Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Chilling the conversations

The provision of email by school districts is an “authorized use” of equipment and services paid for by eRate funds in the United States. Interestingly, however, I don’t know of a single public school district in the midwest that is currently using its eRate supported servers to provide STUDENT email accounts. Teacher accounts are provided as a general rule, but the only schools I know of that have student email accounts (and there are few) use commercial providers like ePals SchoolMail instead of local servers.

The December 8th eSchoolNews article, “Ruling: Schools must archive eMail: New rules make eMail, instant messages subject to legal review” suggests that provision of student email accounts by schools may become even rarer in the United States. Many free web-based email services are already blocked by school district IT folks, in an ostensible effort to force teachers to use their district-provided (and trackable) email accounts, and “encourage” students to remain on task with district-assigned computer tasks which DO NOT include (typically) accessing and using email.

I wonder if school-provided network services may become increasingly irrelevant for teachers? When everything you write in email is archived so it can potentially “be used against you” later, I think it is natural for email conversations to be “chilled” and almost grind to a halt– at least the email conversations that could potentially take place with district-provided email accounts. What will happen to teachers that use free tools to keep their email and computer files private on the school network? (See “#5 How do I protect my files from prying eyes — even after deleting them?” in Miguel Guhlin’s article “8 More Ways to Make Computing Easier” for details.) I’m not sure, but those actions are not likely to win local IT department hearts and minds.

What will the likely results of this situation be? More teachers will want to use free, web-based email solutions like GMail, Yahoo Mail, Hotmail, etc. The irony seems to be that the more regulated schools and school networks become, the less autonomy teachers and students have to creatively communicate. Regulation as a general rule in education (at least recently, but maybe always) seems to have the effect of chilling conversations. I’m reminded of the rumor that spread at our state librarian’s conference in Oklahoma that DOPA had already made all school blogging in the US illegal. (That was a FALSE rumor.)

If student use of email is considered non-academic, frivolous, and even dangerous by many school officials, what about instant messaging (IM)? I wrote “The case for instant messaging in the classroom” back in August, before this legal ruling, and I remain convinced IM can and should play a constructive role in the formal, school-based learning environment. The requirement for schools to track every instant message sent on their school network, however, will likely have the effect of causing even more schools to ban IM entirely.

Most schools that I’ve worked with and visited ban IM clients like AIM, MSN, and Yahoo. Some ban Skype, but many don’t. I am working hard to convince school leaders that classroom-to-classroom desktop videoconferencing with Skype can be instructionally powerful, constructive for the learning environment and the engagement of learners, and also managed in safe and controlled ways. This legal opinion is not going to help this cause.

I do not want to throw up my hands in frustration, and I’m not going to, but situations like this really seem to beg the question of why US taxpayers and consumers are investing billions of dollars in educational technologies. I am convinced of the need for digital literacy and a constructivist learning environment that emphasizes student CREATION of knowledge products— but clearly most policymakers and regulators are not. I honestly think most of these people are entirely focused on providing a transmission-based model of education for our students. If that is the goal, then why don’t we just put every student in front of a television set for 8 hours a day when they go to school? No one will be authoring any content that needs to be tracked, and this will make the teaching environment really easy for all the teachers and administrators to monitor.

A dog watching a cat on TV

In addition, such a move would make school even more irrelevant for students, since most of them have access to a television at home.

We need to come to grips with the realities and potentials of both read-only (RO) and read-write (RW) technologies in the 21st century learning environment. Requiring school districts to track and archive every message that is created by users on their networks is NOT going to constructively advance an agenda of appropriate RO and RW digital learning. Most likely, the primary effect will be to chill the conversations. 🙁

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5 responses to “Chilling the conversations”

  1. Miguel Guhlin Avatar

    Districts aren’t going to like the use of private encryption tools. We are seeing freedom increasingly legislated and controlled, in business as well as schools. I encourage folks to read this Download a la Mode on protecting digital privacy rather than the one you cite (which is an earlier, shorter version) of this longer article:

    Also, here’s a tutorial for Windows users on how to encrypt their email and files:

    While there may be some rationale for protecting secrets in business, we can see that the push for transparency in business is becoming a matter of personal choice, and economic necessity. After all, bloggers may be writing about their business, their work, and yet, to be genuinely understood, appreciated, and worthy of response by others, they must be honest, transparent, and retain their integrity. Imagine that…retain your integrity and call attention to your work, to the benefit of that work, through open, transparent conversations with other people, who happen to be your customers. Wow.

