Turn It Off, or Turn It Up?

My school district has been adding some infrastructure to a facility for support offices recently, and our network team noticed some serious spikes in WiFi use after hours at the sites.  A few years ago, we implemented a very easy to use public network for any guest or personal machine in our schools to be able to connect with minimal inconvenience.  Basically, we have Starbucks-style free WiFi running at all of our sites.  That’s a good thing – as public schools are community institutions, funded and supported by the community.  That support should go both ways.  And yet – it’s a rocky road.

This facility, surrounded by homes and broadcasting a strong WiFi signal, was getting hammered by private residences in the area.  Serious use.  Non-staff use on the public network side.

So the decision was made, because of concern about the network and the high traffic, to shut down that site’s access points after business hours.  

One network technician, leaving the site, was asked by a nearby resident “Why did you turn off my wireless?”

What an interesting question, and it got me thinking.  What is the role of public infrastructure when it comes to personal use beyond the scope of our educational mission?  

I see both sides of this one – a network with no available bandwidth for students and staff to conduct their work just won’t do – and the primary mission of an educational entity is to educate the folks within the entity.  

But I wonder, too, about the larger role of a public school district in terms of its educational mission to the community beyond the classroom.  How do we create opportunities for learning for the folks served indirectly by our primary efforts?  Is a school’s WiFi, funded by the community through tax and use fees, “mine,” or “theirs,” or, maybe “ours?”

As the lines blur further between personal and professional and in-school and out-of-school, I think this is an important question.  I wonder how you’re answering that in your institutions, districts, and classrooms.  If you’ve got a great answer, I’d love to hear it in the comments.

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The Podcast: ISTE 2010 Final Brain Dump

In today’s podcast, recorded during my drive home from ISTE’s final activities, I talk a bit about Tuesday and Wednesday of the conference.  There’s talk of the filtering panel I was fortunate to get to sit on, Howard Rheingold’s resources on crap detection, and also some of my thinking about how we must work to model the things that we want to see in our schools.  Always.  I thought ISTE was a good and useful conference.  Thanks to those of you who made it so for me.

Direct Link to Audio

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Would You Please Block?

Ever since we opened up lots more of the Internet in our school district earlier this year, the district has received several requests from teachers and other staff to block resources that are distractions in the classroom.  I’ve written a stock response to those requests that I thought might be worth sharing.  It’s my hope that their requests and the conversations that come from this response lead to changes in classroom practice.

Here it is:

Thanks for your question.  When we implemented our new filter this school year, we looked at all the things we were currently blocking, what things were required to be blocked by law, and what we were blocking that we shouldn’t be.

What we’ve decided is that we will no longer use the web filter as a classroom management tool.  Blocking one distraction doesn’t solve the problem of students off task – it just encourages them to find another site to distract them.  Students off task is not a technology problem – it’s a behavior problem.  It is our intention that we help students to learn the appropriate on-task behaviors instead of assuming that we can use filters to manage student use.  Rather than blocking sites on an ad hoc basis, we will instead be working with folks to help them through computer and lab management issues in a way that promotes student responsibility.  We know that the best filters in a classroom or lab are the people in that lab – both the educational staff monitoring student computer use as well as the students themselves.

This opens up possibilities for students and staff using websites for instructional purposes that in the past were blocked due to broad category blocks.  It requires that staff and students manage their technology use rather than relying on a third party solution that can never do the job of replacing teachers monitoring students.

That said, we will still block sites that are discovered to violate CIPA requirements.  If you discover one, please do not hesitate to share it with us.  Also, if you discover a site that shouldn’t be blocked, please pass that along so that we can open it up.

I hope this makes sense.  I’d be happy to speak further with you if you have further comments or questions.

How do you talk to folks in your districts about your Internet (un)filtering?

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For Vicki – An Expanded Tweet

I’m enjoying the review of the week’s tweets that I am basically assigning myself to read.  Looking at the weekly post is a way to review my thinking over that time, and now posting a tweet is also writing a short note to myself that I’ll read the following week.

Here’s one from the other night:

Too much censorship begins with well-intentioned people worrying about other people’s kids.

The tweet came at the beginning of a conversation with Vicki Davis in reference to an idea that she has about ratings on YouTube videos.  I promised her an explanation of my position.  So here goes:

I’m not for forcing one’s will on any organization that exists as a for-profit, private enterprise.  I’m certainly not for forcing one’s values on that enterprise, either, in the name of education or anything else.  It sounds cold – but it’s not YouTube’s responsibility to be everything to everyone.  They built themselves around the audiences that they wished to serve. Further – I think we hide behind the education shield a little too often.

If I wanted to build a school on the block where a popular bar was, and then I decided that I didn’t like having a bar so close to my school, so I attempted to try to shut the bar down, I’d be completely in the wrong.

