that once something is posted on the internet, it is always there.  Secondly, I don’t allow anonymous outside registration either – outside registration would have to be added by me or would have to be requested.

But I am not clear how to setup other student permissions/identities and if I should allow outside access for viewing.  I have a few options:

  1. Lock down the site so that ONLY students in my class can see and participate in the discussions
  2. Lock down the site as above, but allow it to be viewed by any student or teacher in the district
  3. Allow outside viewing, but protect student identities – make them create unidentifiable usernames
  4. Other options?

If you use student discussion boards, what advice do you have?  What are the benefits and drawbacks of these configurations?  I want students to be safe, feel free to speak their mind, but I also want to emulate the outside world as well.

You can see what I’ve done (and what the students have done) so far.  Their identities are protected – so I am currently using option #3.  Most likely, these settings will change in the future. [Link]

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In the September 2007 issue of Reader’s Digest, an article entitled Is Your Boss Spying on You? (by Kim Zetter) caught my eye. While this article is applicable to anyone who has internet access at work, it is especially valid for educators.

Not only is my district reading my e-mail and following my website history, my e-mail is public record. Thus, you should be extremely careful about how you discuss students in e-mail messages, and you should never disclose personal information that you wouldn’t want to see in a newspaper. In short, school e-mail should be used for school business only. It is also worthy to note that there are inappropriate times to use e-mail, especially when a phone call or face-to-face conversation could be utilized more effectively and privately. See Basics of Online Communication.

Every year we are reminded by our teachers’ union to be careful about our online activities. There are obvious things to avoid, like accessing pornography, selling e-bay items during class time, creating/forwarding offensive e-mail messages, etc. But there are some gray areas to avoid too. For instance, I worry about surfing the web (even education sites) during class time. Even though this may be valid prep work to enhance my curriculum, I am not actively engaged with my classes when I am online.

Mostly, I see internet use at school as a professional issue. If we as educators want to be viewed as professionals, then we must act like professionals. This definitely means that we should be careful of our internet use in school, but we should also be careful of our online presence outside of school as well. The article addresses the infamous ‘drunken-pirate-wants-to-be-a-teacher’ story:

Stacy Snyder was working toward a bachelor of science in education and a teaching certificate from Millersville University in Pennsylvania. Her supervising teacher at the high school where she was doing in-class training says Snyder was inviting students to visit her MySpace page. Among the contents: a photo of Snyder wearing a pirate hat and holding a plastic cup. A caption read “Drunken Pirate.” High school officials called Snyder’s MySpace activity inappropriate and unprofessional. Subsequently, she says, she had to forfeit the teaching certificate and switch to a bachelor of arts degree. She has sued Millersville for what she says is unfair punishment; the university refutes her claims. In any case, her teaching career may be over already.

Whether you agree with the outcome of this case or not, it sends a clear message that people are following and perhaps judging your online presence. While this may not be too concerning for veteran teachers protected by strong unions, it should make any pre-service or probationary teacher wary.

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