Tech Leadership                                           Page 11


Rethinking Technology

Restrictions in School  


Tech Leadership McLeod


Sexual harassment. Bullying. Cheating. Sexting. Cyber-baiting.

Students’ creative ways to cause trouble are only amplified in our new digital world. It’s enough to make school system leaders gnash their teeth, tear their hair, and filter, block and ban anything and everything technological. But should they?

Jeff Dicks, superintendent of the Newell-Fonda Schools in Newell, Iowa, thinks not. In his 500-student district, almost everything is open and encouraged as a resource. As Dicks notes, “Our students spend less time trying to get around the filter and more time on learning.” David Doty, superintendent of the 32,000-student Canyons School District in Sandy, Utah, concurs. He believes “students are more creative, more engaged and more dedicated to learning if they can access the full array of information available to them and the tools that allow them to share their knowledge with others.”

Inflated Fears
But not all school districts (including perhaps yours) are like Newell-Fonda and Canyons. Many allow no blogs. No cell phones. No YouTube. No Wikipedia. No social networking. Even no Google access for students. Does this sound like your district?

If so, is it because you’re afraid? Doty believes superintendents’ fears are overblown. “Students and adults will by and large rise to the expectations we have of them,” he says. “If we allow access, with appropriate expectations for use and conduct, our employees and students will use these tools in productive and innovative ways.”

Other school districts’ experiences seem to bear this out. For example, schools that have rescinded cell phone bans or loosened up Internet filters usually see no more problems than they did before. Indeed, students often help monitor inappropriate use because they don’t want to lose their privileges again.

Of course, there are always a few student troublemakers. But why are we penalizing the 95 percent for the 5 percent? We don’t do this in other areas of discipline at school. Even though we know some students will use their voices or bodies inappropriately in school, we don’t ban everyone from speaking or moving. We know some students may show up drunk to the prom, yet we don’t cancel the prom because of a few rule breakers.

Instead, we assume most students will act appropriately most of the time and then we enforce reasonable expectations and policies for the occasional few that don’t. To use a historical analogy, it’s the difference between temperate alcohol consumption policies and flat-out Prohibition (which, if you recall, failed miserably). Just as we don’t put entire schools on lockdown every time there’s a fight in the cafeteria, we need to stop penalizing entire student bodies because of statistically unlikely, worst-case scenarios.

Personal Unfamiliarity
Why don’t superintendents take this approach when it comes to technology? All too often, it’s because they themselves are not familiar enough with the digital tools to understand their positive affordances. Because they lack a thorough understanding of why and how these technologies are powerful, it becomes all too easy to simply dismiss their pedagogical usefulness.

Sometimes superintendents are overly restrictive because of school board or community pressure. That’s when it’s time to educate, not capitulate. Whether we like it or not, we now live in a technology-suffused, globally interconnected world. It’s going to be extremely difficult to prepare students for complex information, economic and learning landscapes if we lock everything down so tightly that rich digital work can’t occur in our classrooms.

In addition, it’s important to recognize that school districts already have policies for instances of bullying, cheating, harassment and so on. Do a quick scan to confirm those policies include digital communications and behaviors and then simply enforce what you have. There’s probably no need for tool-specific policies, especially since the tools change so rapidly.

Our world demands digital fluency. By creating policies based on behavior rather than technologies, we can open up the world to educators and their students.

Scott McLeod is an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Kentucky. He blogs at and E-mail: 



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