Yesterday as I drove to Binger, Oklahoma for an after-school workshop on sources of free digital curriculum, I listened to the full presentation “Parenting the MySpace Generation” presented by Douglas Levin at the PTA Back-to-School Media Briefing in New York on August 10, 2006. (MP3 format) I blogged about this on Monday.
Dr. Levin commented the same day on that blog post, and pointed out that he had been misquoted in the original article I read from WebMD. (You realize you’re definitely living in the 21st century when something like this happens.)
Indeed he was misquoted in the WebMD article– everything Dr. Levin talked about in his presentation about Internet safety and digital social networking I agree with. He encouraged parents to be in regular communication with their children about their activities both on and offline, and nowhere suggested that “Parents need make the Internet a safer place for kids by disabling things like instant messenger [IM] and chat [functions].” Apparently that statement was an invention of the WebMD article author, Denise Mann. Dr. Levin encouraged parents to use the parental controls available from their ISP, as well as on their computer and in software programs. Mainly he encouraged parents and kids to communicate regularly and thoroughly about online and offline activities– recommendations I heartily support as well.
So, my apologies to Dr. Levin for taking the WebMD article at face value and repeating the misquote– and a BIG THANK YOU to him for commenting and setting me straight! This situation exemplifies the strong need we have for critical media literacy skills for learners of all ages. I was talking about this yesterday in my workshop in the context of WikiPedia. We all need to reference MULTIPLE sources, and be wary of believing single sources that say something out-of-line with others. That source may be true, but like all sources it deserves validation. In my workshop on Effective Search Strategies I have links to six different sites with tools and strategies related to digital content validation. The Quality Information Checklist is probably my favorite.
This situation also reflects the idea that hyperlinked writing is the most powerful type of writing. Not only does hyperlinked writing permit us to easily link to the ideas and work of others (via links,) but it also permits real-time communication and collaboration. That is exactly what happened with this blog post. If my thoughts about this WebMD article had not been posted to my blog, Dr. Levin couldn’t have found those paragraphs (probably using a customized search with a tool like Technorati.) If he had not commented, I would not have been alerted to my mistake in quoting an erroneous original article, and wouldn’t have had the link to the original presentation so I could listen to it myself. In short, this entire interaction could NOT have happened in the RO (read-only) 20th century.
This research and feedback scenario exemplifies the benefit of doing firsthand versus secondhand research: something we need to talk to students about at all levels. It is great to utilize and cite secondary sources (in this case the WebMD article,) but it is often even more helpful (and powerful) to go directly to the source: In this case Dr. Levin himself. In the 20th century, which was characterized mostly by read-only (RO) media sources, it was often impractical to directly contact authors and speakers like this. Most teachers in the 20th century didn’t even have phones in their classrooms! Now at least many teachers (in the US where I live and elsewhere I suspect) have cell phones to use. Most teachers also have the Internet, however, which is a much more powerful communication technology than a phone. Where a phone is generally used for one-to-one communication (yes conference calling is available, but I don’t think many teachers use it regularly for instructional purposes) the Internet and blogs specifically can serve as “one to many” communication technologies. One to many communication technologies permit qualitatively different interactions between novice and expert learners, and this situation with Dr. Levin’s presentation, ideas, and articles quoting his original presentation in August in New York is a case in point.
My last thought on this regards accountability for online behavior. I have maintained for some time that in 1:1 computing initiatives, schools need to utilize a background service that runs on each student and teacher’s laptop computer and logs every website that particular laptop has accessed. These logs of visited websites should be regularly transferred with a background, transparent batch utility to the school server and indexed by the laptop’s MAC address. The student, the student’s parents, the student’s teacher and school administrators would have authenticated access to view any of those log files at any time. The goal of this system would be to provide documentation and accountability for online activities, similarly to the way we try inside and outside of school to help young people remain accountable for offline/face-to-face behavior. This is a different approach than the basic “blacklisting” content filtering method used by many if not most US schools today to comply with CIPA. Blacklisting sites at school could still continue (and certainly should for some sites), but this website logging system would provide another level of ongoing accountability for online behavior which would potentially engage more stakeholders in the process of helping students learn to be ethical and responsible digital citizens.
My epiphany in listening to Dr. Levin’s presentation was that ISPs should provide this same service for all their customers. Just like a long distance bill provides granular details about each call that was made: what time it was made, who it was made to, and how long it lasted, ISPs should provide an option for customers to turn on website logging for their account as an option in their online bill payment portal. This should include an aggregated and summarized view of Internet activity as well as multiple ways of searching/querying the logs to make sense of them. Some content filtering services use as many as 30 different categories of “objectionable content and sites” when blocking Internet sites for students and teachers in schools. The ISP’s customer bandwidth utilization log should similarly break down websites that fit into different categories, so customers can easily and readily tell if “objectionable” websites have been visited. The portal interface should allow customers to specify what type of content they define as “objectionable” or “alertable.” They should even be permitted to have a notification sent to them via SMS or IM if an objectionable site has been visited, just like some school administrators receive (or like the phone calls many of them receive) from their content filtering provider.
As would be the case in the 1:1 laptop website logging scenario I described above, the purpose of this ISP bandwidth logging service would be to provide more information to all users authorized to have it– to make activities in the online environment more transparent and therefore accountable. It is critical that we seek ways to help students perceive their activities in online spaces as equally documented and accountable as their activities “in real life.” (the face to face world) The goal here is not promoting a climate of big-brother monitoring and filtering where people (young people in particular) are constrained from being creative and are never permitted to make mistakes and therefore learn from them– but rather to provide documentation of website use (which is already logged and maintained by ISPs and available to law enforcement authorities when a subpoena is obtained) to customers who are paying an ISP for Internet services. That information could then be used (hopefully constructively) by customers (often parents) as they see fit. The ISPs and law enforcement already have access to this type of bandwidth utilization data: My thought is that customers should be able to choose to have ready access to it as well, and the data should be accessible in a very user-friendly and customizable format.
If someone is using someone else’s wireless home Internet connection for objectionable or illegal purposes, that person should know about it and be able to take action. (Of course taking basic steps to provide some wireless security on home networks is the logical first step.) If a child is spending hours downloading music or movies from P2P file sharing services at home, parents should know. If kids are visiting sites their parents would consider “objectionable” on their home network, then parents should know. One big problem we have now in the online environment is that Internet activity (off school networks at least) appears on its face to users to be undocumented. Parents may be living in a black hole of ignorance about how the Internet services they are paying for are being used by people in (and perhaps around) their home. Like a detailed long distance phone bill, customers deserve detailed information about their bandwidth utilization.
I continue to maintain that F2F communication and dialog are the keys to effectively addressing many of the issues highlighted by disruptive technologies like MySpace. Like Dr. Levin, however, I also contend that we should use technology tools when we can to constructively communicate and learn together.
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