The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Book Review III: The Internet and the Law

Today was the first school day in over a month that I did not work. As much as I have enjoyed working every single possible day, I guess it was inevitable that I’d eventually catch a day without an assignment. It probably didn’t help that my phone died last night while I was out celebrating three of my in-laws’ graduation in taekwondo (mother-in-law and sister-in-law are now green belts, brother-in-law is a 1st degree recommended black belt). So I am spending my day catching up on things, cleaning the house, and applying for jobs. And, though it has been a while, a day off during the work week means it is time to review another one of the education-themed books I’ve had lying around for years and never actually read completely.

Today’s book is the 2002 printing of Kathleen Conn’s The Internet and the Law: What Educators Need to Know. This is a relatively short book (only 111 pages in my printing), but it covers a wide area of topics relevant to, yep, you guessed it, laws about Internet use in schools. However, one of the strengths of the book is that it takes us back to the foundational laws that set the bounds for those currently in place. I was quite pleased to learn more about the limits on Constitutional rights in the classroom (for example, freedom of speech does not grant a student the freedom to say whatever he wants if, by so doing, he disrupts the classroom and/or prevents another student from experiencing a safe learning environment; in other words, the purpose of schools is to teach, and if teaching is being inhibited because of something someone says, the school can ban the student from saying that).

Dr. Conn, an educator and an attorney, does an excellent job balancing “legalese” and layman’s terms in such a way as to neither overburden with unusual vocabulary nor talk down to her audience. It is clear that she has had a lot of experience with this topic and she handles it quite well. I came away from the reading with a better understanding of what all must be considered when crafting Acceptable Use Policies, limiting student Internet access at school, and even why websites require users to be at least 13-years-old in order to sign up (even if scores of young people simply lie about their ages in order to gain access, anyway).

There are a couple of weaknesses in the book, though. One big issue is actually not Dr. Conn’s fault. It is the issue of cyber-bullying. I am keenly interested in this topic for a wide variety of reasons, and would love to know what modern case law has to say on the subject. I have thought about contacting her to see if there are plans to print an updated version of the book to address this issue. As it is, the law as of 2002 said that there was not much schools could do about bullying outside of school grounds and even little that could be done within unless there was an actual legitimate threat of violence. Laws are slowly being amended to acknowledge that harassment among young people is serious and needs to be punishable under the law.

The only other major weakness comes from her concluding chapter, entitled Where Do We Go from Here?, more specifically, the sub-section called What the Future Hold. I actually posted several quotes on my Twitter account that, to me, were absolutely ludicrous. Perhaps it just goes to show how far we have come in our integration of the Internet into our lives, though. Here are a few of the nuggets that I pulled out:

Web domination by megacorporations threatens the very fabric of unfettered communication symbolized by the Internet. Technology giants like Microsoft threaten to put small-scale HTML programmers out of business.

Cyberschools are becoming the wave of the future in some states. Pressured by rising enrollments and inadequate physical facilities, school districts in population hotspots like central Florida are turning to online instruction, with teachers reaching out to students sitting at home in their sneakers and sweatpants… But will two-dimensional social interaction via computer screen encourage children’s social and emotional development and growth? What will American society be like when children no longer remember how to play outside in the sun, or when they fear to leave home because the computer screen is their reality?

One of the most potentially frightening technology tools is the hand-held device, such as the PalmPilot or similar devices. Will well-meaning administrators require that each teacher carry one throughout the teaching day, using delicate styluses to input minute-by-minute letter grades for student behavior? Will administrators sit in classrooms evaluating teachers by pecking numbers on a little screen? Will teachers and administrators sit at faculty meetings pecking out grocery lists? Will everyone be so attuned to accountability and organization that all spontaneity and fun are lost from education?

Administrators and teachers alike need to work hard to ensure that technology helps rather than hinders our educational efforts. If they are to succeed, school leaders must also become technology leaders… Technology in K-12 schools must become teachnology.

So other than the Ludditish fears of scary new technologies and silly portmanteaus at the end, The Internet and the Law: What Educators Need to Know is an excellent resource for understanding the basics of a very complex topic.

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