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Carroll County Times

School officials discuss social media in education

While the new school year brings many changes for Carroll County Public Schools, officials have not altered their stance on a student ban of social media websites.
Students, who resumed classes Monday, Aug. 26, are still unable to access any of the social media giants, including Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, according to Chief Information Officer Gary Davis.
A CCPS policy states that students "are expected to use telecommunications services for curriculum-related purposes [only]." To comply with Children's Internet Protection Act, the county bars students from the social media, which sometimes contains explicit material, Davis said. Crafted in 2000, CIPA means to protect minors from content deemed obscene, pornographic, or in any way harmful.
All adult content, including pornography, R-rated material, violent or graphic depictions, gambling, drug-related items, hate-bias speech, and fantasy sports team outlets, are blocked through the county's content filtering service, M86 Security, which the county subscribed to in 2010.
File-sharing websites, image and video sharing, Internet radio, instant messaging and other online communication services are stonewalled as well, Davis said, partially because they sap speed from the schools' network.
CCPS policy also states that all students must turn off and store electronic devices while on the bus or in the school building. Davis said the Board of Education this fall plans to discuss the possibility of allowing students' use of electronic devices during school hours.
Christine Greenhow, a former assistant professor of education with University of Maryland, College Park, said instead of a blanket ban on students, some discussion should be had to determine a more contemporary solution, though she stressed that usage of these sites should always contribute to classroom learning goals.
"I think we shouldn't so quick to dismiss powerful media that could have educational benefits," said Greenhow, who now teaches at Michigan State University. "Especially if banning them may be the result of our policies that haven't quite caught up."
Students who used some sort of social media platform, like Facebook increase their "social capital," the term Greenhow assigned to information resources.
"Students who get more support from a social network have a higher achievement rate," she said.
In an age of smartphones and unparalleled access to the Internet, students must learn Digital Citizenship, or how to responsibly behave on the world wide web, Greenhow said.
An amendment to CIPA in 2008 forced public school systems to enact an educational component that would bring awareness to cyberbullying and appropriate online activity.
Health courses beginning in middle school warn against cyberbullying and "sexting," according to Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Steve Johnson.
"It's reaction to things we're seeing in schools," he said.
County teachers can access websites like YouTube for educational purposes through "YouTube EDU," a service which strips away the comment section from a video, sometimes the most offensive element of a website.
Instructors, administrators and central office staff all have varying levels of entry to certain sites through the M86 service, though a system-wide ban of pornography and explicit content is in place.
Instructors can also request via an online application, which is routed to a curriculum supervisor, to whitelist or blacklist websites. Because M86 evaluates a website's legitimacy by its URL, mistakes can be made, Davis said.
For instance, a student conducting in-class research on illegal substances might stumble upon the block on a website, which M86 identified by the keywords in the URL. The instructor would need to then submit an application.
"We constantly have whitelist and blacklist requests," Davis said. "Strictly from an administrative stand - it's a pain to do, but it's just a policy."
A policy does not exist, however, that limits instructors from forming a digital relationship with a student outside a classroom, such as accepting a student's friend request on Facebook, according to Jimmie Saylor, CCPS director of Human Resources.
"[Online relationships] are discouraged in the sense that any interaction with a student, such as emailing with a student, or texting with a student, should always include the parent," she said.
Individually, administration determines discipline for students who violate the computer use policies, Davis said, though a four-step process, the third and fourth steps being varying days of suspension, is outlined in the CCPS student handbook.
Instructors who misuse the computers are referred to Human Resources, according to Davis. Cases of instructors abusing school computers have occurred, but are infrequent, Davis said. Citing the cases as a personnel matter, Davis would not identify what content the instructors were examining.
"Once [the instructors] are made aware, it usually stops," he said.
For more information regarding the system's policies, visit its website, carrollk12.org.


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