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Technology issues go to school

With the national push to get classrooms wired, schools are pausing amid the excitement to consider some sobering issues: Who gets access to the computers and how are they going to be used?

With the national push to get classrooms wired, schools are pausing amid the excitement to consider some sobering issues: Who gets access to the computers and how are they going to be used?

In other words, getting a school online involves a lot more than simply providing the equipment and technical know-how, warns Ana West Solomon, who specializes in teaching educators about ethics and access to technology.

Solomon is teaching a course for educators through the University of California at Berkeley Extension, where she touches upon topics ranging from online copyright law to gender issues and technology.

It is one of the first courses of its kind, but others are in the works, according to educators. As more and more people go online, academia is responding with classes that take a closer look at issues such as ethics and access.

And they should, Solomon said. "There are no hard, fast answers," but "there are a lot of questions about ethics."

For instance, in California, the Department of Education now requires that schools develop a fair-use policy, a contract between the school and the student.

Access can mean everything from providing computer labs large enough to accommodate wheelchairs to ensuring that girls get as much online time as do boys.

Schools also have to worry about what students do once they are online because schools can be held liable for students' actions, she says.

Solomon tells the story of one student who, as a joke, allegedly made an online threat to kill the president. He wasn't laughing when some Secret Service agents showed up at school, she noted. Teachers also have to watch out for students who could violate copyright laws by pilfering information from the Net.

Teachers also have to face ethical issues of their own. What should a teacher do, for instance, if she only has one program but six computers?

She might decide that for the good of the students, she'll load the software on to all the machines. "Well, she'd be breaking the law," and would also be setting a bad example, Solomon said.

Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast answers to these issues. But as an educator, Solomon believes it's her job to raise the questions.

"I think there's a tremendous amount of ignorance [on technology issues] and people don't understand a lot of the ramifications of their actions. We have to take a look at the problems so at least we can address them and take a look at them. The problems are huge."