The Not-So-New Tech Policy

On the first day of school, students were caught off guard when their teachers informed them that personal laptops were no longer allowed to be used during class time.

     For students that had brought personal laptops to school with them for the past year, this meant a fundamental change in their access to technology in the building. Many students had used personal laptops in school for the past year with no issues, so teachers and students alike weren’t aware of this change. Though it could’ve been due to the school’s issuance of laptops to all students, or even to protect students from the risks of the internet without school filters in place, that was only speculation. The real reason? There wasn’t a change at all; the tech policy at Oyster River High School (ORHS) has been the same for years.

     Even Celeste Best, science teacher and digital learning specialist at ORHS, was unaware that language preventing the use of personal devices in school was present in the policy. According to Best, teachers were only informed in the days leading up to the start of school that students were not going to be allowed to have personal devices during class this year. The cell phone policy set in place for ORHS by the school district covers personal laptops. Best says she “didn’t even know that that language was in [the policy].”

     For students, it was the same. “Teachers said, ‘we are supposed to enforce it,’ but I never realized that the policy did not change,” says Shashu Srivatsan (’23), a senior who has been using his MacBook at school since last year.

     The likely reason for this lack of awareness is a relaxation of policies regarding technology in the past few years because of COVID-19. “I think there’s a focus at the beginning of this year that we need to kind of get back to policy rules, and then if changes need to be made or things need to be altered, then we move forward with that,” says Best.

     The district technology policy states that the use of technology at school is a privilege, not a right, must be for an educational purpose, and that devices used during school time have no expectation of privacy. Additionally, the policy states that personal devices, encompassing both students’ phones and laptops, are not allowed during class time without teacher permission, are not the responsibility of the district, and are subject to the same policies as school devices when being used in the building. These policies have been in place since 2008, and have not changed, as they are built upon the fundamental idea that technology is simultaneously a resource and a privilege.

     However, personal devices are still allowed outside of the classroom, or during downtime in a class with the permission of a teacher. Students who bring personal laptops to school can often use this time more effectively because of the freedoms and efficiency that their personal laptops often provide. For example, Srivatsan uses his device for college applications and work for his University of New Hampshire (UNH) classes. “I’m taking a math class at UNH, so often times I’ll have homework… and UNH resources which I can’t access on school computers,” he says.

     For Waverly Oake-Libow (’23), using her personal computer at school would allow her to do everything- school work, college preparation, or otherwise- with a single device. “It’s easier to use one thing. Plus, I have all of my college stuff under a personal email… not under an email that’s going to go away after a year.”

     Although there are benefits to having personal devices in the building, there are also downfalls. Notably, the school is not responsible for students’ personal devices, and can’t fix them even if they are being used for academics. “It’s not so much about the personal computer, it’s about making sure that if something happens, we can fix it,” says Best. In her opinion, “if something happens to [a personal laptop] in school, the school’s not gonna fix it. You’re on your own… [so] leave it at home. Work on it at home. That’s fine.”

     Every student having the same device also allows for a streamlined learning experience on that device. “It’s not so much the policy, it’s more about ensuring that everyone can do the same thing, and learns how to use it,” says Best. For some programs, like Microsoft Excel, the interface can change drastically from one platform to the next, which can lead to students being unable to follow instructions when learning how to use a software due to the features of a software being in different places on different computers. That can become a barrier for learning to use software, especially if the student has never used a program before, but that can be prevented if everyone is using the same device to access software.

     However, school devices have their own downfalls, like the difference in speed between students’ school devices and personal devices. For Nick Ricciardi, culinary teacher at ORHS, that difference makes it hard to tell kids they can’t use their personal devices for schoolwork during his classes. “It’s tough to tell a kid to put it away when they can look you right in the eyes and say, ‘well, this computer is going to do it in half the time.’ There’s a certain level of productivity that [students] have, with a nicer computer than the ones that we’ve given [them].”

     But for Rebecca Noe, principal at ORHS, one can only do so much with the resources available for devices to be purchased. “I don’t ever think there’s a perfect device for how everybody wants to use [it] for all their needs. So, for school needs, that’s what I have to focus on.” Additionally, not all students have the same access to personal computers, so it is more equitable for everybody to have the same school-provided laptop.

     “Are there nicer laptops? Of course, there are. I wish we could spend $2,500 per student on a MacBook, but that’s not reality,” says Best. Additionally, the school may be looking into faster, more expensive Microsoft Surface Pro laptops for the next round of student device purchases. “That’s coming down the road,” Best says, but likely not soon.

     There is also an element of student safety that cannot be ensured on a personal device. Noe has seen cases where the filtration provided by school devices has served to keep students safe from accidentally accessing content on the internet that is inappropriate, or even harmful, for students to be interacting with. “Every educational facility institution has a filter. So, when you’re doing schoolwork, there will be certain sites that you can’t get to because they’re not appropriate.”

     “The internet can be a dangerous place, and we have to think about the safety of our students, which we can do through our devices,” Best says. “On a personal device, you don’t have a filter. With our filters on these devices, we can make sure students are safe.”

     But these filters limit the ability of students to access the internet even when it is appropriate and safe. With apps, websites, and even the Microsoft store being blocked at the beginning of this year, students have been facing issues with using school technology for their day-to-day learning. This led students to often bring their personal laptops just to bypass the filters set by the school, like Oake-Libow, who brought her MacBook from home last year just to access sites while researching for class. “When I took [College Composition] … there were so many sites I couldn’t go to just because of the things I was researching, and it was really annoying how I was restricted to some sites when I knew there was nothing wrong with the site,” she says.

     These issues also extend to teachers, although teachers can override a blocked site at their discretion when signed into their own account on a device. Best, for example, is also a science teacher at ORHS. “As an anatomy teacher, a ton of my stuff gets blocked,” she says. Many materials that are needed for her curriculum are flagged as graphic, which can get in the way of class.

     Even if it doesn’t seem like it from time to time, like with the tech policy, the reasons behind policies in place at ORHS boil down to student safety and equity. “Like with everything, a lot of times, decisions are being made about things that we might not know why… There might be behind-the-scenes things that we don’t know about. It’s easy for us to complain about, but maybe there’s more to the story,” says Ricciardi. The rules in place aren’t new, so, “if we’re gonna have rules, we’ve gotta try to follow them the best we can.”

– Justin Partis