    In schools, it’s all become a numbers game and as Toby Keith said in a recent CMT interview, the creativity is gone. That’s why he decided to start his own recording studio, marketing his own music after the failure of 3 companies that just didn’t get it.

    As teachers realize that they have to take control of their own learning, they’ll leave the institutions we call schools, and find a different way. That’s a prediction. The alternative is disillusionment, failure, and lack of societal respect…and a few paltry dollars each month.

    Better a fulfilling career working with children in private and/or charter schools where the pay is poor, support is minimal, but you get to teach from the heart and the principal is really there to handle the mundane stuff rather than orchestrate site-based committees without authority, run to central office meetings about how bad things are, and police email, instant messaging, blogging, wikis, audiocasts, social networking, and do paperwork because electronic processing lacks district support in deed, not just word.

    If teachers don’t stand up and fight for their core values, Schools 2.0 may be a revolution where no one shows up in the public buildings we now meet at…Teaching 2.0 will involve people learning in small groups, apprenticeship model and coffee salon type. The democratization of learning will begin with a general appreciation of how learning failed in the early 21st Century.

    With that positive point of view in mind, remember that the power of the Read/Write Web is YOU. Will you hide behind your desk, or step out into the virtual frontier?

    If you’re ready to step out, drop by…some of us are just around the corner….

    Take care,
    Miguel Guhlin
    Around the

  2. Miguel Guhlin Avatar

    Oh, I forgot. At a presentation at a regional service center, the loophole for schools to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling is that you just have to show you don’t have a backup. So, better to NOT backup email at all rather than to try to keep one. If you can’t produce a backup because your practice is not to, then it’s alright.

    Am I the only one who thinks he didn’t quite get that right?


  3. Miguel Guhlin Avatar

    If you want to be a great leader,
    you must learn to follow the Tao.
    Stop trying to control.
    Let go of fixed plans and concepts,
    and the world will govern itself.
    The more prohibitions you have,
    the less virtuous people will be.
    The more weapons you have,
    the less secure people will be.
    The more subsidies you have,
    the less self-reliant people will be.
    Therefore the Master says:
    I let go of the law,
    and people become honest.
    I let go of economics,
    and people become prosperous.
    I let go of religion,
    and people become serene.
    I let go of all desire for the common good,
    and the good becomes common as grass.

    Source: Tao Te Ching

  4. William Bishop Avatar

    I discussed the eSchool news article about retaining email with our IT people and they sent me this a couple of days later. It seems that eSchool news likes to add a little flare to their articles…Maybe I need to go back to the article but it sounded to me like schools would have to start keeping all email…What did you think?

    The rules handed down by the Supreme Court are part of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The rules were accepted in April by the U.S. Supreme Court and went into effect Dec. 1. They are included in a letter in a link at the bottom of the story. The law firm of Preston Gates & Ellis also has a lot of good information on its web page. There is no set time for how long a school should archive eMails. As I mentioned in the story, however, schools should check with their general counsel and state and local governments to see if certain rules are in place. Keep in mind that I am not a lawyer, but it was recommended to me that schools should have some sort of policy in place to justify the deletion of eMails and other electronic documents, say, a policy that says, “we’re going to keep all eMails for a period of 10 weeks.” As long as a policy is in place, then there should be no expectation that information would be kept beyond the specified timeframe. However, if there is no policy in place and a school suddenly purges eMail on the day it is involved in litigation, for instance, then that could be a problem. Again, you should run this by your legal counsel.
    Seeing as how these laws generally are set by state and local governments, there are, at this point, no federal regulations for i.e. how long messages should be kept, what should be archived, or how information should be archived—just a few sentences in a document on federal procedure that makes all of this relevant. Comforting, I know.

    At any rate, I’d encourage you to check with Preston Gates & Ellis LLP. I’d also recommended reading the link at the bottom of the story: “Complete List of Amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure” at This comes from the Preston Gates web site. It’s a PDF of the rules as written and approved by the U.S. Supreme Court. See Rule 37-39.

    Hope this helps,

    Corey Murray, Senior Editor

    eSchool News

    7920 Norfolk Ave.

    Bethesda, Md. 20814

    Phone: (800) 394-0115 ext. 113

    Fax: 301-913-0119