Sunday, 1 February 2009

Knowledge is Power, Educate to Protect

Alright, my last couple blog entries have been entirely too serious, too long and too dry!! I promise to make a concerted effort to lighten up! This weeks issue was that of filters used by school divisions/districts that “protect our students” (note the quotation marks; I’ll come back to that ludicrous idea in a moment). Hmmm how to lighten the mood on this topic? Let’s start by suggesting that all school divisions banish their filter for one week (as an experiment, say) and wait for the response. Wait, wait, can you hear them? All those conservatives who “run” the school boards? All those non-educators who make important decisions affecting teachers and students? Wait, wait, they’re all laughing! They think I just made a funny joke. How will we ever be able to control (Uh . . . I mean protect) our children if there are no filters? I know, I’m so silly!

If you haven’t already figured out what my stance is on this topic, let me just lay it all out for you: filters do not protect students, they protect administrators and divisions from appearing lax, from liability, from angry parents and from reality (as evidenced in the article “Web 2.0 The Virtual Wild Wild West” where Don Hail recommends “Ensure your teachers understand that Web resources used inside the district are filtered, and alert them to use caution when recommending them for student use outside the classroom” as a way to avoid educators receiving “calls from some irate parents who are unaware of the need for filtering systems.” This is scary for two reasons 1) why are the sites different at school and at home, what is the use of using them then and is this not an argument for removing filters and 2) he is making a judgement assuming that all parents should use filters, but don’t know any better. I find this highly condescending!)

Filters only teach children that 1) we don’t trust their judgement 2) they are incapable of being responsible 3) if you want something and you can’t get it, cheat (re: finding proxy servers to get the blocked info they seek) oh and 4) that someone or something will always be there the “protect” them (when they should be learning the world can be a scary place and they need to be careful, illusions of safety are more dangerous than an accidental viewing of a sexually explicit site in my opinion).

In “I’m Mad and I’m Not Gonna Take It Anymore!” Mary Ann Bell cites the Pew Study form 2002 called , “The Digital Disconnect: the widening gap between Internet-savvy students and their schools” where it shows that students are “frustrated and disgusted by the lack of internet access and consciousness on the part of their teachers.” I believe this frustration comes from the fact that they feel they can handle what’s out their but we (as in school divisions) don’t give them the chance. Just this past week at my school, I overheard a student call our school a “welfare school” when he was frustrated by Bess (our filter) and later that week a colleague lamented in the staff room about how a student researching Canada couldn’t search for the words “topography” or “photography” because the filter said they were words associated with “pornography”! So are all words ending in “-graphy” considered pornographic? How ridiculous is that! No wonder that student called our school a “welfare school.” (I did pull the student aside and explain to him that we were one of the schools in the division that had more technology, and that his frustrations were in fact due to the filter, at which point he said “oh, that means I can get to what I need, I’ll just use a proxy!” Yes we are now at the point where students are
blatant and obvious about their use of proxies, because even the teachers cannot access what they need and have on occasion asked a student to show them how to get to it, mostly because their entire lesson hinged on what they thought was a relatively innocent site. But I digress . . . .)

I have taught middle years students for 8 years and I have found that people underestimate adolescents. They are capable of much more than many people give them credit for. They can be articulate, responsible, trustworthy, and quite knowledgeable about what’s already out their on the “evil” net. They are also not crazed sex fiends searching out bomb making sites and trying to corrupt their peers through inappropriate sites. Most of the kids I’ve taught are normal decent kids who would benefit from some actual instruction in internet safety and Cyberbullying, evaluating websites, deciphering fact from opinion from lies, intellectual property rights (copyright and copy left), and citation rules and reasons.

Of all the articles I read this week, one line from “What Are We Protecting Them From?” by Matt Villano, struck me “Schools are spending millions and millions of dollars for technical solutions to comply with CIPA [in the US] . . . but our students can easily get around just about everything we throw at them.” He then goes on to say that “many K-12 expert say the best solution long-term is shifting the emphasis from policing . . . to educating . . .” HERE HERE!! That shift is hard for administrators to make though, especially with articles like “Patrolling Web 2.0” by Robert Losinsky where social networking sites are vilified and the fear mongering is perpetuated. Losinsky then proceeds to advocate for better “more improved” filters that filter out proxy servers as well as all the other “evil” social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace (GASP!). He only discusses education in a small paragraph at the very end. One has to wonder which of these types of articles the school board members read more of.

Even more pertinent than money being wasted, is the fact that filters interfere with delivery of curriculum (as seen above with the “topography” example). Oh, let’s talk about curriculum for a minute. In Manitoba we have a Literacy with ICT document, which is mandatory to implement and assessment of these outcomes is being included in the development of my school division’s “new” middle years reporting system. But there have been NO changes to staff, NO changes to programming and NO changes to time allotments to accommodate these mandatory outcomes and the fact that we must now assess them. So no one is specifically teaching and targeting these outcomes, there has been no real effort to create “classes” or programming to facilitate the teaching of these outcomes and so the classroom teachers are left to be the ones to implement and assess these outcomes. They are trying to cram an already heavy workload with just more stuff. But which “subject” does it fall under? Which teachers are actually covering the outcomes? Do they even know how to do some of the things required by the outcomes? Why isn’t there an accompanying document with suggestions for instruction like all the rest of our curricula?

After all the discussion this week and my thoughts on the issue laid out above, I’m left thinking about Joanne’s comments about intellectual freedom and who is going to ensure students and teachers have these rights. What is the role of the teacher-librarian in all this? And Rhonda’s question “If teacher-librarians are responsible for advocating for the higher ideal of intellectual freedom, are they also responsible for teaching the safe and responsible use of online resources?"

To these I say yes, Yes, YES, it should fall to the Teacher-Librarian! If I were a Teacher-Librarian in my school division, I would strongly advocate for the development of a program that provided students with the necessary know how to use the internet safely, without the use of a filter, included all the applicable Literacy with ICT outcomes and lessened the load on the teachers by providing time to work with the Teacher-Librarian to plan the program’s implementation across ALL subject areas. I would also work hard to create a comprehensive AUP for students, parents and teachers that was more in line with the recommendations from the Media Awareness Network.

I’m also left thinking about my own children. As they grow up, I would much rather they have the knowledge and confidence to deal with what’s out there, the ethical base to know what’s right and what’s wrong and the right to access it if they so chose, than shelter them and “protect” them by giving them a false sense of safety, and a limited view of the world. My basic instinct IS to protect, and I feel the best way to do this is to EDUCATE. After all Knowledge is Power.

Christine :)

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