Should K-12 students be blogging to non-password protected websites? Maybe not.

I came across this article from the BBC this past week: “Blogging ‘a paedophile’s dream‘”. Given the fact that I teach an educational technology workshop that includes encouraging student blogging (with limits and safety considerations in mind), as well as the fact that I am taking an Educational Law class this term, clearly an article like this makes me pause and provides some important food for thought.

I am pretty well aware of the needs and dimensions of child safety issues regarding Internet use. My favorite web resource on Internet safety for many years has been getnetwise.org. But how many teachers and parents are really taking the time to alert the young people under their care about the dangers, and proactively educate others about them? I don’t know, but I think it is safe to answer, “Not enough.”

I have run across a few student blogs in the past, and thought what a different world this is…. I remember years ago (actually it was pretty recent, probably in 96-97) when schools in the district where I taught were just starting to get homepages. I remember one high school webmaster got in hot water, because he had linked to a student’s personal homepage, and (of course not surprisingly) that student had a link to something others considered objectionable. I have no idea what that link was. And it seemed very reasonable at the time that schools not link to student personal homepages… however, in the context of authentic writing, I have argued (and taught) before on the value of doing this. Of course the problem is, teachers cannot control or predict what students will do…. the fact that the high school webmaster I mentioned was put in hot water really reminds me of Virginia Postrel’s book The Future and Its Enemies, and the dichotomy she highlights between those in our culture who are “statists” (preferring the status quo or at least guarded and careful control over change) compared with “dynamists” who perceive inherent value and benefits in change which is unpredictable and fluid.

Advocates of blogging would certainly fit into the dynamist’s camp, I think. But whether you are a statist (which most traditional educators would be, I think) or a dynamist, you still need to be a child safety/protection advocate I think. Interesting balance to strike here when it comes to student blogging. And the legal ramifications are potentially huge, I am sure, especially when we are talking about potential child abduction.

One of the texts we are using for my educational law class this term is Kemerer and Walsh’s The Educator’s Guide to Texas School Law, 5th Edition. On page 5 they state, “In addition to accessing information from the Internet, students and teachers can also post information on the Internet. The school has an interest in preventing the posting of messages on its Web site and on the Web sites that students construct at school that are abusive, obscene, sexually oriented, threatening, harassing, damaging to another’s reputation, or illegal. Further, students easily could post information on the Internet that would place them in danger from child predators. Thus, some districts require students to use pseudonyms and to avoid posting photographs.”

This text was published in 2000. While these cautions are still true, it is amazing to see how far and how fast the web has changed in 5 years. 5 years ago I don’t think the word “weblog” was in the common lexicon, now in 2004 a dictionary producer declared the word “blog” to be the word of the year. While in the year 2000 students could certainly setup and maintain their own homepages, with a free service like Tripod, at that time it required students to use a WYSIWYG webpage editor (software program) and/or know some basic HTML coding, and go through a technical process (in most cases) of ftp’ing their webpages to their online site.

Now, blogs are so easy to make and maintain– kids just have to remember the website of their blog service, as well as their username and password– that is all they need. This can be done from school, from home, or anywhere else the person has Internet access.

Problems with students blogging can get even more complicated and potentially litigioius when picture phones are involved. Some school districts like the San Francisco school district have apparently banned picture phones, but we all know that is not going to keep them out of school. And both Columbine school shootings as well as the 9-11 attacks have encouraged many to reconsider prior reticence in letting kids take phones to school.

Why can cell phones at school be a problem? This article suggests “Camera phones could violate the privacy of other students. Text messagers could be used to cheat on tests. And ringing cell phones cause distractions not only in class, but even when they are tucked away in lockers.”

Those problems may be foreseen, but how about this one? This San Diego based website reports that high school students use SMS (text messaging on cell phones) to alert each other when the “drug dog” is coming on campus, so illegal narcotics can be flushed down the toilet prior to the dog’s arrival on the scene.

I heard about a recent case (although I cannot find reference to it on the web) of an incident involving a high school coach who left a team of male players and cheerleaders on a bus, unsupervised for some time– picture phones were involved, and I think you can guess the rest of the story. Hope we will not hear more cases like this in the years to come, but sadly, it seems likely.

Cyberbulling is a huge issue too. This Canadian site offers some good resources and suggestions.

We’re not in Kansas anymore. The 21st century certainly has a dark side, but is any of these really new, or just human nature with a more technological face? I think I lean toward the latter conclusion.

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