Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. provides computers for all students, but they come with a caveat.
Each computer comes with content filter software that allows school officials to monitor what students are doing on the internet while using their school-owned computers, and whether their searches and activity are allowed under school corporation policies.
As the school corporation prepares to roll out new internet content filter software across its network this summer, BCSC officials hope to improve the system that can make it difficult for students to do research on routine subjects such as “breast cancer awareness” or Churchill Downs.
Why would Churchill Downs trigger a monitoring report to a building principal, you ask?
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“Gambling,” said Mike Jamerson, BCSC’s director of technology.
Churchill Downs is home of the Kentucky Derby. One of the crown jewels of horse racing, it is also a legal gambling and betting site, which triggers a violation on the school district’s internet filters.
Right now, the guidelines that students must follow are embedded in student handbooks, and enforcement of the policies is at the school building level.
“They’re kids, and don’t think we’re näive enough to think they won’t try to get around the filters and find things,” Superintendent Jim Roberts said.
That being said, Roberts said there haven’t been many issues with inappropriate searches, particularly nothing of substance that would reach the school corporation administrative level, such as threats to school security.
Content that is limited in the searches includes anything relating to pornography, alcohol or drugs, and content that would be inappropriate for some area ranges — such as OK for high school, but not for kindergarten, Jamerson said. The software identifies key words that trigger a content warning.
If a student attempts deliberately, or even inadvertently, to access something that the filter software identifies as off-limits, the software gives a message to the student that the search is prohibited on the school-owned computer and a report is generated to the school building with the exact wording of the search.
Students have the opportunity to explain what they were searching for and what might have happened, Roberts said.
For example, he remembers one instance when a student was doing research on insects, but with a typographical error typed in “incest.”
And Jamerson notes that every year, certain class assignments sometimes result in multiple content-filter reports being sent from a class — such as research on the “atomic bomb” for a paper on Hiroshima, or an opinion paper on the legalization of marijuana.
“The students have the opportunity to explain the situation,” Roberts said.
New content software
The school board approved a three-year agreement earlier this month with ContentKeeper, an internet content filtering software provider, for $103,371 that also will support faster internet speeds and allow administrators to have better control over users, Jamerson said.Through the school corporation’s 1:1 initiative, HP Chromebooks are provided to first- through eighth-grade students. The devices — which cost about $200 each — may be stored in the classroom, but can be taken home depending on the grade level, Jamerson said.
High school students receive laptops, with Columbus Signature Academy — New Tech receiving a slightly different type than Columbus East and North high school students. Those devices are expected to be taken home every day and cost about $500 each, he said. Laptops provided to CSA — New Tech students, which do a lot of project-based learning, come with faster processors.
The computers will be replaced on a rotating basis as new students enter the first and fifth grades.
BCSC will spend about $750,000 annually as the older computers are rotated out and new ones are purchased. Kindergarten students have access to Apple iPads and Chromebooks in their classrooms and do not take the devices home.
Some Columbus high school students say while the laptops are helpful, the internet content filter sometimes restricts access to research on topics tied to school assignments.
Lena Muir, a Columbus North sophomore, said the popular website Pinterest is used in some of her classes, but isn’t allowed to be accessed on her school computer due to the filter.
Other sites that are blocked are the music-sharing site Pandora and social media’s Facebook, although the school corporation has allowed limited access to some social media.
Since about 2010, New Tech students have had access to Twitter, Skype and Google Docs, as it aids in their project-based learning initiatives, Jamerson said. However, access to Facebook on school computers continues to be denied, he said.
However, the district does not actively monitor social media posts that are made by students, Jamerson said.
YouTube continues to be an area of consideration, as there are instructional videos of educational value there, along with content that isn’t appropriate to be viewed on a school computer, Jamerson said.
In one example, students at New Tech were working on a project that involved nanotechnology and needed to set up a Skype session to interview a professor at Indiana University, Jamerson said. When school officials asked who set up the Skype session, they learned the students did as part of the educational process — learning about the technology of video-conferencing as well as interviewing over the computer and nanotechnology.
Muir said she is comfortable with the level of access students are given. However, she was concerned about the availability of IDrive, a Cloud-based platform that is used to save documents and other material, because she can’t access it at home.
“So if you’re working on a paper or a PowerPoint and if you save it to your IDrive, you can’t work on it at home unless you save it to your desktop,” she said.
