Educational Purpose and Use

The foundation for the development of a comprehensive plan to address the safe and responsible use of the Internet is a recognition of the reason for which Internet access is being provided in schools. When a district establishes Internet service, the purpose is not merely to provide students and employees with general purpose, personal access to the Internet. The district system has a very specific purpose: to enhance the delivery of education.

On a specific purpose system, some uses or activities are considered unacceptable not because they are bad activities, but because they are not appropriate on that particular system. Students have an obligation to use the district system in a manner that supports their education, self-improvement, and career development. District employees have an obligation to use the district system in a manner specified by their employer and to not abuse the use of public resources.

There are several important reasons to be concerned about how students and staff approach the use of the Internet in school.

  • Tending a rose "Two things cannot be on one place. Where you tend a rose, ... a thistle cannot grow. " This passage from The Secret Garden captures an essential reason for the importance on focusing on the educational purpose of the use of the district's Internet system. If the district's technology resources are being used by students who are engaged in exciting, enriching educational activities, there is simply no opportunity for students to be engaged in inappropriate activities. But if the primary use of the district's technology resources is for "Internet Recess," (activities that are primarily for popular culture research or entertainment purposes) not only is the district wasting valuable resources, the district has established an environment where inappropriate activity is much more likely to occur.

    Anytime that a school is having problems with "thistles" (inappropriate uses of technology) the first and most important question that must be asked is, "How is the school tending its roses?"

  • Prevention of the displacement of learning
    Educators have precious little time to assist all students in achieving challenging academic standards. The primary use of the Internet should be directly related to achieving learning objectives.

  • Appropriate use of taxpayer resources
    Taxpayers are supporting the costs of technology in schools because of the promise that technology will assist students in achieving challenging academic standards. Many of the recent articles and reports criticizing increased investments in technology point to the fact that in many schools, technology resources are not being used for their greatest educational purpose.

  • Preparation for workplace use
    The purpose of education is to prepare students for success in life and work in the 21st Century. When students enter the work force, they will likely be using their employer's electronic network that will also be a limited purpose network, with greater limitations than an education system. An important work skill for students will be the ability to use self-restraint to use a system in accord with its purposes. Companies should not have to rely on Technology Protection Measures to ensure that their employees abide by use restrictions. Schools have a responsibility to help educate young people how to control their usage when they are using a limited purpose system.

  • Prevention of problems with misuse and addiction
    There are growing concerns with online addiction -- people who spend hours and hours of time in essentially worthless activities. When schools force their students to think about their online activities in the context of the value of that activity to their education and self-improvement, schools are assisting students in gaining critically-important self-monitoring skills that may assist in preventing addiction.

For all of these reasons, it is highly appropriate for districts exert control over the use of the district system and to establish that the system is for a limited educational purpose. If students or employees want greater freedom, they can obtain such freedom by acquiring their own personal account through a private provider.

What is an "Educational Purpose"?

The district or schools must describe what is considered to be "an educational purpose" and outline what activities are considered acceptable and unacceptable on this specific purpose system.

Instructional Related Activities that are clearly acceptable are instructional related activities, continuing education, and career development activities for students and professional development and communication activities for employees.

Commercial Use and Lobbying Commercial uses are generally considered unacceptable. This would include the actual purchasing of purchasing products or services. Most states place a restriction on the use of public resources for lobbying. Therefore, lobbying as defined by state statute would be an unacceptable use. But this limitation should not restrict students or teachers from using the system to communicate their opinions to elected representatives.

Independent Learning Explorations Questions emerge related to independent learning explorations, which may range from serious research to "Internet recess" kinds of activities. One approach would be to restrict student use to specific class-related activities. But this would be equivalent to establishing a school library and then telling students that they can only use the library for instructional related activities. This approach defeats the purpose of seeking to assist students in learning to use the Internet for their own personal enrichment and learning. It is recommended that high quality, non-entertainment-related, personal research be included in the definition of educational purpose.

