by David Colarusso - January 29th, 2007
Schools should not by default restrict access to “potentially” inappropriate web content for secondary students. They should monitor usage and crack down upon those violating school policy, limiting and revoking their usage, and saving the innocent from undue intellectual censorship. Play is essential to learning, and should schools limit access to emerging technology out of hand, they risk chilling educational innovation as well as their students’ personal and academic growth.
Earlier this month I announced an educational video competition on YouTube—the First Annual Phylm Prize. My goal is to to help promote the educational use of new-media and spur student interest in physics. As an incentive I am putting up a $100 prize for the best entry. Hopefully this contest will spark discussion among educators and students surrounding the constructive use of social networking/video sharing sites. Such a conversation is necessary because the knee jerk reaction of many has been the wholesale blocking of these sites.
In addition to the competition, I have also compiled an Internet-Video Collection featuring my favorite educational demonstrations and discussion starters, many from YouTube. I’ve used these to illustrate concepts in my classroom, and I’ve even been inspired to share student work online. This had been thanks in large part to my ability to access YouTube at work, and it was my hope to share these success stories with fellow educators.
Unfortunately, last Friday my high school decided to block access to YouTube. Thursday afternoon, I was using a video to supplement my lesson on interference patters, and now it’s hand-drawn non-moving scribbles… I liked those slick computer graphics. They were just so good at getting the point across.
I emailed our local tech contact and asked to whom I should complain, and apparently they’re just blanket blocking at this point, an artifact of refresh. In the next few days they will look into setting up groups with time-dependent access. So my higher physics class will be able to access YouTube during class time. This, however, misses the point. It requires that people know what they’re going to do beforehand, eliminating play and innovation.
So while I’m waiting for this incremental improvement, I shall attempt to codify my views on firewall and network policy in the hope that someday they’ll listen. Here’s the first go.
School-Based Firewall/Network Guidelines (rough draft)
- Don’t trust people on the other side of your firewall. This is the defensible rational for firewalls. You want to keep your computers’ contents as safe as possible. Don’t let outsiders in.
- Trust people on your side of the firewall, this includes teachers AND students. Firewalls should not be used for preemptive censorship. Leave them open to possible misuse and clamp down only on actual misuse. If you don’t, you risk chilling innovation and growth. Mine traffic for questionable use, investigate, and impose consequences. Blocking blindly by default is like shooting first and asking questions later.
- Allow users to choose their own passwords. Require they meet a standard form (no dictionary words, must have a number, etc.) and that they be changed periodically. Giving users “randomly” generated passwords that they cannot edit almost guarantees they will be written down–short circuiting the rational behind random (hard to guess) passwords.
- Allow users to view their spam folder. On several occasions student assignments have not made it past my spam filter. Despite direction to the contrary, students like to send assignments as email attachments without subject lines.
- Maintain a Local Status & Maintenance Blog. Users should have a way to know if their concerns are being addressed. Additionally, if I know something has been reported, I won’t waste the tech staff’s time reporting it again. Too often there is no communication between tech and users in school settings. This results in tons of redundant request, and feeds the feeling by users that no one is listening.
Let’s be clear, young students should have narrow access to the web, and sites for which there is no conceivable educational use should be blocked. However, for instructors and older students this should apply to sites only not keywords. I should not run into obstacles when looking for educational “games” simply because “games” is a restricted keyword. Teachers and older students need the freedom to explore. The educational materials I derived from YouTube were serendipitous. I had no idea they would come to pass when I first visited the site. Innovation by definition involves exploration of the unknown, and we should not bind our students by our lack of imagination.
We should also consider how best to spend our time and limited social capital with students as this is a fight we are destined lose. It is the same fight being waged against the Great Firewall of China, and a clever student need only set up a Psiphon server, and presto, they’re through and we’ve lost all ability to track them. We need to craft effective and sensible policies which do not alienate the innocent and curious. These polices should encourage an environment and promote conduct which replaces school censorship with personal responsibility. After all, this is a war of ideas, and such is the bussiness of education.
General Observations, Society At Large, Technology in Education