Thursday, November 5, 2009

Would You Please Un-block?

The argument for controlling and censoring web content in schools goes something like this: we need to keep students safe; we need to keep predators out of our system; we need to keep students on task; we need to limit distractions. We need to limit students's access to sites on the web in order to protect them from pornographic or other inappropriate content. We need to control what our people can and can not do on the Internet from schools.

Why? Why not teach students (and teachers for that matter) what is appropriate? Why not teach folks how to be good digital citizens? I want students to feel empowered to learn, electrified by ideas, and enabled to succeed. I can't foster those creative and capable habits of mind if students are stuck in the web sandbox.

Today, I'm at the district headquarters learning about Moodle and am reminded of Dean Shareski's post, "Control is a Worthless Pursuit." He also wrote about filtering here. Like Shareski, I am not averse to district tools. I enjoy using them and am grateful for them. However, in my--probably adolescent mind--I feel a disconnect between what happens at the district, or what's allowed, and what happens at schools or what is allowed in our schools. There is a"do as I say not as I do" at work here. That whole "do as I say thing" vexed the teenaged me.

My thinking began with a discussion about messaging within the Moodle system.

A teacher asked, "Can students send messages to each other?"

The facilitator, who is all for giving students free reign inside the Moodle system, answered, "Well, I'm going to say that we sure wouldn't be working in a collaboratative environment if we could not send messages to each other." He continued with the idea that kid's messaging each other while on a Moodle site is a managment problem, not a system or a Moodle problem. He will not block students or block the messaging function.

Yes! One for the students.

Interesting. Why? Because the district is controlling when it comes to blocking and filtering out-of-system sites at schools. Outside of Moodle, students cannot access email at school-- personal email accounts; there are currently no district wide email accounts for students even though we have access and approval for two systems (ePals and Gaggle). Outside of Moodle, discussions or chats or blogging is discouraged: flat out blocked at school sites.

Within, Moodle, however, teachers can create online course content using Moodle which is approved by our district for use with students. We can email within the Moodle system. We can message within the system. It's as if the district must always be in control of the web environment in which students work. As a parent of an 8 year old, I can see the benefits of that, but as a 21st century learner, I resent it.

At the district, however, it seems that you can access anything. I can access all of my Nings, my blogs, twitter and who knows, I may even be able to dip into Facebook from here (I can. I checked.). Should I? If it's not instructionally relevant, no, I shouldn't. But should I be allowed to collaborate via the web with other educators? How can a district that pushes collaboration bind teachers to building-only resources? I learn a lot from my PLN--after hours, of course, when I should be grading papers.

Why can't I do some of these things from school? Any url with blog in the address is blocked. Twitter is blocked. Nings are blocked. Blocked, blocked, blocked. Firewalls are high and mighty in our schools.

There's a disconnect between what is available and allowed for administrators and what is available and allowed for teachers and students. Why? Is it that way everywhere?

Sometimes I wish I had the problem Bud Hunt wrote about in his post, "Would You Please Block This?" Instead of asking for sites to be blocked, it seems teachers in my district are asking for sites to be un-blocked.

I teach in the 12th largest school district in the nation. We have more than 5,000 teachers. One, unfortunate soul gets all of the "please un-block" emails. I've heard they are deleted as they arrive. We don't even get a canned response for our un-block requests, but that's another issue isn't it?

I want to empower students and teachers to learn. Everyone learns. What are we learning now? How can we empower learners when we keep them contained? What do you think about this issue? What happens in your district?

Image credit: Badjonni. "Neutron Man Presents."