What about "Internet recess" kinds of activities. It should be recognized that the vast majority of school libraries contain material related to popular culture, such as sports magazines and books about rock stars or movies, or entertainment materials, such as joke books or books about hobbies. The Internet also contains a vast amount of popular culture materials which have some, but limited, educational value. Innovative teachers may actually be able to make great educational use of such materials. Access to such non-educational or entertainment materials may be considered to be outside of "educational purpose" definition, but schools should allow the use of such materials for teacher-directed instructional purposes. Also many schools establish periods of "open access" where access to such materials is considered to be acceptable. In the Internet Use Policy and Regulations provided in this Planning Guide, these materials are classified as "Limited Access Materials."

If a districts or school does allow students to access the Internet for either entertainment purposes or personal research activities, it would be advisable to establish priorities of usage for computers that are available for multiple uses, such as those in the library or an open use computer lab. Students who require access for class-related activities should have priority over other uses. A mechanism could be established so that students who are not using the computer for class-related activities could be "bumped" by any student requiring access for a class-related purpose.

Schools should collect data on the manner in which the technology is being used in the multiple use areas. If schools are finding that an excess amount of the use is for "Internet recess", this is a clear indication that insufficient attention is being paid professional development and other activities necessary to support the effective use of the Internet for educational purposes activities.

Personal Communication

Even sticker questions emerge related to personal electronic communication. Can the principal send an e-mail to her husband asking him to pick up some milk for dinner? Can the science teacher subscribe to a gardening group discussion? Can a student communicate with a former classmate who recently moved? Can students communicate with each other?

Schools may use different approaches to address issues of personal communication. One approach is to accept that a small amount of personal communication is to be expected but indicate to all users that overall electronic communication traffic should not be excessive. Any user who engages in excessive traffic that is not to be expected in light of their activities or position may be subject to questioning. Users should not be allowed to participate in group discussions, such as mailing lists, unless there is a direct professional development or curriculum-related purpose.

All district users should be reminded that their electronic communications reflect on the district they should guide their activities accordingly. One way to emphasize this is to require district employees to establish an e-mail signature that identifies their position with the district and to require students have a signature that includes the name of the district.

Technology Protection Measure and Use for Educational Purpose

Unfortunately, in many districts, the decision to install a Technology Protection Measure may actually lead to complacency with respect to maintaining a focus on educational activities. Installing a Technology Protection Measure will not address the issue of educational purpose and use.

A study published by N2H2, a company that provides a blocking product clearly demonstrates this phenomena. N2H2 analyzed data relating to student use through their system . The report presents disturbing implications related to the degree to which the Internet is being used in schools for actual instructional related purposes. N2H2 studied the top 300 sites by number of page views. These 300 sites accounted for "roughly half" of the total page views. N2H2 considered their data to present a "representative picture of use." N2H2 indicated that an analysis of data by average per-page viewing time presented the best approach to analyzing how students were using the Internet. N2H2 provided the data in terms of categories and average viewing time. Additional calculations of percentage of viewing time (last column) were added by the author of this document

1. Instructional, Reference & Computing 60 seconds 16.7%
2. News & Sports 58 seconds 16.2%
3. Business & Finance 52 seconds 14.5%
4. Commerce & E-Services 51 seconds 14.2%
5. Music, Games & Fun 48 seconds 13.4%
6. Portals & Search 46 seconds 12.8%
7. Communities 44 seconds 12.3%

Here are N2H2's definitions of the categories, followed by comment:

Instructional, Reference, & Computing. Sites that could be use for specific instructional purposes by teachers or students, general research and reference resources, and computer network resources.

One may ask why computer network resource sites were included in this category, since such sites are not instructional purpose sites. We would have a clearer picture of use if the category had been limited to instructional and reference. If computing sites were eliminated from this category, this would decrease the percentage of time spent on instructional sites below the already abysmally low 16.7 %.

News & Sports. Online versions of national news, sports magazines, local news.

Accessing news sites should probably be considered an instructional related activity. Sports magazines are more of an "Internet Recess" activity. There is no way to distinguish the amount of access to news versus sports sites.

Business & Finance. Financial news sites and online brokerage firms.

Some instructional activities may involve access to business news and finance sites. (It is hard to determine the value of this category. One might query whether N2H2 was also collecting staff usage data.)

Commerce & E-Services. Commercial sites offering products or online services.

It can be assumed that most of this access was not for instructional related purposes.

Portals & Search. Sites that attempt to branch out and connect users with content.

The amount of time that such portals and search sites was used for instructional related purposes is probably roughly equivalent to the overall use levels.