So, too, with YouTube.  When we go there for educational purposes, and don’t like what we see, how is that the fault of YouTube?

I’d rather let YouTube be YouTube.  I can bring their content into my educational spaces, if I choose too, but I could also be responsible for creating my own space to post and share videos and decide the rules for its use.

It’s not up to them to make a space that I am happy with.  Nor is it up to a third-party to make them change for my benefit.

Hope that makes sense, Vicki.

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The Filter. For the Moment.

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.

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Reading Balance

Clay Burell’s challenged me (or tagged me, or whatever) to engage a meme that he’s passing along.  I might.  I’m bad about memes.  I don’t mean to be.  (And I am thinking about a good passion quilt image and will post one.  Eventually.  Thanks to all who tagged me.) But I did want to encourage you to read his post.  Mostly because of this idea about teaching Lolita:

I think I can say they all love it. I also think I can say they can handle it – and if they can’t, they should learn to, now more than ever.

As a high school language arts teacher, I encouraged my students to pick many of their own books in consultation with me and other trusted adults.  I would encourage you to do the same.  But that’s another post.

But when you do decide to read a book together, I’d ask that you never insult the intelligence of your students, emotionally or intellectually, by hiding the world from them through picking “safe” books.  Safe choices are pretty much always about you (or your administrator, or your school board) and not about your students.  They live in the worlds being represented in literature.  Many educators live in these worlds, too.  Let’s not pretend otherwise.  Instead, let’s challenge students to engage ideas and concepts that are weighty, essential and enthralling.

Let’s ask them to dream and to dare and to risk by talking about difficult ideas in safe places.  Let’s ask them not to agree with the stance of a particular author or book or teacher or administrator or board policy, but instead to struggle through finding their own way.  With help, of course.

Most good teaching is all about finding balance.  Safe and scary.  Old and new.  Today and tomorrow.  Child and adult.  Easy and hard.  Choice and “have to.” Too often in schools, we lean way hard on one side of the teeter totter and completely avoid the other side.

What fun is that?  And what good is it for anyone?

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The Rest of My Whispering on Textbooks

    I always hate being at technology conferences that focus too much on tools and not enough on learning.  I’m pleased that this conference wasn’t one of them.  I attended one "tools focus" session, and that seems like the right ratio for me this conference. 

    Over the past three days, I’ve had some great conversations with folks from my district about tools and strategies and learning and teaching and "21st Century Skills" and lots of other buzzwords and whatnot.  But the big takeaway reminder for me at this conference is the reminder that most of what I want to do with students, and most of what I think the folks that came with me want to do, too, is to promote the progressive ideas of the 19th and 20th Century and (hopefully) the early 21st Century.  Conversations with Chris Lehmann really helped me to re-focus that in my own head (Thanks, Chris!).  We might not say it that way, but really, amidst all of the talk of computers and interactive whiteboards and Internet access, I think we want to create rich spaces full of relevant information for our students and teachers to be able to interact with and contribute to and ask questions of and be in awe of and concern about.  Sometimes, that means using computers.  Other times, it means using paper and pen(cil).  Still others, crayons, or perhaps clay or chemicals.  Or guest speakers.  Or whatever. 
    I think we just want to be able to offer teachers and students and administrators options for how to make their learning goals happen. 
    I was talking with one colleague this morning about textbooks and why we can’t yet get rid of them.  I was having this conversation in whispered tones during a keynote speech, so I wasn’t able to articulate my points as well as I’d like.  Since I know that he’s now a subscriber of this blog (Hi, Jeremy!), as well as a soon-to-be new blog author himself, I thought it would make sense to further elaborate here. 

    I’d like to shut down the textbook flow tomorrow.  Textbooks are un-authentic ways for us to distribute information to teachers and students.  But, rightly or wrongly, they’re the tools that we have.  In our current paradigm (I know – buzzword – but work with me here), they are also the tools that are not considered frivolous or unessential.  In a better paradigm, we would have ubiquitous access to the information streams around us.  We’d have a meaningful 1:1 program for every student.  We’d not have to beg, borrow and steal to provide sufficient bandwidth to all of our classrooms.  But we’re not there.  Yet.
    As a language arts teacher, I preferred to use real-world, authentic texts with my students.  Newspapers, novels, magazines, literature anthologies and many other authentic texts are far better tools for helping students to navigate the information of the human experience, as well as the world of the media and popular culture.  These texts are real and not specifically designed for educational purposes – and I think that’s a good thing.  We need to teach and learn about interacting in the world. 
  Specifically, as I think about providing the most information to students as possible, I think about the Internet.  (I bet that’s no big surprise.)  The Internet is a full-on fire hose of information that I would much rather be using with students.  That information can be authentic, at least more so than a textbook can be. And we can take that information and fiddle with it before, during and after it hits the classroom in ways that maximize the authentic-ness AND the educational value of it.  Our students can and should be a part of this process, too.    1:1 shouldn’t even have to be an argument.  But it is. 

