The New York City Board of Education is taking some heat for a stringent internet acceptable-use policy (AUP) that would require each student, teacher, and district web page to be hosted and reviewed at the board level beginning in September.

Board members wanted to control what gets published online under the auspices of the city’s schools, thereby limiting their liability in any legal matters. But teachers in the nation’s largest school system say the policy goes overboard and would undermine the web’s immediacy as a communications tool.

The situation illustrates the difficulties faced by school districts across the country as they try to balance management, safety, and liability issues with how the internet is used at the classroom level.

The board’s AUP, enacted in February of this year, states that each district, school, teacher, student, and staff web page in New York City must be housed on a server at the board by September.

That means approximately 1,100 schools would have to submit all web sites created by the school, teachers, or students to the board for approval. Considering there are more than 78,000 teachers and one million students in the city’s schools, the effort needed to transfer, review, and update the sites would be staggering.

Some New York City educators are wondering how the board plans to do it.

“A lot of my colleagues are just laughing. [The board] can’t even run an eMail system. How are they going to control this?” said John Elfrank-Dana, web master at New York City’s Murry Bergtraum High School. “I think they’re going to realize this isn’t practical.”

Ted Nellen, a cybrarian for the city’s alternative schools program, said, “They are dreaming if they plan to host [all the web sites of] teachers and kids in New York City. It will never happen, so I’m not worried about it. And as far as enforcing it, they have bigger problems, like not enough teachers, not enough schools, not enough basic supplies.”

In addition to hosting web pages, the policy says each district superintendent will designate a “district web publisher” who will develop style and content guidelines for district and school web pages in accordance with the board rules. Also, the district web publisher will develop a process for approving, posting, and removing web material.

“One of the most atrocious things is all the teaching content, any content, must be reviewed by some staff at the district before it can be published,” Elfrank-Dana said. “Now, all information has to go through the board of education censor. It could take weeks to get information out there.”

He added, “If I’m putting together a lesson plan and some bureaucrat at the board of education has the final say, it sets a bad precedent.” Elfrank-Dana said he didn’t know whether the reviewers would be teachers or not.

Nellen warns that a complicated review process could reverse progress the board and individual districts have made in getting teachers to use the internet in the classroom.

“What this policy … will do is to compound the problem of frustration felt by teachers in trying to use the ‘net in their classrooms. Folks on the edge will just not use it and all that money already spent will be wasted, because this is just one more hoop to jump through,” Nellen said.

Furthermore, the board’s web policy, which can be downloaded from its web site, says web pages shall not “contain web links to or advertisements for profit-making entities, such as publishers or other consumer goods purveyors, unless approved by the board.”

Elfrank-Dana said it’s sometimes necessary to post a link to a commercial site such as Adobe Acrobat—especially because the board posts PDF files on its web site. “I’m prohibited from linking to Adobe because they have advertising on their site,” he said.

In addition, he called this policy a double standard, because many teachers use the New York Times in the classroom and it is full of advertising.

Geannie Wells, director for the American Association of School Administrators’ Center of Accountability Solutions, said this approval process “really takes away from the dynamic of the web.”

She recommends writing a more specific web policy for teachers and staff that states exactly what is allowed and is not allowed on web pages, and establishing a review process for student web pages only.

“It’s all about a good policy,” Wells said. “There’s no one-size-fits-all. It’s all about reflecting the values of the community.”

Board members acknowledge their policy is not feasible and needs to be changed.

“It’s not official, but we’re in the process of going through a revision,” said Jackson Tung, chief information officer for the New York City Board of Education, in a telephone interview.

The current policy requires compliance by September, but Tung said, “We fully expect the revision to kick in before that to remedy [the deadline].” The board doesn’t have the resources to review all content for every possible web site before it is published, he said.

“We are hosting the majority of the school’s web sites, but to make it a requirement is more trouble than it’s worth,” Tung said. “I think there will be an explosion of the number of web sites from teachers, students, and schools. It’s really not feasible for us to address them all. What’s really important is that the web sites—however they are hosted—follow the [board’s] policy.”

In revising the policy, the board said it will consult a wide group of people.

“We need to get a lot of stakeholders’ input,” Tung said. “There’s a whole community of parents, teachers, board members, and stakeholders that we are working with.”

“They are always rewriting [policies], and I’d love to know who the educators [who are involved] are. There are a few of us in New York City who have never been involved with this process, in spite of our success in the city’s schools and elsewhere,” Nellen said.

“There are many of us in the system that have been using the internet extensively in education, but none of us were consulted,” Elfrank-Dana added. Lawyers and technology staff created the policy because the district wanted “to insulate themselves from any legal obligations.”

Links:

New York City Board of Education
http://www.nycenet.edu

John Elfrank-Dana’s teaching web site
http://www.bergtraum.org/ushistory

Alternative Schools program
http://www.alternativeschools.org

American Association of School Administrators
http://www.aasa.org