By Ethan Ruh
There have been plenty of new adjustments and revisions to the Collegiate Upper School this year, including a brand new schedule, renovations to McFall Hall, and new faculty and students. However, the addition of NetRef, a tool used by teachers to manage internet access for students, has been a misunderstood and controversial topic in the Upper School.
Last spring, faculty and administrators decided that they needed to implement a system that would help ensure that students stay on task while on personal devices. More and more Upper School students bring their own laptops that they can use throughout the day. This year, 9th and 10th grade students are required to bring their own laptop to school, and in two years all of the Upper School will be required to bring laptops, a policy referred to as BYOD: Bring Your Own Device. Due to the increasing number of personal devices at school, the administration wanted a way to be more in control over what students are doing while on the internet.
Collegiate’s Chief Information Officer, Jamie Britto, is a member of a BYOD faculty committee and was influential in bringing NetRef to Collegiate. He said, “We were looking for a product that would limit the network level, rather than the machine level.” In order to manage all of the personal devices on campus, Britto wanted a way to monitor students without having to install a system into each student’s device. NetRef can monitor students through a wi-fi network, instead of accessing information directly from the student’s device.
Upper School math teacher and head of the BYOD faculty committee David Kehlenbeck helped clear up some misconceptions about NetRef. Kehlenbeck described NetRef as “a web client that allows teachers to turn wifi access on and off for certain websites.” Kehlenbeck put emphasis on how NetRef is completely optional for teachers and stated that he has not felt the need to use NetRef to monitor his students’ online tasks this year so far. “If a teacher has a concern about the distraction of the device in your class, or if they are giving a test, the teacher has central control to restrict or turn [the wifi] off,” said Britto.
While the addition of NetRef at Collegiate aids in blocking out distractions for students, the main objective is to monitor students while working on assessments online. Kehlenbeck said, “The intended use is for teachers to be able to control students’ wi-fi in a testing situation. For example, if a student is writing an in-class English essay, and the teacher wants them to write in Google Docs, and doesn’t want them to look up Cliffnotes on the book, then the teacher can turn on NetRef.” Hypothetically, this will lower the chance of an honor code violations during an online test, quiz, or essay.
Many Upper School students have been concerned about online privacy issues after hearing about the new required system. Zach Cohen (’18) “feels uncomfortable” because he doesn’t know when teachers can see what he is doing. During the beginning of school, students were confused about the new portal they had to sign into. Throughout the first week, rumors and misconceptions about NetRef spread. After hearing about teachers’ ability to track Internet use, many students became paranoid about their online confidentiality. Chelsie Cheon (’18) thinks that the use of NetRef is an “invasion of privacy.” Meade Spotts (’18) said, “Once I found out they could see everything I can do on my laptop, I couldn’t trust the wifi.” Spotts has not signed into the NetRef portal with his laptop and instead uses a cellular hotspot as a source of wifi.
Sarah Baker, Assistant Head of the Upper School, said “The school is not prohibiting students to use hotspots, but we do require that students connect to Collegiate’s network in any circumstance when NetRef is required.” While using a hotspot while at school is not directly against the rules, the school still has the ability to search any electronic devices brought on campus. This year’s student handbook states, “The School may examine the electronic device and search its contents if there is a reason to believe that School policies, rules, or protocols have been violated.” The expectation is that students are using the Internet appropriately at school, regardless of whether they are on a school network or using a personal wifi hotspot. Some students are afraid that NetRef will be able to track Internet usage while at home or on a different network other than the wi-fi network at Collegiate.
However, Kehlenbeck was clear that NetRef does not invade the privacy of students while off campus. Kehlenbeck said, “[A student’s device] has to be on the BYOD network, which means you have to be at school, and it will never show what the screen shows. All it shows is a little report of what website that student is on.” Many students’ understanding that teachers are watching students’ every move online is false. Kehlenbeck does not believe that the addition of NetRef has significantly changed policies on personal devices; he just imagines that it will make monitoring students much easier for teachers. “Since it is only on [a] school network, and teachers can only access it when you are in their class, it is no different than standing over your shoulder to see what you are working on,” said Kehlenbeck.
To maximize privacy, names of websites are only visible to the teacher that you have open at that current period. Britto described how this system works by saying, “NetRef interacts with the bell schedule in Powerschool; if your a period teacher restricts your internet, when the bell rings, that restriction is no longer there.”
NetRef is a compromise that is paired with the privilege of Internet access and personal devices during school hours. The addition of NetRef to the BYOD network may not fully supported by all of the Upper School students because of the misconceptions and confusion about the software. However, NetRef is not a way for Collegiate to stalk your internet history. It is a very secure and reasonable method to ensure that online distractions do not interfere with learning and assessments.