Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Lawsuit Fear and Lack of Vision Explain a Lot

In her post today “PD Cafeteria Style: Picking and Choosing What I Learn (and whom I learn it from),” Nebraska Change Agent Beth Still asks:

If it is possible to gain good and useful information in an informal way then why do schools try so hard to discourage teachers from participation in a PLN? [Professional Learning Network] Some schools go so far as to tell teachers that they cannot even use Facebook on their own time.

(The above link is my own addition, it was not in Beth’s original post.)

What do you think are the best explanations for this sort of behavior and policies by schools and school officials? I perceive that lawsuit fear and a lack of vision for 21st century learning requirements can explain a great deal. Particularly with larger school districts, but sometimes with smaller ones as well, a fear of lawsuits seems to pervade many discussions relating to technology and social networking. When you consult some school lawyers for their opinions on issues relating to technology, often you will receive very conservative advice. “Block it all.” “Institute a policy which bans all cell phones from student use, in as many contexts as possible.” “If you don’t have a policy which bans the device or the technology, then you can’t enforce disciplinary action for misuse as easily.” These are all things I’ve heard school lawyers give as advice to educators regarding interactive, social digital technologies.

I think a lack of vision explains a great deal as well. I continue to be taken aback by the WIDE gulf which separates the “digitally connected” from “the disconnected” in our schools and communities.

DSC_3925.JPG sand turtle Ao Chalok Baan Khao
Creative Commons License photo credit: Vilhelm Sjostrom

It is not an exaggeration to say that those who are digitally connected today are literally living in a different world compared to those who are disconnected. In this context, “using email” does NOT qualify one to claim “connected” status. Just as my trip to Shanghai a year ago in September introduced me to a country and culture completely different from any other I’d previously experienced, the digitally connected world is in many ways just as foreign and formidable to many adults today who may regard themselves as digital conscientious objectors.

Come buy our crabs!

David Jakes as well as Gary Stager are two educators I’ve heard challenge the idea that there are “new literacies” for the 21st century. I agree with the contention that critical thinking and higher order thinking are not “new” ideas or skills. I think it’s hard to disagree that the information landscape has changed and continues to change in fundamental ways, however. In a different landscape, I don’t think it’s a stretch to conclude that new navigational strategies and skills are needed to effectively get around and communicate. We need to help our educational leaders understand both the nature of the changing information landscape, as well as the ways educators as well as students need to be supported in practicing old as well as new literacy skills in this dynamic context.

Creative Commons License photo credit: rofi

Besides lawsuit fears and a lack of vision, what else do you think might explain school officials’ policies which ban the use of social networking technologies that support professional learning, both at school and at home?

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6 responses to “Lawsuit Fear and Lack of Vision Explain a Lot”

  1. Gary S. Stager, Ph.D. Avatar

    Can anyone point to an actual case in which a school was sued over Internet use?

    I maintain that there are no literacies. In fact, I don’t think “literacies” is even a word.

    That said, there are states in this nation where teachers are denied their Constitutional right to assemble (and unionize). Why should it surprise you that they are discouraged from using Facebook, a URL I have proudly never typed into my browser?

  2. Louise Maine Avatar

    In my district, we had to fight to get student created videos made in a collaborative project uploaded to (the fight concerned why I needed it unblocked.) The argument was that it could be burned to DVD. They unblocked twitter for me, but I only push so far. If teachers are not immersed in it to see the difference that it can make, it will not be used effectively for students.

  3. Beth Still Avatar

    I have talked to a few teachers who have been told they cannot have a MySpace or Facebook account at all! I can understand schools mandating that teachers cannot have contact with students on social networks, but I don’t think schools can tell employees that they cannot belong to social networks on their own time outside of school.

    Those of us who are connected understand the value of our network. We derive so much satisfaction from connecting with like-minded people. We also appreciate the conversations we have with people that challenge our beliefs because we grow as professionals from those interactions as well.

    To most recent draft of the Nebraska Language Arts standards states that “Students will identify, locate and evaluate information using 21st Century Skills.” One of the indicators of this is that students will be able to “Use social networks and information tools to gather and share information(e.g. social bookmarking, online collaborative tools, web page/blog.)

    How are teachers supposed to teach students these skills when they are not allowed to use them at school? I don’t think it will be long before we see parents and students filing lawsuits against schools for not teaching them these skills or teachers suing districts for not providing adequate training so they can do their jobs.

    Now I will answer your question about why I believe schools ban networks. I do not think many schools have a procedure in place for approving sites that have been blocked. In many places the decision to block or unblock sites is left completely up to the district tech department. I have found that techs are very good at presenting worst case scenarios to administrators when they would prefer to not unblock a site for a teacher. For administrators who do not have a strong background in technology they are easily persuaded to keep something blocked to “stay on the safe side.”

    I also believe that the entire concept of learning online is so new that it is hard for anyone who has not done it to see the value in it. Teachers who spend hours making copies must be busy while those sitting in front of a computer must be goofing off. While there are teachers who do not use a computer for more than keeping track of grades and playing solitaire, so many of us have realized how to harness the potential of the Internet to help us become better educators. Is it too much to ask that we be trusted to engage in meaningful learning activities during the school day?

  4. Dr. Davis Avatar

    I think that concern about abuse is a major factor. Schools don’t want to deal with problems (who does?) and so they are trying to circumvent them by setting up a level of not-use that quickly becomes egregious.

    As a teacher, I think I ought to be able to use social networking on my own time without any ruling from the school. First amendment rights do apply to teachers. However, I also think that we are responsible for what we write on our accounts.

    Whether you agree with him or not, Loye Young has lost his job over publishing the names of students who plagiarized. ( And a teacher in North Carolina may lose her job for saying she teaches in the “most ghetto” school. (

    I would much prefer the option and being held responsible than to be treated as someone without personal responsibility.

  5. James Sigler Avatar

    I’ll concede that “literacies” is a made-up word. However, literacy, in the singular, does extend beyond just reading and writing text on the page. Isn’t reading and writing text on a web page also literacy? Doesn’t literacy go beyond print? Isn’t listening to or creating a podcast literacy? Isn’t critiquing or creating video a higher-order form of that literacy? Literacy is about communication … understanding and making yourself understood. Literacy in the 21st century involves many media that children read, listening to, watch, and create.

  6. Kent Chesnut Avatar

    Even aside from the fear of lawsuits issue, it seems to me that schools have a phobia about control. Anything outside the school’s control seems to be looked on with suspicion.
    Maybe it goes back to the basics, behaviorism and operant conditioning, where controlling the stimuli the child is exposed to (classroom environment, curriculum), and the feedback he receives (praise, grades, punishment), dictates the child’s responses (i.e. learning).
    (By the way, I hope that’s not the definition currently used for learning!)
    Anybody else think the schools’ desire for control goes beyond a fear of lawsuits?