Mr. Administrator, Tear Down This Firewall!

I just read a fascinating discussion about the demands for, and challenges of, enabling more diverse Internet access in the classroom.  Click on  the title below to read the online chat excerpts in the article.  I placed a few excerpts below as teasers.

Mr. Administrator, Tear Down This Firewall!

By John Norton

The issue of school systems controlling access to the Internet—and teachers complaining about it—is not new. Firewalls and content filters have irritated tech-savvy educators since the early days of blogs, wikis and streaming video. And those same virtual barriers have been defended by safety-sensitive IT directors and ever-cautious school attorneys since the first MySpace page pranked a teacher or revealed far too much about a student.

But two factors seem to be ratcheting up teachers’ long-standing pleas to ease restrictions on internet use in classrooms and computer labs: (1) increasingly, business and higher education leaders are asking why students aren’t better prepared to create and collaborate using online tools; and (2) more schools and districts are beginning to loosen internet restrictions, prompting other educators to ask: “If they can do it, why can’t we?”

Hoping to move the debate along, members of the Teacher Leaders Network recently had a very frank discussion of the topic in our 24/7/365 private chat room. Here’s a sample of what we had to say. (To honor our TLN confidentiality agreement, I’ve only used first names here.)

Our discussion began with a post by June, who used this attention-getting subject line: “School Firewalls—ARGHHHHH!”

OK, I’m going to take deep breaths and count to ten.

I’m involved in writing some STEM curriculum for middle schoolers with an engineering focus. Not surprisingly, the engineering design process includes “Communication” as one of its stages. Makes perfect sense. Engineers need to communicate.

The communications piece—developed with the help of teachers, doctors and engineers—includes plans for kids to stay in contact with experts via Skype and wikis. (Each STEM module is a week long and math and science classes work collaboratively to solve the challenge.)

But you can’t imagine how difficult it is to get a simple wiki or Skype call past the school system’s firewalls. Online experiences for kids are really limited. I agree that there are websites that kids should not be allowed to access. However, kids are going to be on a par with students from third-world countries with regard to technology if we keep on like this. We should be helping students learn the technology tools of their workforce, and teaching them how to use them appropriately and responsibly.

Is this “technology desert” an anomaly, or do any of you have this same experience?

Heather, a secondary English teacher, finds firewalls “just ridiculous.”

It is ludicrous to block certain sites from our use as teachers. Every year I use Taylor Mali’s slam poem, “Totally, Like, Whatever, You Know” for my Speech and English classes. It’s on YouTube and I have to beg the password every year.

I managed to get Twitter unblocked after I explained we could use it to communicate real time with other classes in the district to help send out encouragements and tips during our standardized test prep. I have also used it to communicate with a student “Twitter captain” in my classes, while I was out at a conference. To get it unblocked, I had to think ahead, pitching the idea to my Board of Ed, writing a letter of curriculum usage intent, and then when that was approved, getting on IT daily to actually make it happen.

I understand people’s trepidation about some of the social networking sites, but I’m not sure what’s gained by shutting down reality from our schools. After all, we can’t assess whether students are learning Internet literacy or responsibility if we don’t give them access to the pool to swim in. We also can’t expect students to think of school as a part of real life if we continue to create such big differences between the two.

So what we do now is say, “I know you can’t go watch that award-winning speech while we’re here at school, but when you get home, go on YouTube and watch it there.” Is this teaching them how to make wise decisions or protecting them? No. Is this offering one more reason why school is not applicable to real life? Yes.

Patrick, a technology teacher working on a doctorate in administration, took a different view.

I agree with many teachers’ concerns, but it’s also important to understand the other perspective. Schools are responsible for students “door to door” (from home to school, and back home) and for any school-sponsored activity, especially on school computers.

Think about any visitor entering a school building: they sign in, etc. Employees go through a criminal background check. Every field trip requires forms and waivers. Schools are responsible for student safety, so we play it safe. When you are an administrator, you don’t think about the 99% things going right, you think about the possible 1% that could go wrong.

Real example: A student is using the library computers during lunch. She is on a web-based chat with an adult (we don’t know who) from another state. She is supposed to be doing school work, but his activity is not school related. She has been taught Internet safety but she is not following directions. She’s opened an unauthorized browser window and she’s being a kid. What if that adult is someone who has “other” intentions or is a predator? If she is on a school computer, we are responsible.

If you are an admin or the tech person, you don’t take chances. Yes, you could say it’s the system’s responsibility to teach safety, and we do that in district-controlled software and closed social environments. But, just like we don’t let anyone in our school and trust that our students will do the right things with unmonitored strangers, we have to be careful about outside Internet contact.

And teachers? They are a funny bunch. Fantasy football during the school day. Watching the World Cup online during classes. Watching shows on their networks. Contracting Facebook viruses on work computers. Coming up with all sorts of strange toolbars they are not suppose to download and install. Yes, they are supposed to be using work computers for work, but…..

We have found viruses that some teachers inadvertently downloaded that install porn on their computer. If it wasn’t for smart tech people, what do you think would happen to such a teacher as they tried to explain why they didn’t really download porn on that computer? Firewalls protect schools, students, and teachers — just as we control public access of real people in our real buildings.

About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Secondary math teacher teaching math intervention, algebra 1, honors precalculus, and AP Calculus AB. I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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