Over the past twenty years, online connectivity has become a pedagogical cornerstone in public schools. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 1998, only 51% of public school classrooms had internet access. By 2005, that number had risen to 94%. Now, from iPads to iPhones to Chromebooks, classroom instruction depends upon more devices than ever. And all of these devices require an internet connection. To keep up with these changes, lawmakers introduced and implemented new regulations regarding online access. These regulations also include and affect school and district Acceptable Use Policies (AUPs). Here’s what administrators, teachers, and tech teams need to know about federal law and Acceptable Use Policies.
Internet Access as a Privilege
First, it’s important to recognize the existence of a digital divide. Students may not have internet access at home, especially in rural areas. When designing online curricula and requiring online work, schools must recognize that internet access is a privilege. However, this is a digital age, and online resources bring great educational opportunities. It’s therefore essential to teach all students digital literacy. At the same time, it’s also essential to keep students safe and preserve their rights online, in compliance with education laws. A strong Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) is a school’s first step towards creating a safe online learning environment.
Acceptable Use Policies
An AUP is a customizable policy determining how school-provided internet and online devices can and should be used. Additionally, it imparts valuable digital citizenship skills. After signing an AUP contract, students are responsible for anything that goes against the school’s policy. For example, if an AUP has copyright guidelines in its contract, students become responsible for any misuse or plagiarism. Similarly, an AUP should outline responsible, safe, and appropriate computer use, identifying dangerous behavior like cyberbullying. In this way, an AUP in itself becomes an important tool for teaching responsible technology use and digital citizenship.
When creating an AUP, it’s essential to consider students’ rights to privacy. This includes following FERPA guidelines. Information about a student’s rights should be disclosed in the AUP policy so they know how their data is being used.
AUPs do not solely relate to student use of school internet and devices. Indeed, AUPs need to address the online behavior of faculty, staff, and school board members, including their adherence to Sunshine Laws. Sunshine Laws get their name from the 1976 Government in the Sunshine Act. An amendment to the Freedom of Information Act, this federal law increases government transparency. Sunshine Laws, which include Open Records Laws and Open Meeting Laws, vary by state. However, the common goal of these laws is to give the public access to government records. Since public schools are government-owned, according to federal law, they must keep certain files and records. This includes all school board-related information, even if it’s through text or email.
Moreover, using email communication to collectively decide on something relating to school is illegal. If, for instance, an email discussion leads to a school-related decision or vote, that discussion violates Open Meeting Laws. Take, for example, the 2001 case Wood v. Battle Ground School District. In this case, school board members decided to terminate an employee. The discussion took place entirely over email. The State of Washington Court of Appeals ruled that this email exchange constituted a private meeting, which violated Washington’s open meetings law. To avoid the risk of legal jeopardy, therefore, an AUP should regulate email and digital communication about official decisions in accordance with Open Meeting Laws.
Text by Sarah Vice