This morning, Darren mentioned that he’s decided to block Facebook in his school district. To his credit, he then asked:
Nonetheless, I’m as sure as you are that this is a debate far from over, and therefore maintain a stance of open inquiry into whether or not we’re doing the right thing. So give it to me straight:
- Would you leave Facebook open on your K-12 network?
- If so, why?
- And, what are you doing to train your teachers to effectively utilize it with their students?
- Additionally, what can you do on Facebook that can’t be done elsewhere?
I think he’s asking important questions – but not the right ones for a filtering decision. The world’s a big place. Not everything in it has an educational purpose or goal. Many things that don’t seem overtly “educational” actually are. (And vice versa.) Yet – the world is the place that we working in schools are supposed to be helping students to succeed in. So why do we keep turning off the parts of it that make us uncomfortable? The questions of Internet filtering are often focused on the notion that we can control everything that happens to a student. We cannot. We must create safe environments for learning and teaching – but we should never hide behind empty promises of “safe,” promises we can never actually deliver on.
In our school district, as we made a switch from sharing ISP service with other districts to becoming our own ISP and investing in our own firewall and filtering solutions, we had to make a decision about what to filter and why. As I’ve never been a fan of overfiltering, and I know that even the best filters make mistakes of both permissive and restrictive natures, I and some others suggested that perhaps it was time for us to rethink our filtering strategy.
Basically, we argued, let’s quit pretending that the Internet filter is something that it isn’t. Namely, the Internet filter can and should never take the place of a responsible educator working with students to ensure they are working with the best possible resources to accomplish their educational work. When a teacher isn’t around, we want to make sure that our students are able to move forward and not get mired down in the random world of distractions that the Internet can offer. But we want students to be able to internalize the discipline that it takes to do that. And our boss took that idea to our district leadership, and they agreed. As of the start of the school year, we are blocking the categories we feel meet the requirements of law as well as a few additional categories relating to hacking and software downloads that our technical side of the house deemed risky to the network. A very few categories (three, I believe, though I am working from memory as I write this), those dealing with particularly sensitive topics, are available only to staff and to students with staff override. This is a big change and we’re all pretty excited about it. Filters are like any other source of power and control – they begin to become solutions to problems that they weren’t created to solve – no matter how badly they fail to solve them.
We’re going to block very few things, beyond the legally required ones, that are distractions. Distractions aren’t a technology problem. They’re a people problem. And creating artificial spaces that don’t actually help to promote the behaviors and attitudes that are important for success is maybe the biggest distraction of all.
We could argue the educational merits of Facebook. (But it’s mostly a distraction. Every now and then, it won’t be. Let’s let students and staff get to it when they believe they need to and stop making it and a few other websites such big deals at school.)
We could argue the educational merits of MySpace. (But same thing.)
We could take a random stab and try to guess what the NEXT BIG WEBSITE will be, the thing that students will want to do rather than do their school work. (But we’ll probably guess wrong. And the websites will almost never be the problem. The problem is that students don’t want to do their schoolwork. That’s a problem that deserves more attention than whether or not a profile might get updated or a playlist shared. Heck – at least in the case of a playlist or profile, something is getting created.)
There are an awful lot of distractions on the Internet. Every time we focus on them, we draw attention to them and away from the educational goals and objectives we’d like to, and should be, focusing on. Let’s all stop doing that.
Our filters have prevented us from getting a great deal of work done. Teachers spent lots of time under our old filter trying to route around it to share important information with students. Students spent countless hours trying to route around the filter. (And succeeding.) I’d’ve rather they’d each have been able to do the thing they wanted to do and then go on with their days.
And now they can. Mostly. It’s not a perfect solution. There are still glitches and overblocks – but we are working to unblock things that come up blocked for a teacher as quickly as we are alerted to the errors. As we see use of resources increase, we may have to do some traffic shaping – which might be a better alternative to blocking outright, or it might create an entirely new set of problems. We’ll see.
Darren is right about one thing – this is a new idea, the idea that the Internet’s there and (mostly) available. And there’s plenty of teaching and learning to do about how to avoid distractions, and how to make sure that we are expecting the best of our students and staff. But let’s not get stuck in command and control positions of assumption that lead us to discredit the experiences and expertise of the adults in the classrooms with our students every day. Let’s believe in them rather than worry for them.
People will rise to the expectations that are set for them, and in our district, I am proud to say that we are beginning to expect big things from staff and students regarding their Internet use. There’s lots and lots of work ahead, but I feel very good about the fact that we have finally started framing the problems of Internet misuse as problems of behavior and not of technology. I hope other school districts can do the same. And I hope that my district can hold true to its vision. I have high expectations for us, too.