How to Teach Students the Rules of the Online Road

Article excerpt

Opening your school to the Internet can be daunting. Can it really be a good idea to give students so much freedom -- browsing the Web, sending and receiving e-mail -- when even an old-fashioned analog trip to the library or media center finds a few kids giggling by the dictionary? Just as students must learn to make, ahem, better use of their time in the library, so educators face a similar "teachable moment" when confronting the Internet.

The questions raised by Internet access are thornier than those faced in the library, however. How private is e-mail? Who's liable if the messages students send contain hate speech? It's so easy to lift code from a well-designed Web site, or to incorporate popular music and other multimedia into presentations, so how do you make copyright issues real? What consequences are appropriate when students (or staff) cross the line?

The school or districtwide Acceptable Use Policy (AUP), when thoughtfully crafted, can provide guidance to these difficult questions. First, it can define the skills students need to develop in order to benefit educationally from the Internet's resources. Second, it frames the use of the school or district's network. Third, it establishes do's and don'ts for online behavior, as well as the consequences when these norms are violated.

AUPs also define acceptable use of electronic information and minimize institutional liability. As the Virginia Department of Education "Acceptable Use Policies -- A Handbook" (www.pen.kl2.va.us/go/VDOE/Technology/Aup/home.shtml) states, "The Internet is a virtual community based simply on courtesy and commonsense. A local AUP clearly defines what constitutes local responsible use of information networks."

School Policies in Cyberspace

An AUP blends a school or district's policies for student behavior and its policies for selecting instructional materials. The Phillips Exeter Academy policy (www.exeter.edu/public/aup.html) states, "All Academy rules, but particularly those pertaining to dishonesty and hazing, are applicable to all uses of computers and related technologies. This document [the AUP] is intended to clarify those rules as they apply specifically to network usage."

Districts have selection policies for instructional materials which establish how financial resources are used to support educational activities. At the same time, these documents establish a process for complaints regarding materials. A selection policy thus ensures certain rights to members of the educational community, including the right of intellectual freedom, while providing limits and processes for addressing individual differences. An AUP functions in much the same way. It applies to a broader, less controllable range of resources, however, as well as to essentially unfiltered user communications.

Nancy Willard, of the Center for Advanced Technology in Education at the University of Oregon, identifies AUPs as the "standard process through which districts manage student and employee use of the Internet." In her "Acceptable Use Policy -- Legal and Educational Analysis" (www.erehwon.com/k12aup), Willard cautions that "the use of an AUP to govern student and employee behavior raises a number of constitutional concerns. It must be recognized that students do not shed their constitutional rights on the school district's on-ramp to the informational superhighway."

Most school districts today have developed Board policies that ensure the constitutional rights of their students and employees while setting expectations for behavior. AUPs should reflect these guidelines. How AUPs are developed depends on the school culture. In some cases, administrators, such as the principal or the systems administrator, develop the AUP. In others, the document is the work of the broader school community. The greater the involvement of appropriate stakeholders, such as teachers, students, parents, administrators and staff, the greater the likelihood of ownership and adherence to the policy. …