Don’t Look Over There! Look At ME!!

Watch this.

Television is a drug. from Beth Fulton on Vimeo.

Except that it’s not just television anymore.

The same addictive, demanding nature could easily be ascribed to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Hulu, email, RSS, IM, FourSquare, mobile apps, or any of the exploding numbers of other sources demanding our attention.

Except that we no longer need to go over there to be distracted.

We carry it with us.

The challenge, of course, is finding the valuable little bits in that massive flow of crap.

Thanks to Clairvoy for the link (and for constantly giving me hell :-).

We Need Smarter Filters

When it comes to most web filtering systems the philosophy seems to be to try and find all the evil stuff on the web and then block it from being delivered to computers used by students.

“Evil”, of course, is a subjective qualifier and almost all the electronic nannies I’ve been subjected to adopt a sledgehammer, all-or-nothing “solution” to the process.

However, what if you approached the problem from another, smarter direction?

That’s seems to be what some schools in England are trying when it comes to YouTube, one of the web resources most frequently blocked by schools despite offering a rapidly-expanding amount of great teaching content.

Instead of blocking everything on a page, this particular filter screens out objectionable fluff around the edges of a video while letting the teacher-selected material show through.

Teachers say that they would use YouTube to access videos of scientific experiments that are too dangerous or complex to perform in the classroom, scenes from Shakespeare’s plays and footage of other cultures or foreign landscapes. The system is dependent on teachers submitting videos for approval. It then filters out content surrounding the footage and links to other films. A selection of suitable material is then created for other staff to use and for pupils to look at.

The article plays up the fact that this system will cost the schools up to £10,000 (about $16,000US) depending on the number of computers using the system, but that shouldn’t be the point.

We already pay large sums of money for the heavy-handed approach. Is there any good reason the all-purpose filters we use now couldn’t be configured to do the same thing?

Obviously, it’s simpler (and cheaper) for filtering companies to just block every site containing any material that might possibly offend someone, somewhere – and then unblock some pages when they get complaints.

But for the amount we already turn over to these “services”, we should be able to get intelligent electronic gates, programmed to be responsive to the needs of the people who should be trusted to differentiate good from bad when it comes to instruction, namely teachers.

Censoring History Won’t Work

Another interesting example of how attempting to filter information coming from the web doesn’t work all that well.

This situation has to do with a man who was convicted of murdering a well-known actor in Germany and is now out on parole, and who now wants Wikipedia to remove all mentions of his name from the article about the actor.

At issue is an apparent conflict between the U.S. First Amendment–which protects truthful speech–and German law–which seeks to protect the name and likenesses of private persons from unwanted publicity. Sedlmayr’s murderer became a public figure when he and his accomplice were tried for brutally killing the well-known actor, and contemporary newspapers published his identity at that time. Fifteen years later, according to his attorneys, German law views the killer as a private citizen again. So, his lawyers have sued the German language Wikipedia, and threatened the English language version with the same, if they fail to censor the Sedlmayr article.

This “private citizen” and his lawyers, and German law for that matter, don’t understand that a “world wide” web makes it pretty much impossible to completely insulate any country (or individual) from information they don’t like.

However, that’s also true for schools where we put a lot of effort into selectively censoring the flow, trying hard to control what information enters the classroom.

But we keep trying.

No Substitute

Bud Hunt has written an excellent response to those teachers in his district who want the internet filtering system to do their jobs for them.

Here’s the essence of his post, something that should be at the heart of every district’s philosophy in this matter.

What we’ve decided is that we will no longer use the web filter as a classroom management tool. Blocking one distraction doesn’t solve the problem of students off task — it just encourages them to find another site to distract them. Students off task is not a technology problem — it’s a behavior problem. It is our intention that we help students to learn the appropriate on-task behaviors instead of assuming that we can use filters to manage student use.

Exactly right!

We constantly declare that technology cannot replace good teachers.

It’s even more true when it comes to classroom management.

Don’t Fear The Tube

I hear this from people all the time: “I can’t use YouTube.  It’s blocked in our school”.  Especially in high schools.

I wonder if the people who made the decision to add the video sharing site to their blacklist have actually looked closely at what is there.  At the ever expanding bits that could actually be used for learning.

Like the Periodic Table of Videos, wonderful examples of how to present chemistry concepts in ways that can’t be done in most classrooms that’s only one part of the growing collection of science materials.

The last election was played out in YouTube (now part of the historical record) as are current political debates, including the weekly addresses from President Obama and the Republican opposition.

youtubeAnd now more than 100 universities and other educational institutions are adding materials from their classes to the channels that make up YouTube EDU.

Plus the Library of Congress is preparing their own channel with hundreds of historical and cultural clips on YouTube (and iTunes, another resource increasingly being thrown behind the filter).

Of course there’s a lot of crap on YouTube.  You could say the same thing about television (which seems to be recyling the YT junk into an infinite feedback loop), movies, bookstores.

But isn’t that why we have teachers and librarians?  To help students find the good stuff out there in the world and teach them how to make the best instructional use of it?

It’s time for administrators (and many teachers) to get past the reflexive urge to block and ban anything on the web that’s popular with students, thinking that it must be educationally invalid.

We need to spend more time training teachers how to use these resources.

After all, live, intelligent filters are always more effective than the electronic ones.