Empowering the Generation of Tomorrow with Safe Technology Today
With technology powering our world today, we have no choice but to ensure children are tech literate. Otherwise, they’ll never succeed in the world of tomorrow. But introducing technology into classrooms is never easy. Budgets aside, school administrators are faced with the challenge of regulating access to harmful online content. For parents and teachers alike, there are many unknowns and fears that come from creating tech-incorporated classrooms. At Eagle Grove Community School District in Iowa, this was one of our greatest hurdles to leap as we integrated more technology into our classroom.
Apart from the need to better equip our students for the future, other factors have led me to push for greater technological resources in our schools. In Iowa, we have an open-enrollment policy where students can choose which school they want to attend. This can be wonderful for parents searching for choice, but it means districts compete for enrollment with larger neighbors.
Often, these other districts have far more resources and courses to offer than we do, because of their size. With enrollment falling, we constantly look for ways to provide innovative offerings to our prospective students.
In addition, our student demographic has become far more multicultural and multilingual, and we have seen an increase in the enrollment of Hispanic students. With the greater influx of these students, we need to make them feel welcome and ensure we can properly educate them—despite potential language barriers. Luckily for us, technology can be the answer to these communication challenges.
As the District Technology Director, it’s my job to show people that technology gives us access to the world. Even as a small district, technology opens the door for our students to have experiences, knowledge, and opportunities they may have never imagined. That’s why we made the drive to put technology into the classroom on a 1:1 level.
Google Apps for Education
Years ago, as we truly made the push for technology in the classroom, we became a Google Apps for Education district. Iowa was one of the first states to sign the agreement with Google, and we jumped on the bandwagon right away.
As a small district, we simply didn’t have the funding to provide every student with a MacBook. Luckily, Google’s Chromebooks started to make a splash in education, and as their price point dropped, this presented an amazing opportunity for us to affordably reach a 1:1 program for our third through twelfth graders as well as a 3:2 ratio for our second graders, while also buying iPads for our kids in pre-K through first grade.
Over time, we succeeded with our 1:1 goal. Implementing this massive program as essentially a one-man IT shop seemed daunting at the time, but the ease of Chromebooks made the process rather simple in the end. Still, our new world wasn’t without its problems.
Getting Chromebooks into the hands of our students was simple, but it was filtering the content on these devices that proved to be my biggest challenge. The first iteration of our filter system was an onsite-only filter. This meant we wouldn’t filter any content outside of school grounds.
The only option available at the time was a proxy whereby everyone had to come back through our internet to be filtered and then sent back out. I foresaw significant problems and headaches with this type of proxy, and there were no non-proxy-based offsite filters available at the time.
As a result, we told parents they would be responsible for monitoring their child’s internet use at home on their devices. This didn’t sit well with them. Parents started to push back against us, claiming it was a too much of a hassle to make sure their kids used their Chromebooks exclusively for homework.
The situation got to the point where parents were demanding that their kids leave their Chromebooks at school. For myself and the teachers, this was devastating. What was the point of all our hard work to implement a 1:1 system if our students could only use their computers for a portion of their school work?
I struggled with the issue of off-site filters for years. All the while, I kept an eye on the solution provided by GoGuardian—the Chromebook and Windows management platform built exclusively for schools. Once they were robust enough, we implemented their system and I quickly realized it was exactly what we needed.
We started with a six-month trial so we could play around and test their service. The team at GoGuardian were very accommodating. I've worked with a lot of companies who will promise you the moon. Some deliver a low earth orbit, but GoGuardian got us to the moon—or pretty darn close.
The Open Approach
The roll-out process of GoGuardian couldn’t have been simpler. No matter where our Chromebooks were being used at the time—on or off-campus—everyone was on the new filter within 15 minutes.
When it came to blocking content, I took an approach that’s different from most. I allowed access to everything—except basic things like pornography and weapons manufacturing—until I found out it was a problem. I'm more inclined to teach students how to use things appropriately by trial and error, rather than deal with more severe consequences of making those mistakes when they are older.
As I rolled out the platform, I came to love the data I could receive. When I logged in, I had immediate and up-to-date access to the websites that were used the most within any timeframe I wanted to evaluate.
When I presented these findings to others, some teachers were upset with the data since sites like Youtube were the top hits. But when you consider that students are only in school 7 hours a day and spend the other 17 with their devices at home, this is to be expected.
When we looked closer, we saw that the number two service was consistently Google Docs—and later, Google Classroom. This made it easy for me to prove to the school board and parents that the technology was helping our students learn. Without GoGuardian, it would have been difficult to see insights like this.
This situation proved to me the power of the GoGuardian system. Not only could I filter off-site usage, but I could use their reports to drill down and see how students used their devices. This allowed me to spot potential red flags where I needed to block content on an individual website basis, which I could easily do on the platform.
Real Reactions to Real Emergencies
Over the years, GoGuardian has continued to improve their services and tools. More recently, they introduced Admin 2.0, which upped their game tremendously. Admin 2.0 is an alerts system which notifies me if a student browses inappropriate sites that might have slipped through my filters.
This alert system made me realize I had to make my filter much more robust. Admin 2.0 would send me screen grabs of the flagged sites so I could quickly assess the risk level of the content being viewed.
When you deal with an entire school district, and as a one-man operation, this tool is invaluable. The students have a hilarious perception of me sitting at my computer monitoring their every move. But in fact, I don’t even have to go looking. Admin 2.0 flags any suspicious websites and sends the alerts to me. I’ll let the students think it’s all me, though.
Over time, we’ve been able to teach our kids good digital citizenship. But even more importantly, we can use GoGuardian tools to show our students we care about them. This is where self-harm alerts come in.
GoGuardian allows us to monitor communications between students via email or social media, which I was unable to do before. This year alone, we have intervened in a few critical self-harm situations and helped students in life-or-death situations.
Now, I can work with the entire faculty to monitor our students and react quickly to keep them safe. These are students who we might not be able to reach otherwise. Knowing we’re helping students in the most troubling time of their lives makes the GoGuardian platform worth every penny. I can rest easy at night knowing we take as many precautions as we can.
A Helping Hand for Teachers
Thanks to the success we’ve had with the Admin side, we added GoGuardian Teacher to our roster of tools. The entire process was even easier than our implementation of the Admin side. I was able to purchase it, quickly set it up, and the teachers were off and running all by themselves.
GoGuardian has countless tutorial videos, so I don’t need to train on new products. This allows me to spend less time on the behind-the-scenes work and focus more on the big picture.
Now, I can concentrate more on how best to serve the students, and what they might need in the future. Yes, there are days where I run around like the proverbial chicken without its head, but there are other days where it’s shocking how smoothly everything runs.
Empowering an Entire Community
I am truly honored to do the work that I do, and to serve such an incredible community. Bringing safe and reliable technology to our students has made waves in the community, particularly the Hispanic population. Being able to take school computers home means our students and their entire families can benefit from the technology.
They can use Google Translate to connect with people outside of their cultural community and use Google Hangouts to connect with those they still living in Mexico or Central America.
Just knowing more and more kids can communicate, collaborate, and grow by using the technology is an honor for me. Finally, education doesn’t end when the school bell rings.