Before I dropped into EDUCAUSE insanity last week, I was in touch with a concerned parent from the Zeeland Public Schools, where USA Today had highlighted their iPad initiative in glowing terms. I wasn't so sure, having seen first hand how much training and cultural change needed to happen in a school system for 1:1 programs (regardless of hardware) to be successful. As this parent, along with some newsletters that the superintendent sent out, suggested, my skepticism was probably justified.
The first warning sign came in the form of a letter that Zeeland superintendent, Dr. Dave Barry, sent to parents. Here's an excerpt:
Specifically, the iPad was designed by Apple to be a computing device that embraces the reliability, good battery life, and ease-of-use of a cell phone. A standard system for managing cell phones and iPads is something called MDM (Mobile Device Management). Apple currently does not provide any way for us to filter the Internet using the MDM server. We are, however, able to do some basic settings from a central location.
This is completely true. The problem, however, is that Zeeland Public Schools claims to be unable to meaningfully filter Internet content on iPads while students are at home. Most CIPA-compliant systems can filter off-campus devices through a simply proxy setup which can be pushed to iPads through the MDM system mentioned above. More significantly, Zeeland uses Lightspeed Systems for their on-campus filtering. Lightspeed has some of the most robust filtering technologies on the market (to say nothing of their very cool MyBigCampus offerings) and even outlines how any device can be filtered using their hosted and appliance-based solutions very easily here (requires a PDF Reader).
More likely than not, this is simply a case of ignorance on the part of senior administration, but it's hardly rocket science for most districts looking at 1:1. That ignorance, and the lack of communication between IT staff, administration, and parents it implies is a bigger problem than any unfiltered web surfing in which students might engage.
I've tested Lightspeed's filtering technologies before, both directly behind their appliances and through a proxy and haven't managed to get past them. More significantly, neither have my students. No filter is foolproof, nor are they substitutes for supervision, clear policies, and education around digital citizenship. However, kids will be kids, and the filters are there to comply with federal law. In a district that is arguably using the best of breed tools, wouldn't it make sense that in-house expertise would be able to short-circuit the sorts of concerns that parents began raising about kids' surfing habits?
What this highlights more than anything, though (even more than the poor understanding of existing tools in the district's IT toolkit) is the need for clear communication among all stakeholders, especially students and parents. The superintendent wrote in a recent newsletter to parents,
As a superintendent of a school district implementing 1-to-1 technology for all children, I am often asked whether I think technology is good or bad for our culture and students. My answer? I think it is good.
He obviously went on in greater detail, but I don't think this counts as clear and open communication. The district ran into problems with parents after the iPads had been deployed and received national attention when, in fact, parents should have been part of the process and fully cognizant of the implications of the iPad program long before the devices were purchased.
I'm not being critical of the Zeeland Public Schools specifically here. This sort of thing happens all the time, all over the country, as schools begin to embrace new technologies and pedagogies. Zeeland just happened to have a USA Today story written about them that got picked up in the Ed Tech blogosphere, so they get to be our poster child of the day. The key message is simply that the road to tech-driven educational reform is littered with landmines. These landmines shouldn't discourage change and innovation, but rather motivate schools to think through all of the facets of a tech implementation, most importantly those that relate to teaching and learning, as well as communication and consensus. It's all too easy for us techies to push a project forward, taking for granted many aspects of the technology that teachers, parents, and administrators might otherwise overlook until it's too late.