I’m on an airplane flying from Seattle to Denver, enroute back from the NCCE conference to my home in Oklahoma. NCCE was a great conference, and I really enjoyed the opportunities to present as well as have conversations with so many educators from around the Pacific northwest.
One of the most troubling themes in several of my conversations with district IT personnel as well as teachers regarded the fear of litigation which seems to “rule the network” in many school districts. This fear literally dictates the network use policies which predominate in some schools. In some cases, lawyers advising the school district as well as district IT support staff have encouraged the adoption of policies which prohibit ALL types of user created content from being shared online by students as well as teachers. The primary reason for this encouragement and policy is not the law (CIPA) but rather a common fear that someone (a student or a teacher) will publish something objectionable or inappropriate, which will lead to a lawsuit from an angry parent. This circumstance is not unique to schools in the Pacific northwest, of course. Many of our school districts (especially larger ones, but not just big ones) in the southwest region of the United States also maintain network use policies driven more by litigation fear than by the letter of the law.
One of the teachers I visited with in Seattle this week told me that her district had told her if she chose to publish any student work on a website or blog site she maintained, she would be “on her own” and “directly, personally liable” for anything bad which happened as a result of student work being published there. How’s that for school district non-support of 21st century learning skills and learning environments?! 🙁
I’ve presented several times recently (at the OU K-20 Center’s Mid-Winter conference on 31 Jan and the Oklahoma Technology Association’s annual conference on 5 Feb) on the topic of balancing creativity and freedom with safety and liability protection for our schools. While I focused on the specific requirements of CIPA for U.S. public and private schools receiving E-Rate dollars, I did not focus as much as I should have– perhaps– on prevalent litigation fears which may be driving network use policies (or network NON-use policies) more than the actual verbage of laws now on the books.
Schools and school districts in the United States are inherently conservative organizations. Often, school board members and school administrators are retained and promoted based NOT on their track record for providing innovative approaches to education, but rather their proven abilities to maintain the status quo. This pressure to maintain “situation normal” is not limited to realms of educational technology, of course. One of the most unfortunate examples with which I am personally familiar, regards the availability (or again in this case, the NON-availability) of playground equipment at elementary schools in the Texas public school district in which I taught and my students attended school from (cumulatively) 1996 through 2006.
In this large Texas school district, all playground equipment was removed from some elementary schools, and PTA/PTO groups were prevented from purchasing ANY playground equipment for students, because of the district’s fear of a lawsuit from a parent whose child was injured on the playground. Of course, because of the voluntary response of some district leaders to high stakes testing and TAAS/TEKS/NCLB, in some elementary schools recess was officially removed from the schedule for students after second grade (8 year olds) because the leaders felt kids shouldn’t waste time developing social skills and unstructured play skills on the playground, and instead should be inside sitting quietly in their desks… completing more worksheets to help insure student test scores would be adequate (meet minimum standards) for the mandated tests at the end of the year. In a situation like that, who needs playgrounds at an elementary school? We’ve got plenty of worksheets for students to do, so hopefully that will suffice to help them exercise their upper bodies… or at least their hands.
I’m quite troubled by this apparently common experience of educators in school districts where policies seem to be more driven by a FEAR of litigation rather than what is best for children. Will fear of litigation drive some of our schools to ban all technologies outright, just as some of our Texas school districts have gotten rid of playground equipment at elementary schools? I certainly hope not, but the prevalence of litigation fear in some of our schools is certainly discouraging. This fear of students and what they could do (a general distrust of students as well as teachers) may account for the broad LACK of support I’m finding in Oklahoma for 1:1 learning initiatives in most school districts.
One of the primary questions I’ll be taking to the COSN conference in Washington D.C. in a week will be this: How are schools who are embracing student and teacher publication of media and content online avoiding this prevalent paralysis of permitted network usage which we see in other school districts? This might be a great question for Tony Vincent and others involved (past and present) with Willowdale Elementary School and Millard Public Schools to field.
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