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Helmut Schmidt, Published September 08 2013

As schools hand out tablets, parents worry about what can be accessed

FARGO - Area schools are aggressively integrating technology into classrooms to help teach what educators now call 21st- century skills – problem solving, critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.

But teaching those skills isn’t always as easy as pushing a power button or accessing an app.

Even as laptops and tablet computers are handed out by the hundreds, some parents worry their children will use school-issued devices to access darker corners of the Web – pornography and gambling sites.

Technology experts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo public schools say it is up to students and parents to raise their games when it comes to online citizenship.

In Fargo, where the public school district issued high school sophomores, juniors and seniors tablet computers to use at home this year, Jodell Teiken says online ethics – what she calls digital citizenship – are taken seriously.

“Responsible use is a huge part of that; students just being aware of what’s appropriate or not,” said Teiken, the district’s director of instructional resources.

The computers are used for research, writing, sharing class materials or turning in assignments. Some classrooms might be “flipped,” where homework and other exercises are done during class time, while lectures are watched online during study halls or at home.

Next year, the district plans to issue computers to the freshman class, Teiken said. Meanwhile, all of the district’s sixth-graders also have laptops, but only to be used in their schools.

When the computers are in a child’s home, parents need to be guides – and sometimes gatekeepers – for their children, Teiken said.

“They’re kids. Sometimes I need to take the (smart) phone away,” Teiken said.

Fargo School District tablets have software that blocks undesirable content on school networks, she said.

But those filters don’t always work when the devices tap into wifi networks outside of the schools, such as in homes, hotels or cafes.

“The devices have Windows 8, and the upgrade isn’t working for the filter outside of school. We’re in a waiting game (for updates) to get that software to work outside of school,” Teiken said.

Until then, she said, the district can tweak the existing software to make individual tablets filter out more subjects or web sites, or let students leave their tablets at the school at the end of the day.

Theresa Settles, who has a daughter at Fargo South High School, thinks the school district should do more to make the tablets they issue less capable of accessing porn or gambling. That, or make it crystal clear to parents that the devices have security flaws.

Settles said she was able to access Playboy Web pages on the computers issued to her daughter last year and this fall.

“The kids all knew last year that they could go where they wanted. The parents didn’t know,” Settles said. “My beef was they weren’t informing parents that was an issue.”

At the same time, Settles said she did sign a contract with the school district “that said we should watch our kids.”

In addition, district technology personnel made her daughter’s internet filter more restrictive.

“They say the kids have to be responsible,” Settles said, but “kids will go where kids will go ... Kids find ways to test their limits.”

Susan Mjelstad, PTA president at Fargo North High School, said she hasn’t gotten feedback from parents yet on the expanded use of technology at that school.

Mjelstad has a junior son at North and is of two minds about the web filter issue.

“From my personal perspective, I think that’s partly the parents’ job to monitor that. But on a tablet, in the corner of the living room, that can be almost impossible,” Mjelstad said. “Pretty scary stuff.”

She said she and her husband have drilled ethical behavior into their sons’ heads since they were young. “From a personal perspective, we have that kind of covered.”

At the same time, Mjelstad wants the district to find a fix for getting the internet filters to work outside of the school environment, because not all parents can be as involved in their children’s lives as they may need to be.

South High’s PTA president, Keelie Stanley-Goodman, likes the idea of her daughter having her own school computer.

“It’s hard to do homework when everyone is fighting over computers” at home, she said.

Stanley-Goodman said she understands Settles’ worries, but it comes down to student and parental responsibility.

“When that computer comes home, it’s still up to the parents to keep an eye on it, and what they’re in,” Stanley-Goodman said.

Besides, “the majority of these kids have smartphones, and they can get on the internet” with them, too, meaning they already can access the full web, she said.

Neither the Moorhead nor West Fargo public schools have yet issued computers to students to take home, officials said.

All three districts encourage bring-your-own-device initiatives, in which high school and middle school teachers try to harness the technology already in students’ hands, such as their personal laptops, iPads, tablets or smart phones.

West Fargo, with all of its enrollment growth, is still working toward a two-to-one student/computer ratio in their buildings, said Technology Director Rob Kaspari.

“We are pretty concerned that students have the right type of supervision,” Kaspari said. “We talk to teachers about that. If kids are on the internet, they need to be watched.”

If the district does go to some kind of 1-to-1 technology initiative, Kaspari said more security software or controls will have to be part of the deal.

But when it comes to technology, nothing is foolproof, Kaspari said.

“It goes back to education, and the parent-student relationship,” he said. “You just have to build that trust relationship.”

Moorhead is also expanding the use of computers in elementary and middle school classrooms, said Missy Eidsness, the director of school improvement and accountability.

One goal of those initiatives is to make learning more mobile, and to make better use of limited space in science labs. Eidsness said.

Gay Galles, Moorhead public schools’ program manager for library resource, said teachers and staff try to impress upon students that the wired world requires more exercise of conscience.

“We do try to emphasize that the internet is kind of a wild and wooly place, and the user has to use some discretion,” Galles said.

At the same time, if a student is going to make a mistake, it’s better to address bad behavior early on in an educational setting, rather than in a workplace as an adult.

Students need guidance to navigate the web’s ethical traps, Galles said.

“Guidance from all the adults in their lives,” she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583