In January, I wrote a piece about the Natick, Mass., public school district’s Digital Conversion, a program designed to transform and reshape how technology is used to improve its education system. For Natick, that meant issuing district-owned MacBooks to all of its students, grades 8-12, enabling a 1:1 blended teaching and learning environment with the goal of achieving college and career readiness for its students.

Nearly a year after Natick’s program was launched, the district is currently fielding rigorous, objective measures of its progress. In the absence of that data, there are no great disasters to report, which some might count as an achievement. But when you have an engaged student body that is doing everything from conversing with peers in Costa Rica through Twitter in a history class, to designing and producing their own online magazines, the result is a population of students developing skills that can easily be transferred into future careers. These are some of the fruits of Natick’s digital conversion so far.

Challenges Along the Way: Filter-dodging

Natick High School.

Natick High School.

This is not to say there were no hiccups over the past year. There were the problems of lost and broken laptops, incompatible printers, and other garden-variety IT issues that could plague any workplace or home. Students have expressed concerns over teachers having disparate ways and places to post homework assignments or other information online, and they long for some standardization across classes to make it easier for them to track their schoolwork. But these are not huge obstacles, and they can be overcome with some forethought and good execution.

The one significant event that was the biggest challenge and greatest opportunity for learning during this first year occurred when several students installed a software program — Tor — that essentially allowed them to get around filters put on the school network so they could access blocked sites.

This action was against the district’s Acceptable Use Policy (AUP), which each student signed at the beginning of the school year. To correct the situation, the IT department attempted to uninstall the software remotely, but because some students hid the Tor files by creatively renaming them, the uninstall process ended up crashing every student’s laptop.

Through an arduous process spanning a few weeks’ time, almost 2,000 laptops and desktops throughout the district were fixed, with approximately 1,500 high school laptops recovered in a few days’ time. It became apparent that the role of IT had changed from simply serving as a gatekeeper, to becoming an integral part of the conversation on the use and educational purpose of the newly introduced technology and what responsible tech use means. The technical issues were ultimately solved and normalcy was restored, resulting in a tremendous learning experience for all.

The Power of Peers

Many students were originally encouraged by their classmates to install Tor. Links to download it were sent via email from friend to friend, and because the emails came from trusted people, many thought it wouldn’t be a problem.

After the laptops were restored, several students proceeded to download Tor again. This time, the administration issued stern warnings. Additionally, some students who were aggravated by the loss of their laptops for a week or more began voicing their frustration towards these few. I believe this peer influence had a strong impact in stopping the behavior, possibly more so than the words or actions from the adults involved, and certainly more than any technology could.

There is a huge opportunity for schools to capitalize on this example and the impact of peer influence. Empowering students through education and rewarding great behaviors can go a long way in discouraging bad decisions when it comes to tech in schools. When they know their actions can greatly impact others, they may think twice before doing it.

Focus on the Future, not Fences

Natick’s experience is by no means unique. Many districts in the past have faced the same challenges. As more districts embrace a 1:1 environment, it is a test that several others will still face.

Some might advocate for building higher walls, creating stricter policies, and enforcing harsher penalties. But schools have an obligation to support educational freedom and exploration. It’s tough to do this when you lock everything down and keep the world at bay. Like parents, schools have to help students learn how to make good choices on their own, online or off. We need to let kids experience the Internet as it is, to discover the many ways technology can help them accomplish great things, and to allow them to make mistakes as part of that learning.

Perhaps if the Natick public schools had not been so restrictive with Internet access filters, its students would not have needed to download Tor. However, if they’d been too lax, they could have put the school and students at risk of hacking or data theft. Ultimately, technology alone cannot be the answer. I believe the key is a creative and flexible combination of education and technology.

Filters are necessary to prevent students and school staff from accessing sites that have been hacked by cybercriminals. They are also legally required by schools that apply for eRate funding and must therefore comply with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). In many workplaces, filters are used to block sites that they feel are not pertinent to their workforce for the purposes of getting their jobs done. The same can be expected in schools. Students need to understand that as part of good citizenship — online or off — there are rules that dictate how we behave since these rules benefit all.

The Case for Teaching Digital Citizenship

But how restrictive should those filters be once you’ve covered the basics for legal or security reasons? In Natick, the IT department seems very open to conversation with teachers and students on how to strike that balance. If there’s an educational reason and strong advocates requesting access to sites like social media sites, they allow it. In Natick’s case, Twitter is allowed but Facebook is not. To date, strong cases have been made by teachers for Twitter, but the same has not been said for Facebook — yet. Students themselves have in fact requested Facebook be blocked as they feel it will distract them during the school day.

This open dialogue between those who provide and those who use school technology is a best practice, and it’s important to continue the discussion regularly as new online resources rise and fall in educational importance and school curriculums evolve.

However, even with healthy debate on the boundaries of online access, a good balance on how freely information should flow into and out of a school, and a strong technology architecture to support it, the benefits of 1:1 can only be realized if there’s an equally strong foundation of staff and students who understand what it means to use technology safely and responsibly. As students move in and out of school with mobile devices, and as they use their own personal technology such as phones or gaming devices, the line becomes blurry between how and where they use them for school or personal reasons.

Students in Natick are using district-owned laptops, but that may not be true in other districts (or perhaps even in the future for Natick). Regardless of the device they’re using or who owns it, they will be on a shared network, accessing shared online resources with teachers and classmates or general public services like Google or Tumblr, and leaving digital traces of themselves as they traverse the vast expanse of the Internet. While they may begin a deeper educational exploration of the online world propelled by a 1:1 environment, it’s important for schools to recognize they’re also opening them up to much more. It’s a fantastic opportunity to also teach kids about what it means to be online, how their actions impact themselves and others, what their responsibilities are, and how they should respect, analyze, and thoughtfully consider everything they do, see, or download while they’re there.

The Tor download incident in Natick is a perfect example that underscores this need. Students may not have realized the impact they would have on themselves and others. They may not have also been aware of the risks of using Tor. (In many cases, it does not guarantee complete privacy.) While they do educate their students on good online citizenship, the district now knows the importance of more strongly encouraging responsible technology use and that filters can only partly help.

Natick’s first-year experience is a great illustration of how a strong foundation and emphasis on teaching students to be good digital citizens are paramount to its success with its digital conversion. The bottom line: Use filters only where it’s absolutely necessary to lower or eliminate legal or security risks for the school and its students. For everything else, teach students both the importance and ways in which they can be safe, responsible and successful online.

Lynette T. Owens is the founder and Global Director of Trend Micro’s Internet Safety for Kids and Families (ISKF) program. After many years in technology marketing roles and serving as Associate Vice President of corporate marketing for Trend Micro, Lynette founded the ISKF program in 2008 to help deliver on the company’s vision of making a world safe for the exchange of digital information. The program is now active in 19 countries. As a pro-technology parent and Internet safety advocate, Lynette spends most of her time raising awareness and educating the public about the safe and responsible use of the Internet, recruiting fellow employee volunteers to get involved around the world, or volunteering her own time in her community in Natick, Massachusetts.