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Internet usage in schools may increase

By Nathan Taylor, Orillia Packet & Times

The online realm of the Simcoe County District School Board is a virtual fortress.

Students can access the Internet -- sometimes -- at their schools, but once they're in, surfing options are few.

"Basically, everything is blocked," said Carol McAulay, the board's superintendent of business and information technology services.

In fact, Internet access isn't allowed during schools days unless it's done under the strict watch of staff.

According to the broader school community, something has to change.

The board began its IT strategic planning process in 2007. It has since held consultations -- including focus groups and a survey in 2008 -- to find out what teachers, students, parents and others in the community would like to see, in terms of the board's tech policy and offerings.

One thing that was identified was a need to "allow much greater access to the Internet for students," McAulay said.

The options seemed fairly black and white: Stay with the status quo or allow greater access and provide the appropriate tools.

"What we've heard loud and clear is the latter is preferable," McAulay said.

Students are already accessing the Internet from a number of places. They can connect at home, libraries, friends' homes or just about anywhere if they have Internet access on their cellphones.

"It makes much more sense to reflect in a classroom what is happening in their lives and to give them the tools to do that," she said.

The board, she added, is looking at different levels of filtering for primary and junior, intermediate, and secondary school students.

Currently, students can connect to the board's network only through board-owned devices. As part of the planning process, staff is looking at the option of allowing network access on personal devices.

Another plan is to have wireless service in all schools and to have all portable classrooms connected to the network.

Through consultation, McAulay said, the board learned teachers had a common concern: "How do we know the board will be able to protect us as teachers?"

"Teachers want to make sure that, when they're allowing students to access the Internet, they're protected if something inappropriate happens," she said.

The shift would mean new responsibilities for teachers, and teacher coaches -- included the last budget -- will be able to assist with the transition.

Instruction on Internet safety and security is available at schools, but "not in a systemic way," McAulay said.

The IT strategic plan, which includes developing tools "for teaching digital citizenship to students," she said, will be unveiled in September.

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