A Policy Reflection

School divisions maintain policy. What I like is that these are formalized into a set of rules we live by, or at least that’s the gist of the board policy manual. It’s one layer of policy, much of it supported by state (and in some cases federal) law. There’s also another layer of policy which I could call “operationg procedures,” but I’ve also heard it called “working policy.” This informal policy has not been board-approved, and may not even refence official board policy. But they are rules that may be specific to a school, one person, or even a group of schools. One thing this class has taught me is the formal necessity for policy and a better appreciation of what it takes to develop and enforce good policy.

There’s one policy I know well and it’s our acceptable use policy for use of the “computer system.” This is the policy that spells-out that spam is bad, viruses are bad, and you (the student, the employee) ought not to be dabbling in either one (spam or viruses). The area of the AUP that’s getting a real workout of late is the part about students bringing devices to school. No doubt, we aren’t unique, and you can relate to seeing cell phones at your school, too.

I heard Chris Lehman, principal of the Philadelphia Science Leadership Academy, this past December in Roanoke at the VSTE conference. He said something that’s stuck with me, and that was about the importance of rules and how we acknowledge them. He made a very strong point that no rule is worth having that isn’t essential. Rules need to be followed if we are to respect them. To establish rules (and by extension policy) and not follow them is a great educational disservice. He mentioned, I believe, this being unfair to everyone—all stakeholders. And so that leads me to our own acceptable use policy. We leave the “cell phones at school” portion to the schools and separate policy. These multiple policies on cell phones (and other electronic devices) is unnecessarily complex, despite the whole issue’s natural complexity.

Let me explain.

The schools have a policy of no devices during class time. The AUP’s concern with devices is limited to them accessing our network. Network access is allowed on one segment, yet it’s filtered in the same way computers are. Officially the policy states using a device is pending administrator approval for students; it’s okay for teachers. We used to ban student cell phones all together. Then iPods. But now, it’s often a sight to see kids using “smarter” phones now between classes, wearing earbuds. They might be on our network, they may not be. To make things more complicated, during SOL testing, to maintain bandwidth, we enact “Internet bans.” Most traffic is not permitted, especially to sites off our internal network. In this scenario, checking faculty e-mail is permitted; visiting cnn.com to check up on the news is not. Yet our equipment tells us student devices are accessing the network (my guess is that students pull out their cell phone when they’ve completed their exam). The AUP can’t realistically be enforced because there’s no reasonable way to tell what devices (when seen with the naked eye) are on-network, or off. So then it falls onto another policy, about whether cell phones (or other technology such as iPod Touch) should even be out during class. (And sometimes they don’t appear in class at all, but during time in the hallways or bathroom.)

So, we’ve relaxed our policies to say “devices are okay,” but please don’t use them during class time. I’m generalizing here – because I have these conversations about AUP policy with colleagues from different schools and districts. They are seeing laptops entering the fray, not to mention the iPads. And in our own meetings outside the schools, we’re discussing the benefits and drawbacks to a “bring your own device” scenario. One colleague said, “They already do,” when referencing student behavior.

So I’m in the middle of this, thinking about the importance of policy, the importance of having policy and rules that are enforced, thinking about the merits of blessing the use of student devices in class, and the reality that our policies, while well-intentioned, have quickly become either irrelevant, outmoded, or challenging to enforce. We’re not alone; whatever small frustration I deal with is compounded when you get other technology directors in the same room. In the meantime, individual administrators could probably intervene (with a desire for innovation) and develop a “working policy” that would pilot the use of devices in the classroom, but these working policies would be in violation of one or more policies on the books. And what does it mean?

I still believe policies are important. But schools are places of learning and we need to be flexible, especially when it comes to rapid change. The SLA in Philly has a fairly long AUP itself. They also have a now-familiar policy for personal electronics, one that I hear about in a lot of schools. The difference I see in their rule for personal electronics is that they’re not trying to ban them from school. There’s no statement about using technology to block them. The rule is simple:

However, cell phones, iPods, PDA’s and other items should not interfere with the learning process.

And who decides? The teachers.

One thing I’ve learned from Chris over the past couple of years is to remember the KISS rule, on keeping it simple. And as he reminds us, getting there isn’t often easy… but it’s worth the time. And I think that’s excellent food for thought as we all develop, augment, and refine our own policies, both formal and informal, in our own schools and districts. For an AUP, the bottom line is a safe, productive, focused learning environment.

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