Schools As Communication Free Zones

Computer Science Teacher
Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

Schools As Communication Free Zones

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I have this general policy that when I don’t have anything to say I don’t say anything. OK I admit that I have trouble sticking to that policy sometimes. And at the same time I tend to be rather opinionated which means I often have a lot to say – which may or may not be a good thing. And while I do occasionally editorialize on this blog I have been trying to be more objective and resource sharing in my blogging here. But I find myself more and more frustrated with the state of online censorship within schools. So I’m going to rant a bit.

Do we really  believe that students in school should be seen and not heard? Do we really believe that the only means of communication students should have with the world (or their friends) is voice communication in strictly supervised situations? Do we really believe that we are doing students favors by not letting them reach the social aspects of the Internet? Do we really believe that online chat and discussion sites are pure evil?

A couple of events have brought this home lately. First was a couple of talks I gave as schools recently. One at a college had a couple of my demos not work because the web sites were blocked. The students were unsurprised and their response indicated that they thought it reflected poorly on the college than on me. A week later I gave a workshop at a high school and the tech person had done a good job of checking the sites I needed (even without me asking) to whitelist or otherwise unblock them. Of course the unplanned part of my demo that tried to use Facebook died at the firewall.

Then last week a teacher reported that the RoboChamps web site was being blocked at his school as a “social networking site.” (details here on why I thought it good for schools) Seems weird to me but, well, what do I know? I wonder how many online help forums for technical and other educational discussions are being blocked as social networking sites? Speaking of social networking blockage, this morning teachers on Twitter were talking about ways to get to Twitter from school when Twitter is blocked and Netvibes is now blocked.

I’m seeing a lot of interaction among teachers on Twitter these days BTW. (I’m at http://twitter.com/alfredtwo if anyone is interested) Students still seem to be oblivious to Twitter though. I’ve heard a lot of tails of blog sites being blocked at schools as well. Given how isolated many teachers, especially tech teachers, feel in their schools this interaction online seems like a great thing to me. Something to be facilitated and perhaps even taught rather than something to block at all costs.

Why is social networking seen as automatically evil these days? Evil sexual predators? Come on – we know that students are more at risk at home than online. By about an order of magnitude. Is it the distraction? Sounds like a classroom management problem to me. Well they might put up something bad – what ever bad means. Are they really more likely to be “bad” at school then in the privacy of their bedrooms later that same day? I don’t think so. Aren’t we really missing some good educational opportunities?

There are teachers doing creative and inspiring projects using blogs, wikis, Skype, and other web 2.0 tools. If kids are going to create videos for YouTube why not have them create and share educational videos? If they are going to write about their feelings why not use online journals (perhaps inside a school firewall) and other online publishing tools to let them create for the media they live in? Why can’t we take advantage of the teachable moments (and tools) of student activity rather than let them mess things up on their own?

I blame administrators as much as anything. Followed closely behind by parents. People who don’t understand the web, don’t want to understand the web, and are just looking for the easy way out to make it look like they are doing something. Oh they are not all like that. There are many great innovative administrators and enlightened parents. But they are not the ones doing all the yelling and screaming. In the end it comes down to making life easy and appearing to do something.

One last comment, the students are blowing through the filters as if they were not even there. Anyone who believes otherwise is only fooling themselves. Do you think students are not laughing themselves silly at getting to sites they know their teachers can’t get to? How much does that do for teaching respect for teachers, schools and authority in general?

  • To a large extent, your points are well taken.  Our schools are still deeply committed to the "Teacher-As-Sole-Knowledge-Provider" approach, expecting students to sit in class, learn only from the teacher, do prescribed exercises and projects and stay within this "learning box".  Given that philosophy, it's easy to see why many schools say, "Use the Internet, but only for these predetermined purposes."

    Sounds like you're really asking for a change in the approach to learning:  if you allow greater Internet access, this is really a philosophy change:  you're encouraging students to discover resources on their own, to create a "community of scholars" and learn from each other (and learn from their own discovery!), in addition to what's been prescribed by the teacher.

    That sounds great, and it _can_ be great!  But two concerns that can be legitimately raised:

    (1) Given this added freedom, is a group of students "ready" for this discovery-based type of learning?  The teacher is still the adult and is appropriately the leader of the classroom.  What's the right balance between prescribed learning paths vs. the freedom to discover?  The answer will change for different students and at different stages of their maturity.

    (2) Controlling Technology Abuse:  Some years ago, I was splitting my time between CS teaching and being technology manager for my school.  When one or two students would abuse technology by hacking systems, etc., it took SO MUCH of my time to deal with these 2-3 students, and this took time away from my teaching prep, tutoring, coming up with projects, helping other teachers setup a technology-based demo, etc.  So ALL of my students suffered thanks to the few who abused their priviliges.  So... if I could get technology to block / deter these abuses, then it would let me be a more effective teacher.

    So I definitely can see why technology administrators like these blocking tools -- it can keep a few abusers from monopolizing your time at the expense of the students and teachers that we're there to serve.  Yes, there's a tradeoff, and the trick is to find the right balancing point.

    Finally, I totally agree that teachers (especially technology teachers who are usually the lone rangers at their schools!!) can TREMENDOUSLY benefit through online networking.  When I was teaching CS, nobody at my school ever understood what I was doing, which (although sometimes a benefit :-)  ) was mostly frustrating to me.  I always looked forward to conferences and other opportunities to network with other CS teachers to get ideas and share our joys and frustrations!  

    In fact, tech teachers need a "knowledge community" even more than most teachers, because their world is changing so fast and they all need to keep up!

    Keep up the great work!

    Thanks.

    -- Charley

  • Alfred, thank you for this excellent post. I've sent it to two nearby school district administrators. When I teach after school programming classes in different schools I'm often amazed by the things that are blocked. http://scratch.mit.edu, for instance.

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