Good conversations continue to take place during and after my E-Rate and free digital curriculum workshops across the state of Oklahoma– Of those discussions, one from last week stands out. After discussing the ways blogs can be used to permit students, in a teacher-moderated environment, to publish their writing for a global audience, the discussion shifted to instant messaging. The following statement made by a district technology director really stood out for me:

Yes, these are powerful tools for collaboration, but how do I control it?

That really does seem to be the issue at the forefront of the minds of many technology directors as well as administrators when it comes to technology issues today. How can we block and ban websites so we control the behavior of students at school, so if bad things happen off campus (cyberbulling on a DSN website, for instance) we can wash our hands of it and prove we banned that access at school– so it couldn’t have happened on school property? I think this would make for a well-attended technology conference topic for administrators: “How Can I Control It? Stopping Students From Making Poor Choices Online.”

I think I understand this common response and perspective, but I think we need to be operating in schools from more than a reflexive mode to actual litigation or feared litigation. This can be seen explicitly in some of the content filtering blacklists that schools are using. In one school I was in recently, any Google search which contained the keyword “blog” was automatically blocked by the content filter. The word “blog” in that school district has been defined as unconditionally evil and inappropriate for student access. CIPA does not require this stringent level of content filtering, but this is the reality in many school districts.

I think the question should not just be “how do I control it” but “how do I manage it?” The issue should be one of helping cultivate an accountable, responsible, and respectful culture of computer use in school rather than seeking to entirely shape user behavior through network management policies: blacklisting websites and blocking port access.

I recently tried to connect via Skype in a school district I was visiting, and after I explained what I was doing the technology director looked at me like I was a crazy man who had just walked in off the street. He said, “We block it all,” and I think I was supposed to be impressed by that remark. I was honestly not surprised, many districts are blocking most instant messaging programs, but this interaction and his responses struck me as being somewhat classic of the age in which we live.

The assumption is, at school AS A MATTER OF COURSE we should block students from all digital social networking websites.

The assumption is that all instant messaging software use is BAD, BAD, BAD.

The question I did not ask this technology director at the time was, why do you block IM? This mindset not only facinates me, it also interests me as a topic of needed advocacy. As I have written and said before, we should rejoice that students want to communicate and interact with each other via digital means. Much of those communications now take a textual form. Have many of the administrators reflectively blocking all these sites and service ports been asked by a curriculum director whether or not the students are improving their skills of literate communication by instant messaging? I doubt it.

I am not making a case here that by allowing instant messaging on school networks, students are automatically going to learn how to write perfect five paragraph essays and max out the standard writing portion of their state writing test. That would be a ridiculous claim. But I will make the claim that if students write more, they will tend to write better. I know that instant messaging lingo is not formal English. But I also know that getting kids to write in many classrooms today can be like pulling teeth. I am not giving in to the digital technology culture with this position, but rather pointing out that we have enormous traction with students in the area of digital social networking that appears to be entirely untapped in many school districts.

This reminds me of another conversation I had with a technology director last week, in regard to students with hacking skills who have hacked into school information systems in the past. My observation was that the school should host a contest with prizes for these students, and invite them to both hack the school network and also share the security flaws and vulnerabilities they identified in the process. My proposal is to invite students to become “white hat” hackers for the school district, but not for hire– for a contest. Is there a better and more affordable way to have a network security audit? Again after making this suggestion, I think the person I was talking to thought I had just stepped out of a Martian spacecraft. Prosecuting that student to the full extent of the law was the only logical response I think, in his perception. This is, in fact, happening to a Tulsa area high school student in Jenks. If this approach works for Microsoft, why shouldn’t schools try it also?

Interesting discussions. I understand these perceptions, this is the real world I know– but I continue to maintain that banning website access by itself is an insufficent response to the digital literacy education needs of our 21st century students– whatever the size of the school district.

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3 Responses to Yes, but I how do I CONTROL it?

  1. Great post with some issues I have been wrestling with in my own school as we have moved to a wireless laptop program. My oldest daughter is in an alternative gr. 12 program here in the same school in Québec and is able to using instant messaging in her classrooms (not sure if condoned, she may be doing it “under the radar”). She has described to me how she IMs her friends about the lesson or lecture so that there is an unobtrusive “background” discussion going on at the same time. This is happening in college and universities as well as in IT businesses (my husband uses yahoo and google talk) and they refer to it as “backchanneling”.

    Personally I think it is a great idea and have used this myself in my grad courses in EdTech.

    So what did I do today? I invited all of my middle school students to Gmail (not yet blocked in our school) so that my students can store their files and I told them about Google Talk and gave them permission to use it during my class. However, I told them that I reserved the right to check their chats at any time and if it didn’t have to do with classroom matters, I would pull the plug. Then I told them that if we could be responsible users and show the other teachers that this contributed to their learning, maybe they would see the benefits too. They were on board with that! The benefit too of inviting the students is now I have them on my contact list and will be able to see anytime that their “online” and chatting. So there is a little bit of control there….

    Thanks for your thoughts on this! Too much control and blocking is putting up more barriers to the learning process. Let’s not forget that “learning is a messy affair”.

  2. Mark Ahlness says:

    Wesley, I find it interesting and very sad that the word “teacher” is used but once in this post (and then only hyphenated). Who is in charge of what the kids do in class? Who is ultimately responsible for every action in every classroom? Gosh, I always thought it was the teacher.

    Administrators have now decided that THEY must be responsible ones setting limits. Hmmm.

    I think this speaks volumes about respect, trust, and power in our educational system.

  3. jt says:

    u no wut, i dont like dat wen im in skoo i cant even check my space. dat is against our rites as humans. we gots a right of speech, press, and they is protected by da constitution of da united st8s. wurd

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