    So when I say that I want to get rid of textbooks, but that I can’t say let’s get rid of them yet, that’s more of what I’m trying to talk about.  We need to provide lots of good raw information to our students so that they can do all of the wonderful things that we want them to do.  Then we need to help them connect to and with that information and each other in some really authentic ways.  But since we can’t provide that information authentically, for too many logistically complex reasons, we’re stuck with textbooks, at best an inefficient information delivery system.  For now.  I hope we can change that soon.  I really don’t believe it’s that hard to do – once we decide we should be doing it.

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When Does Individual Responsibility Kick In?

   

    Chris wrote a post today about the perils of using third-party services for hosting content:

in two clicks, he or she has seen images of a rave party with
suspected drug use, and if he or she clicks on the home page,  we see
anything from a caricature of Bruce Willis smoking to a sultry anime
lady who is barely dressed to other inappropriate material. I can just
see an otherwise innocent student (can I remind you my students are
11-12 years old?! and yes, some are quite innocent) seeing this!?

It’s not worth my job.

    And while I see his point, and have sometimes felt the same way about Blogger, what with its "next blog" link, I guess I’d like to carry the logic out one or two steps further. 

    From Google, a search engine that I teach people how to use, I can,  by typing only a few letters or words, instantaneously get to pretty much anything else on the Internet, from cute, language confused kittens to, um . . .well, some pretty awful stuff.  Should I not use Google, either, because there’s potential there that students might find something "harmful?"

    Where’s that line between student responsibility for their actions and a teacher’s responsibility to not be negligent?  I completely understand Chris not wanting to discover that he’s on the wrong side of it – but I also hope/wish that American society understood the difference. 
  This is an old question, one that’s come up repeatedly in discussion of tools like Flickr, Blogger, MySpace, Facebook, and countless others.  While I see the advantage to consider creating a separate world of content that’s only for educators and students (and I’ve been involved in these sorts of projects), I think, long term, that’s no better than turning off the Internet.  I struggle with this, as I don’t ever want to put a student in harm’s way, but I think isolation might be a greater harm than accidental exposure.  I don’t know for certain, and in my practice, like Chris, I tend to play it safe.  Inf act, I didn’t link to the language confused kittens above because there are some images in that collection, too, that are not "okay" at school.  I’m not altogether comfortable with the fact that I self-censor in that way – but it’s worked okay so far.  (Or has it?)

  This is why we need to teach students how to act responsibly online and to figure out when we turn which parts of the "system" on (or turn the filters off/down)  so that, by the time our students graduate, they have been inoculated against all the bad, icky, not-so-good for you stuff that’s out there.  (And, we also need to realize that, far too often, one man’s "bad, icky" is another man’s "AOK," which doesn’t really simplify anything, does it?)

    Otherwise, they’re all just cannon fodder the moment they find an unfiltered stream.  And that’s not okay, either.

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A Small Victory

   

Good news from my hometown school district.  Jason writes:

I’m actually sitting at my computer at school writing this post.

My district FINALLY decided to unblock Blogger for educational purposes.  They used my TOK blog as
evidence for its usefulness and they finally agreed… so now you are
free as PSD teachers to utilize it in your classroom… and please do.
The more of us that stand up and show how we can properly use blogger
for students and teachers alike, the more likely that they will see it
as a step forward in our use of technology.

   Congratulations, Jason.  Well done.

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Hunch

    I have a hunch that 8e6 Technologies, the group that filters our school area’s Internet, recently decided that Google Video is "R Rated."  I noticed that the site became blocked here a few days ago.  YouTube has been blocked, for the same reason, for a while. 
    Dear 8e6, please remove those sites from "R Rated."  We use Google Video to host our video work for OldeSchoolNews.com.  In my experience, their content is community policed for decency.  The same can’t be said for the stuff that isn’t being blocked. 
    Ben provides a far better rationale than I do.  I simply contend that no one thought much about it when they hit the filter switch.  And that’s unacceptable.  That switch should only be pulled as a last resort, not as a first line of defense.

UPDATE (2/21/07):  I didn’t do a good job of making my point in the post above, so I’ll try again.  The reason I’m mentioning the block of Google Video is because it appears to me that someone in a private company somewhere made a decision about the value (or lack thereof) of a particular website.  Then, that individual, without consultation with or consideration of, schools that (are required by federal law to) use their product (or another one like it), applied the filter to that website.
  That’s too simple.  It should take more thought and effort and discussion to turn off a piece of the Internet in a public school in the United States of America.  It should be hard.
    But it isn’t, and that’s sad.
    I am not against the careful use of filters.  Some stuff has no business at school.  But we should be erring on the side of too open, not too closed. 

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