February
20th 2012
Digital Dilemma: Why Can’t All Districts Filter Internet Device Access from Home?

Posted under Innovation and Reform & Online Schools & Parents & PPC & Public Charter Schools & Rural Schools & School Board & Suburban Schools

One of this blog’s themes that regular readers are familiar with is the power of digital technology to help transform the capability and productivity of public education. Combined with the right policies and innovative direction of resources, this technology has tremendous potential to effect positive change. Digital Learning Now’s Roadmap for Reform released last October — not to mention a forthcoming (or so I’m told) Colorado version — highlights some great ideas.

One policy action endorsed by Digital Learning Now is that the “state ensures all public school students and teachers have Internet access devices.” Definitely a worthy goal, inasmuch as it helps to equip students for a 21st century career. But it also can be a double-edged sword. As a new article by Kristina Iodice in the Colorado Springs Gazette points out, giving students take-home access to iPads is fraught with danger if not done right:

Manitou Springs School District 14 is in the middle of a two-year rollout of iPads to many of its roughly 1,420 students. In the fall 2011, about 490 students in fifth through eighth grade, and 90 high school students, received the devices. About 500 high school students will get them in the coming 2012-13 school year.

Some parents are concerned that the district is not doing everything it could to safeguard students, although school officials insist it is compliant with state and federal law. Internet browsers on the iPads do not include parental controls….

In Manitou Springs, students are allowed to take the iPads home as long as parents sign forms. The school sent letters explaining home Internet security and filtering, and families have the option of not permitting students to bring home devices, officials said.

It is terrific that more and more Colorado schools are taking advantage of digital technology to provide blended learning options that include the opportunity to access learning materials at home. But the focus also should be on keeping kids safe online. I’m not a legal expert, so others can figure out whether Manitou Springs’ policy complies with the law. But local parents definitely have raised some valid concerns about a problem that appears to have a very practical solution.

As a January 24 Denver Post article by Kevin Simpson point out, other Colorado schools have figured out how to keep the filtering security on iPads and other Internet access devices that travel home with students:

Legacy [Academy K-8 charter school] principal Jason Cross gave iPads this year to every student. But when he discovered that the tablets would allow unfiltered access at home, he balked at letting them leave school….

It took months before the school found a software solution to adequately filter online activity away from the school’s system.

The Gazette piece highlights not only Legacy‘s ability to find a workable software solution, but also the same capability of online programs in Academy 20 and Colorado Springs 11. Meanwhile, the Post story says that “software solutions proved problematic” for Manitou Springs. It’s entirely unclear to someone like me, who isn’t a tech geek, why things are so much different that solutions which have worked elsewhere also couldn’t apply in School District 14.

Implementing technology as part of an innovative new educational approach can be done well or can be done poorly. The use of the cutting-edge often means hitting a few bumps in the road along the way. But leaders at Legacy and the other two programs are to be commended for making student online safety a priority while sticking with the innovation.

Schools and districts considering similar programs should talk to them first. So it seems should Manitou Springs, which could better engage both students and parents by making sure the school-issued devices can’t be used to access the bad stuff off site, too.

6 Comments »

6 Responses to “Digital Dilemma: Why Can’t All Districts Filter Internet Device Access from Home?”

  1. Chris Burr on 23 Feb 2012 at 5:58 pm #

    Eddie,

    I received this posting through Facebook, and would love to help you have a better understanding of the situation. You certainly don’t have to be a “tech geek” to get it. As with most information that Mr. Morin has put out to folks like you….only a small portion is accurate. Newspapers are charged with selling papers, not necessarily providing all of the proper information. If you would like to take the time to understand why we are making certain choices, I am confident you may see things more clearly. You may still disagree, but at least you will know why….based on factual information. Feel free to call anytime, I can be available at your request. I hope to speak with you soon,

    Chris Burr
    Principal
    Manitou Springs Middle School
    719-685-2127

  2. Eddie on 23 Feb 2012 at 6:07 pm #

    Mr. Burr, Thanks for leaving the comment. What information in the posting is not factually correct? I raised the question, based on the reporting cited, of why some programs have been able to achieve a safe, filtered home Internet access option and at least one has not. If there is a clear answer to the question or an update to the story, we’re glad to post it. But I’ll have one of my Education Policy Center friends give you a call…

  3. Chris Burr on 23 Feb 2012 at 7:11 pm #

    Hi Eddie,

    Here’s the gist: no iPad program that I have found,especially not those quoted in any of the recent Colorado news stories, can provide a safe and effective at home filter, for these reasons….

