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”.

The Weekend Collection

A few good things to read, hear, and watch when time allows this week.

Read: Elizabeth II has been on the British throne for more than 60 years, but she obviously will not be Queen of the realm forever. So, how will the royal family, the government, and the BBC handle a transition to a new monarch? Each organization will play their part and have their own secret plans, and the story about them in The Guardian makes for an interesting read. (about 33 minutes)

Read: For those of us who regularly present to groups big and small (me: just small), any ideas to improve the experience is welcome. This post with ten tips (plus a TED video) is a few years old but it comes from the guy who literally wrote the book, Presentation Zen. (about 7 minutes)

Read: If you look at the most commonly used world maps, Greenland is represented as the same size as Africa, Alaska is larger than Texas, and Europe is right in the middle. Boston Public Schools has decided to replace that view, called the Mercator projection, with one that’s more accurate called Gall-Peters. If nothing else, watch the clip from The West Wing to understand why the change is necessary. (about 4 minutes)

Listen: Most of us here in the US are less than a month away from the date when we are required to file our taxes. But the process is more complicated for most people than it needs to be. Planet Money tells the story of one professor who has been working to make the standard return simpler for more than a decade, and why he has made little progress. (22:54)

Listen: If you’re a trivia nerd and Jeopardy! just doesn’t work for you anymore, give a listen to Tell Me Something I Don’t Know. A good place to start is with the episode titled Under the Hood, in which contestants and panelists Seth Godin, Faith Salie, and Nicholas Negroponte discuss things hidden from everyday view. (58:07)

Watch: You probably know that the internet is a network connecting millions of computers all over the world. But did you ever wonder HOW they are connected? Nat and Lo from Google are here to show you as they follow a project to lay a new cable between the US and South America. This would be a good one to show middle or high school students who think it’s all magic. (7:36)

3-2-1 For 10-16-16

Three readings worth your time this week.

The Trans-Siberian Railway, tracks that covers seven time zones and 5,772 miles between Moscow and Vladivostok, is the stuff of travel legend. This package from the UK Telegraph includes a short history of how it was built and a first-person narrative from a reporter and his family making the passage, including some great photos. (about 16 minutes)

As teachers we’re told that we must provide students with specific, clearly defined expectations for all of their work. But what if doing that inhibits creative thinking? That’s an interesting, counter-intuitive idea explored in a new book about creating a culture of thinking in schools. Read this excerpt and see if you think the author makes his case. (about 8 minutes)

Earlier this week, Bob Dylan was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature and it was, to say the least, a controversial selection. But it’s hard to argue with the selection committee who say that Dylan “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” This New Yorker piece is one of the better celebration of their choice. (about 3 minutes)

Two videos to watch when you have a few minutes.

This is an interesting confessional from someone turned off to math by his middle school teacher, someone who is now an English teacher himself. How many current educators, math or otherwise, have a classroom management style to the teacher who convinced him to quit math? (4:19)


In this TED Talk, UK comedian James Veitch relates a story about his exchange with a faceless email server after receiving the kind of unsolicited messages we all get and can’t seem to unsubscribe from. I love his observation, “The internet gave us access to everything. But it also gave everything access to us.” (7:40)


One audio track for your commute.

You probably read about the investigation into Wells Fargo where the bank paid a relatively small fine, the penalty for employees who opened tens of thousands of accounts without customer permission, just to meet sales quotas. Planet Money put a human face on the story and spoke to two of those employees, one of whom called the company ethics line multiple times to report the violations. Listen and wonder who was on the other end of that ethics line. (18:32)

Blame the Internet!

I don’t understand some of the writers employed by the Washington Post. Maybe they’ve been living inside the bubble of the infamous “beltway” too long. Or possibly they’re trying to write satire and the point never gets across.

Take, for example, a column from today’s paper that starts with the line “If I could, I would repeal the Internet.”. The writer’s primary thesis, as best I can determine, seems to be that the “terrifying danger” posed by the threat of cyberwar far outweighs the “relatively modest” benefits of the web.

He then goes on to lay out a variety of doomsday possibilities (disruption of the power grid, decimation of the financial system, Chinese hackers, etc.) to be brought about by the Internet, evidently drawn from a report, a book, and conversations with cybersecurity experts (all of whom profit from worst case scenarios).

And then he ends the column with this conclusion.

All this qualifies our view of the Internet. Granted, it’s relentless. New uses spread rapidly. Already, 56 percent of U.S. adults own smartphones and 34 percent have tablets, says the Pew Internet & American Life Project. But the Internet’s social impact is shallow. Imagine life without it. Would the loss of e-mail, Facebook or Wikipedia inflict fundamental change? Now imagine life without some earlier breakthroughs: electricity, cars, antibiotics. Life would be radically different. The Internet’s virtues are overstated, its vices understated. It’s a mixed blessing – and the mix may be moving against us. [my emphasis]

Another shortsighted pundit placing total blame for a problem (or potential problem in this case) on the technology involved rather than on the other, more human factors of how it’s used. And ignoring the fact that digital networks are a relatively recent invention (especially the part where everyone can have access) and we are only at the beginning of their evolution and application.

A similar reasoned, logical argument* could also have been made for those earlier, life-changing breakthroughs he lists, plus ships, trains, chemistry, the telephone, television and many more. Especially early in their lifetimes when society was working its way through the disruptions they caused.

You can debate the benefits of having a ubiquitous, always on communications network available in every home and classroom (which it’s not, yet). Certainly we need to address many problems in the way the technology is used, with some people doing very silly and even stupid things with the power they have.

However, only someone who has not been paying attention over the past fifteen years or so could declare that the internet has not enabled many fundamental, positive changes for society.

I wonder if the editor responsible for this columnist thought he was kidding.

Update (later today): David Weinberger suggests we repeal the First Amendment and oxygen using the same reasoning as the Post writer, then provides a MadLibs version to do the same for anything you don’t like. You too can be a Washington columnist.

* That was an attempt at satire, in case it wasn’t obvious. :-)

Getting Past Ignorance

In his post today, Seth Godin says “society changes when we change what we’re embarrassed about” and wonders how long it will take before the general populace is “ashamed at being uninformed”.

Unfortunately, he starts with a flawed premise when he says “In just ten years, someone who professes to not know how to use the internet is seen as a fool.”.

There are too many high profile people who are not only ignorant of how the internet works but are almost proud of it.

For but one example, read the clueless comments made by key members of the House Judiciary Committee, supposedly “leaders” elected to represent American society, when debating SOPA.

But that attitude of pride in a lack of understanding of the web and technology in general is not reserved for congress critters. Look around our schools and you’ll find large numbers of teachers and administrators who don’t know, and in too many cases don’t want to learn, even the most basic concepts of working on the web.

They are still fond of reciting without question the most recent TV tabloid predator report (all headlines, no facts), or redistributing the scary story, long ago checked and disproven by Snopes, sent by their brother-in-law. And I may scream loud and long at the next person who uses the “digital immigrant” concept to excuse their ignorance.

Like Godin, I also wonder when American society will get past believing in “pseudoscience” and accepting as fact “thin propaganda”, but I don’t think we are at his starting point where people are seen as fools for not knowing how to use the internet.