Saturday, December 15, 2007

Is the Internet Shrinking?

by Ed Latham

If you have gone to any tech presentations in the last year, you must have seen some of the Web 2.0 tools and other cool things that seem to be opening up possibilities for anyone with an Internet connection. Even if you have not attended any of the almost evangelical presentations extolling the virtues of this cool techie tool, you have probably heard about some of the possibilities from some peers, a relative or maybe even through the media. The new, expanding Internet seems to be engulfing our culture and leaving corporations in a frenzy while they figure out how they all can get a piece of action if everything is "free".

I love some of the tools out there. I work with many different teachers that all could benefit in some way, personally or professionally, by learning about the options that seem to be growing exponentially. With all of this expansion going on, I have seen a trend that is bothering me.

For the at-home users, the options keep flowing and expanding, but in School Systems the Internet is Shrinking! Many schools have allowed teachers some freedom to experiment with some of these new technologies. That freedom is awesome, but without good training or practice, some student somewhere in the system messes things up and the tech coordinator blocks that tool off for everyone else that was doing quite nicely. Lets face it, many teachers interested in learning technology lack the time or resources to get well trained in how to use some of these technologies in safe, productive ways. The lack of time and resources for teachers to learn how to best use these tools is one factor contributing to the increasing blockage of areas of the Internet by local IT people.

A second contributing factor is poor student choices. Students often have access to computers at home and have "been there done that" many times, but their teacher never checked in to see where each of her 100 students in her case load were at with that particular skill. The teacher was excited to be able to do some "meaningful technology", but for the student that had already experienced something similar, the meaningful part is missing. The student gets bored or wishes to find some distraction from the droning on that seems to be coming from the front of the room somewhere. This is when the students need to make good choices as to how they handle boredom and distraction. Many students can not get around the temptation to check out what is on that site, or maybe I can fix that part of my Yearbook page so my friends can see my finished work. Now the teacher catches them not following the program and jots down the source of the distraction and hands it over to the IT execution squad. Computers can be broken down for weeks, but it is amazing how few minutes are required for the IT crew to get a site shut down.

I have worked with teachers in a dozen school districts this last year. In almost every system, I have heard stories from teachers of how she used to use this tool but that got blocked a few weeks ago when... The stories may differ in detail, but the cause is often something like, "Some kid did this or that so they shut down the system." Shutting down resources because of student delinquency is a lazy way of dealing with discipline! In fact it is not even dealing with the discipline that is necessary. The student can not handle boredom or distraction any better by getting caged in more and more. What is there to be distracted by if all distractions are removed? Additionally, by shutting down a resource that all could be using because of delinquent behavior, we are rewarding those delinquent with power over the system. The student, who probably has a computer at home in his bedroom, does not really care about the entire school loosing access. Instead, he can brag to his online friends how he managed to bring his entire school down simply by going to his Yearbook during math class. It becomes a joke and even a status symbol for these individuals and yet we see the stern teachers and IT people as they state, "Well, that aught to teach them to respect school property." The delinquent student must be in heaven with all the power schools are allowing them these days. How long before one says, "How much you want to bet I can get them to shut off access to Google by next week?"

This has got to stop. Techie trainers often travel from school system to school system around states and sometimes even around the country. If you asked them, as I have, you will find an increasing frequency of schools locking down resources that are parts of the presentations people are paying to have brought into their areas. It is getting to the point that one may not even be able to share the virtues of something because it is easier to shut down any access to the resource instead of dealing with the problem.

So, how do we deal with the problem? I have asked many administrators if their school has any policies in their handbooks against vandalism. So far, 100% do. I have asked if there are policies about non-compliance with school rules ... again 100% do. I asked if Computer User Agreements are in place ... of course they are. The problem then comes down to either faulty school policy or a lack of ability to follow through. Many propose that you take the computer away from the student. This is ridiculous behavior on two counts. If you value the tool to be used in productive ways and feel that the tool expands the classroom experience to new levels, then taking it away is actually depriving the student of the right to learn as others do in your class. An argument could be made that violators of the laws loose some rights and I could buy that. The second reason removal of the computer is silly, is that it teaches the student nothing about how to channel the energies that got them in trouble in the first place, especially because I will be giving it back to you in a few weeks.

Any law or rule is set in place for safety. How we follow through or enforce those rules is critical to how often we face infractions of those rules. If our reaction is to take things away, people will never learn appropriate behavior because the environment does not even exist any more. Instead the discipline has to include the behaviors leading up to the infraction and solutions to avoid that choice in the future. I thought we were here to teach people folks, not to lock them up and take away their food if they are naughty prisoners. The fact that others in the system should be punished as well by denying them access is absurd. If I go on a bus and and post all sorts of inappropriate pictures all over the inside of the buss does that mean we should shut buses down? How about denying students from bringing any printed material on buses? Should everyone show their empty pockets on the way into the buss now? OF COURSE NOT! The bus driver follows school rules, that have been discussed over many years by many people, and the offending student is disciplined, not the rest of the bus. I am sorry, but if we can figure out bus safety and can not figure out computer safety for our systems, we have a serious problem. For some the Internet may be expanding, but for most, it is clear that their Internet is shrinking at an alarming rate.

If your school system has positive ways of dealing with inappropriate student abuse of technology, could you please, please post some of the ideas your school uses? We have to spread around working systems that deal with the problem without avoiding it by shutting things down. I also urge you to quickly respond as more and more people are not going to be able to access this blog for much longer as blogging is getting shut down in many schools as well.

It is sad to think that society can get access to all sorts of tools, but education can not keep that access because of poor policy. This could become yet another way that students feel a disconnect with their real word and the ever more prison like educational sentence they may feel they have to endure for 12 years. We may be forcing students more and more into believing that education is out of touch with their world and therefor not worthy of respect, effort, or their time. Our teachers will also continue to wither as they are denied access to legitimate tools. These adults have to be treated as the students do simply because it is so much easier to keep that Internet shrinking. If they can't access it, they can't cause problems with it. This motto in IT has to stop now!


Kern Kelley said...

Great post Ed! The idea that "if there may be a problem, then don't even try it because it's means more work." has been around education since - well forever.

Think of the MLTI laptops, initially a prevailing attitude was, "You can't give 7th graders laptops, they might play games on them!" It's the mindset of those looking for ways out of managing the change. And I fully appreciate that it is more work.

We've had issues with students on Club Penguin. Now the issue isn't the site (it's completely G-rated) and it's not the computer (you wouldn't take away all pencils because a student wrote a naughty word.) It's management.

It would be easier to block the site than to deal with it. But of course educators MUST deal with it. Where else would we rather have students learn about digital literacy? With guidance at school or at home by themselves? I'm very fortunate that the IT dept here understands that completely. But I know there certainly are teachers who do not and would rather this whole 'internet' thing just go away.

Jim Burke said...

Related article, Ed:

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