Student internet access at home is another issue the school corporation needs to take a look at, Muir said.
“Not all kids have access to that, so I think that’s something that needs to be (addressed),” she said.
Tim Farrell, a North senior, also said the school-supplied laptops have been beneficial and allow students to access assignments from teachers and to turn in any assignments in case they miss school due to illness. Farrell also said since he doesn’t have a computer at home, the laptop has helped him complete assignments as well.
There have been instances where he has tried to look up information for class and can’t be accessed due to the internet content filter, he said. He hopes the district will take another look at the type of material students are allowed to access for assignments.
“It just gets irritating when you’re trying to look at that stuff,” Farrell said.
Technology in the classroom
Crystal Stewart, who teaches writing and literacy at Northside Middle School, said she has had to change the way she teaches as a result of technology and the 1:1 computer initiative.Stewart, who has taught for 16 years, said she uses a platform known as itslearning to post homework assignments and other classroom material for students to access on their laptops.
“It’s been very helpful, especially with research and composing different types of papers,” Stewart said.
Still, she takes a proactive approach in monitoring what students are accessing on their laptops throughout the day, even with the internet content filtering software already in place.
However, if a student is found to have accessed something they shouldn’t have, they face the possibility of their laptop being taken away and provided with paper copies of homework assignments, Stewart said.
If the students are repeat offenders or problems exist in other Northside classrooms, that typically results in a scheduled meeting with Evan Burton, Northside’s assistant principal, she said.
There have been a few instances of inappropriate searches being conducted by students, but isn’t a widespread problem, Burton said.
“It’s very minimal,” he said.
Stewart credited parents in ensuring that students follow guidelines set out by the district concerning laptops being used appropriately.
Burton said he believes the laptops also have allowed teachers to be more accessible in being able to respond to questions from students that may come up. The devices also allow for more collaboration among students in the classroom, whether that involves writing or working on a group project, he said.
Future policy changes
Proposed technology policy changes are expected to be presented to the school board in June.Those changes have been recommended by Neola, an Ohio-based educational consulting firm that advises the school corporation on policies. The organization provides recommendations for changes or additions concerning board policies that are based on state and federal legislation, Roberts said.
Jamerson said the proposed policy changes are expected to address accessibility and the devices that should be included in the district’s overall guidelines. While students are equipped with laptops, that doesn’t mean textbooks have gone by the wayside as some students still need print materials available, he said.
“We’re not at the point where textbooks are out the window completely,” Jamerson said.
However, Roberts said BCSC may be purchasing fewer textbooks as it moves into the future, although students such as Muir say they see a continued need for hard-copy books at schools across the district.
“I think the laptop is beneficial, but I don’t think it should ever replace books,” she said.
Roberts said with the availability of laptops, students are able to perform schoolwork in cases where the district has E-learning days, which are used when the district exhausts make-up days. There were no E-learning days in effect this school year, although teachers practiced at Northside during a regular school day for such scenarios, the superintendent said.
Stephanie Masters-Wheeler, whose son Evan, 14, is a student at Northside, said her family supports the efforts to shield certain material from students. His Chromebook is used at school, but is not brought home, she said.
Her son does have a cellphone, which Masters-Wheeler said she regularly monitors to ensure that it is being used appropriately, she said. Still, Masters-Wheeler said the responsibility falls on teachers at Northside to monitor how the laptops are being used by students.
“I think they do a pretty good job to see what’s appropriate and what’s not,” she said.
The cellphone conundrum is an area where school administrators acknowledge that while they can control the content allowed on school computers, most students’ cellphones can access anything on the internet from a local wireless phone provider.
However, those phones cannot be on the school corporation’s server when doing that, Roberts said.
As long as the phone has a service provider outside the school corporation server, the school corporation has no control on that content or access, he said.
Click here to read more about the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. social media guidelines: http://www.therepublic.com/?p=460956&preview=true
What happens when filters catch inappropriate content: http://www.therepublic.com/?p=460862&preview_id=460862&preview_nonce=64192ec530&post_format=standard&preview=true
Officials: 28-year Columbus middle school art educator violated social media policy: http://www.therepublic.com/?p=460955&preview_id=460955&preview_nonce=97e4242cf0&post_format=standard&preview=true