BRUNSWICK COUNTY SCHOOLS (NC) IS NO ENCLAVE FOR TECHNOPHOBES. Students in all grades have full freedom to visit instructional websites, construct web pages, experiment with digital media, and participate in online educational activities. School administrators strive to have all students pass the North Carolina Computer Skills Test before entering ninth grade.
Brunswick's nearly 12,000-strong student population no doubt has many avid social networkers in its ranks. Yet the district's open spirit toward technology in education pinches up at the sight of Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites. "Our county does not use social media," says Julie Sloup, media coordinator at Brunswick's Virginia Williamson Elementary School. "They're pretty much blocked in our school system, pretty heavily filtered."
It's not a natural position for Sloup to be in. She is in the technology vanguard, having won a prize for creating an interactive website that includes a "Digital Detectives" section, where students use databases and other online research tools to find answers to questions and then submit those answers through the site. The site also hosts a "Battle of the Books" contest, which invites students to discuss their favorite books on an online discussion board. Other features include fun monthly survey questions, feedback features, and lists of student resources for course assignments.
However, that's about as far as Sloup wants to go right now with her students. "The site is a way to introduce kids to the educational uses of online media," she says. "I'm trying to integrate them slowly into purposeful uses of technology. I know some of the kids already have Facebook and Twitter accounts, and for my fifth-graders, before they go to middle schools, we'll have a lesson about using social media safely." Sloup's conservative approach is the norm in K-12. According to a survey by the National School Boards Association (NSBA), 52 percent of schools block access to and prohibit any use of social media on campus. It's a move that, judging from that same research, would seem to be counterproductive. The NSBA study found that 96 percent of 9- to 17-year-old students participate in online social networks; of that group, 59 percent use social media to talk about educational topics, and 50 percent talk specifically about schoolwork.
But schools fear the predatory behavior that lurks around social networking sites, where the exchange of personal information can make users sitting ducks for hackers, thieves, cyberbullies, and scammers. So they're caught in what appears to be an all-or-nothing choice: take advantage of the academic opportunities that social networking sites can provide, or prohibit their use altogether in order to avert the security breaches that may result.
For now, the majority of schools are erring on the side of caution and opting for the latter, relying mostly on traditional filtering software to carry out that effort.
New Filters for New Media
But does it have to be one or the other?
There's an emerging middle ground between a complete blockade and total access--new security technologies that can filter out inappropriate content more effectively than their predecessors can, enabling the legitimate use of social media while warding off attacks.
New content filters can reduce the threats brought by social media considerably, according to Nick Teplan, networking and security specialist at CDW-G.
"Unlike other kinds of sites on the internet, social media sites have large amounts of user-injected content, making them uniquely vulnerable to malware," Teplan says, adding that, while content filters have traditionally focused on blocking traffic, they are now beginning to "take an active role in classifying the content that comes across. A site like Facebook may not be a bad site in and of itself, but some of the content on the site may be inappropriate. …