How free will you be?

A Berlin pedestrian traffic light

You should make sure your students see more green than red.

Once you’ve made the decision to put an iPad or laptop in the hands of every student. you face a pressing question: will your approach to internet access be laissez faire, or will you try a more proactively restrictive approach? Both have merit, so the responsible educator or administrator has several factors to consider. My point of view is simple: Don’t ask your students to climb a tree without branches.

The Facebook Connundrum
I’m using Facebook to represent any website or app to which you might want to restrict student access. And while it makes sense to limit distractions, I would argue that blocking websites that may have pedagogical value in a 1:1 computing environment is the equivalent of building a beautiful house and encasing it in glass. As counterintuitive as it might feel, providing students with more freedom rather than less has major benefits.

It’s quite simple to use your institution’s web filter to block all Facebook traffic, but this will only extend to devices on the school network. Students with cell phones (i.e. the vast majority) will still be able to access any sites or apps they choose, and the students who fastidiously observe the restrictions probably aren’t the ones your worried about. In other words, you might implement a restrictive Internet policy that only restricts those without the desire or inclination to violate the rules your institution has established. The same logic extends to Twitter, Tumblr, and other apps and social media sites. Any limitation placed on the student network will necessarily be a limitation placed on the teacher and his or her ability to utilize the technology in the classroom. I use Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Edmodo, and a host of other sites and services that would be closed off to me if our school went in a more restrictive direction. As it is, I have the freedom to use virtually any tool I choose in my classroom.

A laissez-faire approach to student usage does NOT mean providing unmoderated and unfettered access to the internet. Every school should use a trustworthy web filter and build in protections against prohibited websites. Those who advocate a more liberal approach to student access acknowledge that, while students will invariably browse the web or fire up a game of Angry Birds during class, that potential will not lead a school to limit the usage of apps, web browsers, cameras, etc. And while the potential for distraction is real, they aren’t much different than the distractions that have been present in classrooms for decades.

When I present this information in workshops, educators typically ask about keeping students off Facebook and preventing them from achieving total Fruit Ninja mastery. The answer is always the same: engage them. Whether you use a chalkboard, Smart Board, or tablet in your room, students will occassionally call out, behave in a disruptive manner, or simply disengage for a few minutes. But no device can prevent this, and no device can cause it. It all boils down to the quality of the classroom teacher. If they aren’t paying attention to you now because they have iPads, they probably never were.

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