KANSAS CITY, MO – A recently-signed Missouri law caught the attention of techies and teachers around the country this week. The Amy Hestir Student Protection Act takes effect on August 28, 2011. It was named after a woman who says she was sexually abused as a child by a teacher in Missouri. Most of the bill sets up tighter safeguards for identifying predatory teachers or school personnel, and preventing them from moving to other districts. .
But it was one small section (section 062.169) about teaching and technology that caused a bit of an uproar. The debated clause requires school districts to monitor and restrict any electronic contact teachers have with students and former students under the age of eighteen. This specifically refers to online communication both email and social media and text messaging.
The specifics are not really spelled out in the law, but it indicates that both parents and administrators should have complete access to any communication between a student and a teacher. That could bar the use of popular sites like Facebook and Twitter, where direct messages are an option. This might also restrict chat programs, blogs as well as email and text messaging.
But are teachers really using these tools in the classroom? KCUR's Sylvia Maria Gross spoke with thirty-four-year teaching veteran Janet Fite to find out.
Teaching in the 21st Century
Fite teaches part-time at two schools in the St. Joseph area where she instructs both middle and high school students. She has always been a fan of technology buying her first Apple computer in 1981.
"I knew that this would be the way of the future," Fite said.
Since then, she has sought to integrate technological tools into her classroom. About three years ago, she first started exploring the possibilities of social media. She began to put homework assignments online "to provide an opportunity for students and parents to remain in close contact with the classroom."
Since then, she has continued to try out new tools in her teaching. She is a fan of Gmail applications, regularly using Googledocs as a way to share files with students. She has also chatted with students about homework assignments on a Gmail chat application. She says that her school district recently provided Gmail email accounts to all students to help facilitate this kind of collaboration.
She also says that she has used text messages to communicate with students who arrange out of hours academic coaching, specifically in cases of severe weather.
But Fite worries that with the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, this kind of communication will be impossible. As a lot will depend on the interpretation of the law, she is just waiting to see how discussions turn out.
Training Techie Teachers
For another look at how teachers are using technology, KCUR's Susan B. Wilson went right to the source of today's teachers. Odin Jurkowski, chair of Career and Technology Education at University of Central Missouri, trains young teaching hopefuls how to use technology in their future classrooms.
He points out many benefits of integrating technology into the academic curriculum, one being that students are excited about these kind of resources.
"There's this feeling from some students that they live their lives in the 21st century and for some students, they have to drop everything at the door when they get to school and it's like going back in time," Jurkowski says. "They want to use these resources in their classroom and the schools that allow this, the students are much more engaged."
He says that tools designed for schools like Blackboard often have more developed safety features than some public sites like Facebook. One benefit of those sites, however, is that tools like Facebook are free.
While open online communication between teachers and students will still be possible when the law takes effect, Jurkowski notes that the law limits private, online communication between teachers and students. This made him wonder.
"Is sending an email to a teacher to ask a question different than talking to a teacher after class?" Jurkowski asks.
Caught Off Guard by Criticisms
Missouri representatives unanimously passed this measure and they have been caught off guard by the volume of criticism. Rep. Chris Kelly sponsored the bill in the Missouri House.
Kelly says the purpose of the legislation was to ensure that teachers who have had previous inappropriate relations with students did not find jobs in other districts. A secondary purpose was to try to avoid all situations in which a teacher might take advantage of a student. He has been surprised by the amount of criticism focused on the part of the legislation dealing with private, online communication between educators and students, and believes that critics have misrepresented the legislation.
"All we ever wanted to do was to make sure that parents and the school had access to communication between teacher and student," he says.
Kelly says that when writing the law, legislators meant to bar private electronic communication, not necessarily to bar communication on any resources that have functions allowing private communication. This marks the difference between barring private messages between teacher and student on Facebook and outright barring Facebook.
He further says that critics have misrepresented the phrase barring contract between teachers and former students. He clarified that the legislation defines a former student as someone under the age of eighteen who has not yet graduated.
In his mind, critics of the legislation went into attack mode a little too hastily.
"We're not at all disinclined to look at the specific language to see if maybe the language needs to be modified but nobody even asked us about that," he says. "There's no such thing as a perfect law... Over time, we'll get this right."
He anticipates discussions between legislators and teachers' associations on revising the law this fall.