The Whole Internet is a Distraction, Isn’t It?

This sorta ties into my previous rant

At some conference in the past year, this banner from a booth on the vendor floor caught my eye and got stuck in my phone.


I don’t remember the name of the company or their products, but it really doesn’t matter, does it? Most likely they sell some kind of network filtering/control system that schools use to prevent all those “distractions” from reaching the kids.

So, what sites on the web are distracting your students? Distracting them from what?

The simple answer, of course, is that anything not directly related to the learning goals dictated by adults must be added to that list of distractions. Anything students want to learn and the skills they want to master must be filtered out of school. Unless, by some chance, they intersect with the state standards of learning (or are contained in an “elective”).

Certainly there are some parts of the web that should be completely blocked from kids. But, in my experience, school filtering systems are often cranked up way too high and used by teachers and administrators as another tool for that “delivery” of instruction, rather than a real learning resource.

Finding, analyzing, and using the good stuff on the web is an essential skill for students, something we should be helping them learn.

That doesn’t happen when adults unilaterally declare everything they don’t like (or don’t understand) to be “distracting”.

Our Own Private Kitchen Strainer

In his book Too Big To Know, David Weinberger makes this excellent observation about information filters,information overload

First, it’s unavoidably obvious that our old institutions are not up to the task because the task is just too large: How many people would you have to put on your library’s Acquisitions Committee to filter the Web’s trillion pages? We need new filtering techniques that don’t rely on forcing the ocean of information through one little kitchen strainer.

It may be obvious to Weinberger and others that our old expert-based systems for filtering information are no longer adequate, but not to the leadership here in our overly-large school district (and, I suspect, elsewhere in the American education system).

We have some very specific kitchen strainers that attempt to inhibit teachers and others from using most digital resources until they have been blessed by the right people. A process that often takes months, discourages most teachers from even making the attempt, and is roundly ignored by many.

Part of that process includes very small teams of specialists who spend a lot of time carefully collecting and analyzing resources for a list of approved instructional products, or writing and editing materials lovingly added to the “curriculum assessment resource tool”, our homemade database for “approved” instructional materials (and magic test generator). Everything, of course, must be filtered through the specific classification schemes for classifying the knowledge dispensed in the classroom, as established by the district or state.

Although this year a section was added to that database allowing teachers to share materials they’ve created, which is a step in the right direction, it has not been particularly popular.1 I suspect a large part of that is due to the fact that teachers who really want to share their work and ideas already have found much better tools available on the open web.

When presented with a choice, a rigid and very closed environment really won’t appeal to those educators who have already discovered the value of sharing in the world outside their schools.

Marketing Without Twitter

I’m not a fan of internet censorship filtering in schools (or really anywhere). I know we want to keep kids away from the really bad stuff on the web, so I’ll grant that some electronic measures are necessary.

Still I see far too many teachers relying on the technology instead of learning to manage internet use in their classrooms, and especially as an alternative to helping their students learn to responsibly navigate the web. Maybe because it’s not on the test.

Anyway, when it comes to filtering, I have to admit our overly-large school district does a pretty good job in keeping a very light touch on the process. At the top level we choose to block sites in certain categories, mostly the stuff the state requires. Staff members then have the option to request that specific sites be blocked (or unblocked) at their school, subject to approval of the principal.

Although in the past many schools chose to put resources like Facebook and YouTube on the block, very few, even at the elementary level, do so now. Blocking Pinterest is currently popular but that will probably change over time and a new boogyman will take it’s place.

However, every so often, a blocking request is submitted that I find somewhat puzzling and, in this case, rather amusing.

Last month a teacher in one of our high schools submitted a request (twice) to have Twitter blocked. It seems there had been some bullying incidents using that service and she seemed to believe that getting rid of the website would help solve the problem. It’s not an unusual approach: blame the technology. I’m guessing she didn’t realize students were likely using their phones to access Twitter, bypassing both our network and Twitter’s homepage.

What I found really odd about the request came from what this person teaches: business marketing.

How the hell do you teach about marking products and services in 2013 without addressing the use of Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites? Every company in the US and elsewhere is scrambling to figure out how to make these tools work for them.

Of all the classes in this school, I would expect social media to be a major topic in those dealing with the modern business world.

By the way, the principal denied the request, although I don’t know if any of this was part of his reasoning.

We’re All Criminals

Earlier this week, as I was discussing my lawbreaking activities, Dean addressed a similar subject, writing about how all of us, especially in education, are being driven to a life of crime by bad laws.

He’s talking about the personal privacy laws, including those directed at specifically at children, that don’t fit with the current reality of the web.

We live in the cloud and we don’t particularly care where the cloud is located. Many would argue we should care. Many see privacy concerns being ignored by people like me. I don’t think that’s true. This once again is tied closely to helping our students and teachers develop and understand their online identities. I understand the intent of the law is to protect our information and privacy and schools do have an obligation to protect. However the challenge is that these laws completely miss the affordances and opportunities that exist for students as they publish and share online.

Although Dean is commenting on Canadian policies, things are very similar here in the US.

We spend way too much time and energy in the futile pursuit of trying to shield students from exposure on the web and miss many great opportunities to help them learn to establish and maintain their online identities.

Instead of blocking Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the new school filtering favorite around here Pinterest, teach kids (and more than a few adults) how to read the terms of service and what all those privacy settings mean.

As an alternative to yet another traditional term paper, let’s work on effective ways of crafting media to share ideas with an international audience. Or even start with something as seemingly simple as writing an effective blog comment.

The whole alphabet soup of laws (COPPA, CIPPA, FIPPA*), not to mention our current attitudes, need to be revised. There are better ways to use our instructional and legal efforts than in a losing battle to keep kids and their thoughts (good and bad) behind an increasingly porous wall.

* That last one is Canadian. Ask Dean. :-)

The Firewall of Fear

In his reflection on the speakers from the first day at the Building Learning Communities conference, Jeff articulates beautifully a major stumbling block we have in American education: fear.

In this case, fear of allowing too much of the outside world into the classroom, and especially the fear of allowing almost anything from inside out.

“There’s no way my district will ever let us use any of these social tools, they’re scared.”

I’m sure many of you have either said this or have heard someone who has said this.

Alan November kicked off the conference today with one simple message:  We need to break down the Firewall fear

The same country that believes in free speech and the freedom of the press is the same country with some of the most restrictive filtering systems in its schools.

In our overly-large school district, for what seems like decades, we’ve been working on “internet safety” rules/regulations/curriculums to go with the web filtering system, all in the name of protecting kids from… well, no one can articulate exactly what.*

But, as Jeff points out, protection is something we can’t give them.

We need to break through this culture of fear, we need to empower students to make decisions, to analyze and evaluate good content and learn how to avoid the bad stuff. We need to empower students to protect themselves.

At the same time our politicians and administrators also talk about teaching “21st century skills” (like communication and collaboration), and about how students must be “globally aware” citizens of the world.

Making that happen is impossible when there is no direct interaction with that world.  When all feedback on what students do in school comes exclusively from within that closed environment.

And it certainly won’t happen when we teach kids (not to mention the adults in their lives – parents and teachers) that the web is something to be feared, instead of helping them understand how to deal with it, the good, bad, and ugly.

Jeff is exactly right that “Creativity and fear do not mix.”

Creative people, something else we say we want our students to be, take risks.  They learn how to deal with failure.  They learn from and respond to their critics.

The last thing creative people do is hide behind a firewall.

*Maybe to protect us from the lawyers? Often it seems that’s the overriding concern.