    1- the iPad and a laptop/PC are entirely different technologies. The iPad does not work from a contiguous background operating system. The iPad uses a process that Apple calls “sandboxing”. This means that any one app will not “talk” to another app….they do not / can not, share information in any way. This means a “filtered” browser, only filters that one access point to the Internet. Any other app that accesses the Internet, will do so through its own, usually unfiltered, internal browser…..we call these—3rd party browsers. Therefore, the only way to completely filter the iPad…on an unfiltered network….is to remove Safari, install a filtered browser…and then remove ALL other applications that have an on-board browser. Many fantastic educational apps have one of these browsers…unfiltered. In addition, any other app that accesses the Internet….even if it does not have a browser….provides a “back-door”. If the app has an “about the developer” button, or a twitter, Facebook, YouTube, or other link…it is extremely easy to work around the filtered browser. When we looked at all of our apps, well over 50% of them provided some back-door access. I can further explain the conversations I have had with the one and only other Colorado school doing a full 1:1 implementation, and why their students are not safe at home….some of their problems they are aware of, some of the problems they have not yet figured out. We don’t need their advice….they need ours.

    2- The filtered browsers are also 3rd party applications, and as such, are very buggy. We found Lightspeed browser to be unusable at times, which is not acceptable at school. Even Legacy uses Safari at school…they use our same mobile device manager (MDM), and have been turning Safari off (removing it from the device) each night after school. Legacy recognizes that Safari is exceedingly better at providing educational value, as does Manitou. Here’s the catch for Legacy parents: the Legacy MDM failed to turn off Safari recently, leaving the iPad unsecured, and without the knowledge of the parent. When Legacy recognized it, they worked quickly to fix it, but still, it was a problem. Manitou’s MDM had failed as well on this, but our parents were already knowledgeable about the risks. In addition, during the school day, as stated before, Legacy turns on Safari…because it is better…way better. This means that any student who is at home sick for the day, will get unfiltered Safari access. Legacy has always known this, in fact, they address it in their user agreement. Manitou has chosen to be very transparent, because filtering an iPad is not a solid enough plan…unless we choose to restrict the educational value to the point of hampering the usefullness of the device. D-11, D-20, and any other district you talk to will have none of this knowledge….they have not looked into it deeply enough yet. That is not a knock, we would not have known this information had we not gone very deeply, very quickly. It has been my experience that even Apple does not understand the needs and issues regarding the iPad implementation in school programs. All 3rd party, “filtered” applications, have similar limitations.

    3- There are other inaccuracies….not necessarily in your article, but clearly in other information produced in an effort to generate a “news” report. I would be happy to discuss those things further.

    Again, I hope to speak soon,

    Chris

  4. Chris Burr on 23 Feb 2012 at 8:45 pm #

    Eddie,

    Specifically regarding your article….we can discuss these points further:

    1- You “commend”, three other districts, implying that Manitou is not to be commended. Two of the three districts, D-11 and D-20, are not doing any kind of whole school 1:1 with an iPad, or otherwise…so I’m not sure how they are “part of a new innovative educational approach”. Most schools have computers, that is nothing new or “cutting edge”. As for the third, Legacy, they have chosen a different plan…one that, if Manitou chose to do the same, (and we have in grade 5) would limit a teachers ability to use the best tools that the device can provide….and comes with security holes that do not make it fully effective anyway…..how exactly is this commendable?

    2- You presume to know that we could better engage parents…. I am more confident in this, than any other thing…..I have personally talked to the vast majority of my parents, through private meeting, phone calls, trainings, etc. I know exactly who disagrees….out of 375 students, 5 have parents who have expressed concern about filtering (2 kids are from same family)….of those 5—ALL of them chose to have the device come home unfiltered…they did have a choice, and chose to opt-in. Four of the five School Board members have students in the middle school, those parents agree and chose to implement the new policy. We have well over half of the parents respond to a survey, and have sent several letters home with information and invitations to meetings. We have regular Building Acountibility meetings, where we have discussed this issue with MANY parents. We have a parents Facebook page where we discuss this issue, and we have had involvement, and support, from our town’s city council. The one parent who is driving most of this negative press has attended several School Board meetings, with no other support from other dissenters…even when several parents showed up to support our School Board. We have more fully engaged our parents and community than most other schools would even dream possible. The incredibly vast majority of those parents agree with our implementation plan, and many are upset that so few voices are driving this negative campaign, and that the perception is that there is really an issue at all. As the principal, I can tell you that if I changed the dress code policy, I would get far less agreement, than I have on the iPad policy. We all know it is nearly impossible to get all folks to agree, this issue has gotten closer to complete agreement than almost any other thing we could have done.

  5. Silver Fang on 28 Mar 2012 at 12:02 pm #

    So just don’t filter them. Is it really the end of the world if a 13-year-old sees an uncovered breast?

  6. Dan Kleinman of SafeLibraries on 27 Apr 2012 at 11:44 pm #

    I have cited to this story here:

    School Issued Apple iPads Allow Porn in Manitou Springs School District 14, Memorandum by Morality in Media General Counsel Robert Peters on Unfiltered Internet Access

    http://safelibraries.blogspot.com/2012/04/school-issued-apple-ipads-allow-porn-in.html

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