The first installment of Brothers in Arms examines the policies and documents we use to establish a code of conduct for students and staff when working online. We ask…is your Acceptable Use Policy acceptable?
As the school year begins, students are given packets of information to bring home, review with parents/guardians, and bring back with signatures. Chances are that one of these documents is an Acceptable Use Policy (AUP), in which the rights, rules, and regulations of the use of the district’s network are detailed. But, as these new literacies interact and change what it means to be literate and express one’s self in the classrooms, we need to ask ourselves whether or not our respective AUP’s are acceptable?
I’m frequently in workshops, professional development meetings, or classrooms where I shout from the rooftops of the great things we can do with ICT and Web 2.0 tools. I love the ability we have to differentiate instruction, facilitate collaboration, unlock creativity…all taking advantage of the digital tools associated with the remix/mash-up culture in which we live. But, I cautiously mention at the beginning of each of these talks the caveat that we need to inspect each of our AUP’s and determine whether or not they cover and protect our teachers and students in their online exploration.
In a review of Internet AUP’s, Flowers and Rakes (2000) detail certain issues that directly impact educators as their students use the Internet. They find that most AUPs have issues of: “limiting access; providing equal access; censorship; and freedom of information”. They state that within a few years, “access to the Internet may be perceived as a basic resource for both educators and learners.” They find that the responsibility for supervision and upholding of the AUP usually falls upon the shoulders of the classroom teachers. As a result “Internet skills and knowledge should be incorporated into professional development and teacher preparation programs.” Additionally, “K-12 school systems and teacher preparation institutions will need to provide adequate opportunities for educators to develop Internet expertise.”
As we look at our AUP’s, I wonder what our AUPs say about us, the way we view our students and the relationship we all have with ICTs. Is the AUP representative of the wealth of opportunities available online, but also flexible enough to adapt to the future? Do our schools provide the support for our teachers and students to use the Internet to its full extent as detailed by the AUP?
When Ian told me that we would be discussing AUP’s, I was initially befuddled and had to investigate their purpose. It’s not that I had never come into contact with one, just that I have thus far considered them to be so insubstantial that I essentially ignored their significance. Both from a student and teacher perspective, Acceptable Use Policies are as meaningful (perhaps less so) as the notorious “Student Contract” that so many teachers compel their students to sign at each school year’s commencement. While both employ grave diction and threaten severe, albeit ambiguous, consequences, each is ultimately toothless and boring, is signed and returned, is filed and forgotten. So what’s the point? There is really only one: to limit legal liability. But we must ask ourselves, “what else is limited?”
AUP’s, by their very nature, are documents that limit both educators’ and students’ abilities to surf the internet freely. To some degree, these limitations are justified and necessary – admonishing against digital harassment and the proliferation of ribald or racist material, for example. The school providing a server upon which vile and contemptuous acts might be perpetrated puts forth a responsibility for that institution to distance itself from endeavors that are less than savory. An AUP is akin to a television disclaimer: “Jon Stewart’s opinions and views are not necessarily those of Comedy Central,” for example. Or “student Y’s printing and disseminating of racist or lewd content does not reflect the encouragement of So-and-So High School.” In this context, AUP’s are neither threatening nor liberating. They are merely symptoms of the litigious society we have created.
Where Acceptable Use Policies do grow limbs, however, is in their implementation via internet blocking. This is where the crux of the discussion lies, for here one finds not only justified impediments, but also the hindering of sincere academic pursuits. Often I find teachers reluctant to use the internet in the classroom for this very reason. Many schools block blogs and even news websites like CNN.com because of the fluidity and unpredictable nature of reader comments. So, instead, students are either instructed to perform their own research (which occurs often at home without sufficient guidance or supervision) or are simply given their primary sources, which negates any ancillary lesson on web navigation or source evaluation, which are the essential elements of the Internet use.
In the end, while written AUP’s are necessary, their physical implementation in the blocking of keywords has a bigger impact than necessitating students to research certain Hermann Melville novels at home. Rather, it perpetuates what many students already think of the internet: that it’s a source for licentious and outrageous material, essentially bereft of any real educational value, except what one can find on Wikipedia.