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Nebraska Schools and the Internet: Keep the Good, Block the Bad

Lincoln public school educators discuss their efforts that allow teachers to use the best of what the Internet has to offer while making sure students can’t get to what is considered inappropriate.

by Margaret Reist, Lincoln Journal Star / September 19, 2019

(TNS) — Think of them as virtual fence-builders.

They are folks at Lincoln Public Schools who traverse the wide-open Internet, consider its opportunities and dangers, then do their best to harness the former for students when they’re inside school walls and make sure the latter are off-limits.

They are, by the nature of their work, never done, and part of that work is keeping a step ahead of savvy students born into a world where technology has always been at their fingertips

“We can keep building 10-foot fences, but they’ll just keep showing up with 11-foot ladders,” said Chris Pultz, who is part of the district’s computing services department.

Pultz and computer services team members Tim Hahn and Jarred Rowe talked Internet safety Tuesday at the district’s monthly “Learning Lunch” series, offering a tutorial of just how the second-largest school district in the state manages the flow of information available online.

They start, Pultz said, with federal laws that govern student privacy and rights, including digital records and other data. Districts must follow a long list of rules — including those that require schools have filters that block “the worst of the worst” in cyberspace — in order to get federal funds supporting technology.

LPS hired an outside company that helps manage content. The company divides content into categories and the district chooses which categories to block.

For instance, one of the blocked categories is social media, which means students can’t access Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat or any other social media site using the district’s Wi-Fi.

Students can’t see YouTube, either, but there’s a way teachers can share YouTube videos with students if they're pertinent to a lesson.

The district has an information security officer and filters information on its own, too, Rowe said, making sure the sites students have access to are instructionally sound.

LPS has both public and secure Wi-Fi networks available, Pultz said, but the public one offers even less access than the secure site used for students. The public site in the district office, where no students have class, has greater reach — including access to social media sites.

The filters on students’ district-issued Chromebooks stay on even when students take the devices home.

Students can, of course, use their own data plans on their phones while at school and hurdle some of the blocks. And each building makes policies regarding use of individual devices.

“We can’t filter their cellphones, but we can have behavior policies in place that address behaviors whether there’s technology involved or not,” Hahn said.

For teachers, the district has a formal process to review the plethora of instructional and educational tools online and has approved more than 600 sites that teachers can use and easily access.

And there’s a portal for students and teachers that directly connects them to various websites and tools they can use for assignments or research.

There’s also a program called Hapara to help teachers manage their classrooms in the digital age.

For instance, as they’re standing at the front of the room with a view of the back of all the students’ Chromebooks, teachers can see on their computer what students are looking at on their devices (goodbye random Google searches). Or they can “lock out” students’ ability to browse or visit sites not part of the lesson.

With the help of the district’s media specialists, LPS has links to a number of research sites, a way for teachers to help direct students to credible sites and teach them there’s more to life than Wikipedia.

The bottom line: Figuring out how to leverage technology in the classroom is a moving target.

“We need to be agile to make sure we’re at the forefront of all of this,” Rowe said.

©2019 Lincoln Journal Star, Neb. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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