Music, Games, & Fun. Sites geared towards entertainment and leisure.

These are "Internet Recess" sites. It can be assumed that most of this access was not for instructional related purposes.

Communities. Sites providing content targeted to specific demographic groups and typically containing a large amount of user generated content such as chat and message boards.

It is also likely that much of this activity was not for instructional related purposes.

N2H2 was only able to classify the data by its descriptive criteria. N2H2 had no data on how such sites were actually being used. It is true that innovative teachers can make effective use of entertainment or commerce sites for instructional activities, but based on anecdotal reports, it is not likely that much of this use was for teacher-directed activities.

What we can reasonably conclude, based on this limited data, is less than 16.7% of student use was on sites that were clearly instructional related. It is also highly probably that a good portion of the 39.9 % of student use in the Commerce and E-services, Music, Fun & Games, and Communities categories was not for instructional related purposes, rather were "Internet Recess" activities.

Clearly, the picture of use presented is unacceptable. How many school administrators have installed filtering/blocking software thinking they have solved the problems of use of the Internet in their schools with the resulting patterns of usage such as the above? This is likely an example of the false security and complacency that often results from reliance on technology tools. One of the most aggravating comments the author of this Planning Guide has heard around this issue came from a school administrator who said, "We have to install filtering software because our teachers are not prepared to handle student use of the Internet."

Blocking Access

Why shouldn't we simply set the Technology Protection Measure to block access to categories that are not instructional related? There are several problems with this approach. First, setting a Technology Protection Measure to block access to the same kinds of materials as are provided in the school library is at the very least inconsistent. These kinds of materials are interesting to many students and promote interest in reading and inquiry.

Second, due to the broad-brush manner in which Technology Protection Measure sites label content, setting the measure to block "Internet Recess" categories may result in limiting access to material that is perfectly for instructional purposes. For example, limiting access to sites in the "sports" category would limit access to sites discussing the history of the Olympics, certainly an appropriate topic for instructional related study.

Third, many innovative teachers are using popular culture sites in ways that stimulate student learning. Therefore such use is clearly instructional related. These creative learning activities should not be prevented because of concerns with non-instructional use.

Forth, the more categories that are selected to be blocked, the greater the risk of blocking student or teacher access to perfectly appropriate educational material.

Effective Strategies to Promote Instructional Use

Professional Development The most essential step necessary to ensure that the district's Internet system is being used effectively to support enriching instructional activities is professional development of the teachers!

When teachers are well-prepared to lead students on exciting learning adventures on the Internet, virtually all problems in the use of the Internet disappear. Students become engaged and excited about what they are discovering. The demand for the available computers for completing the assignments will be so high, that "Internet recess" use will simply not be acceptable. If students do not police themselves, their peers -- who are waiting to get access to complete an assignment -- will. When "Internet recess" activities are diminished, the opportunity to engage in misbehavior is substantially reduced.

There are many excellent resources for information related to professional development. At a minimum, a district strategic plan for professional development for teachers should address:

  • Basic technical, productivity software, and Internet skills.

  • Instructional uses of technology and the Internet -- where the use of technology and the Internet is integrated into the curriculum. Professional development in instructional uses of should include opportunities for demonstration and practice, as well as ongoing mentoring and support.

  • Easy access to Internet-related lesson plans and activities. This can be accomplished through a district, state, or regional web site or through links from the district site to such resources. Districts can also establish subject or grade oriented mailing lists where teachers can be encouraged to discuss curriculum issues or share lesson plans.

Educational Web Site/Portal The second strategy to enhance the use of the Internet for educational purposes is through the use of an educational web site or portal. Unfortunately, an insufficient amount of attention has been paid to the creation of "good places" for students to go when using the Internet.

The single best step that could be taken to improve the quality of use of the Internet in schools by students, and to limit potential concerns about such use, would be a national effort -- led by educators -- to establish an educational gateway onto the Internet for students. There are some good quality commercial services, such as Education World's portal . There is also a good federal resource for information created by federal agencies through the Federal Resources for Educational Excellence . Many states have created excellent sites that provide resources for teachers and that have some links for students, such as the Texan Education Network TENET .

However, none of these resources provide a comprehensive, commercial-free high quality research environment for students. Such a resource is clearly needed.