Government funded censorship

I’ve been feeling a bit stressed out at work lately. Since I can’t talk about that, and since it is raining (which always makes me extremely grumpy as you can probably tell from earlier posts), I’m going to complain about my old job instead.

I used to teach and do sys admin work for a small, all-girls, private, boarding school. I loved teaching. I hated being a sys admin. The school and I didn’t always see eye to eye on some very fundamental things having to do with technology. One of those was a certain government grant (that I can’t seem to find right now). It was a couple thousand dollars to be invested in the school’s technology plan. It had a simple application, and was pretty much easy money. There was one catch. You had to install a firewall to block certain sites.

I refused. The government was offering money for censorship. I told the school if we needed the money that bad, take it out of my salary because I would never accept those terms.

Sure enough, as soon as I left, they took the money and put in a firewall. Now the teachers have a password that they can use to get around it, but the kids are blocked from more and more sites every day. This was supposedly meant to protect the kids, but they use it to protect bandwidth. Any time the school decides the kids are spending too much time on a particular site, they block it.

Here are a few of the things that I find wrong with this approach.

1. Censorship.
The last time I checked, I am guaranteed free speech. To me, adding a firewall to a network to restrict access to specific websites is denying my right to free speech. This is similar to banning books from a library. Sure, I don’t want to have a porn collection in my high school library, but I also don’t want someone telling me that I can’t have a copy of Catcher In The Rye. Oh, and if any of those books in the library could possibly be thought of as “fun” and “non-educational”, those have to go too! (My kids would be happy to tell you all about the discussions we had in class about the profound effects the porn industry has had on technology, as well as how the porn industry, like gaming, has been mostly dominated by men and that there is a lot of room for growth producing female-directed porn and games.)

2. Learning.
Many of the websites being blocked are social sites such as Facebook and MySpace. As much as I don’t want the kids wasting their day away twittering to their friends, the school is missing out on a number of learning opportunities.

A. Getting girls excited about technology and programming.
One of the reasons that girls don’t go into computer science is because computers just weren’t all that exciting when I was growing up. Yes, we used them to write papers, but as a whole, we didn’t get into gaming. Games are really the gateway drug of choice for getting guys interested in programming. So what gets girls excited about programming? Social networking. Girls love text chat, voice chat, and video chat. Girls love email and making web pages. Girls love making friends and communicating through Web 2.0 apps like MySpace. All the stuff that the firewall is blocking, I can use to get a girl interested in programming. Get her to start writing css and javascript to make her blog cooler. From there, it isn’t much of a leap of faith to convince her that she can learn how to write her own apps for Facebook. And some of the girls that I can hook on web programming, I can get to dig a little deeper and find an interest in writing native applications. And a few of those I can get excited about writing operating system level code…

It isn’t just programming though. It is using the internet as a creative outlet. Sponsor a blog on which to publish their fiction writing. Suddenly they have comments about their writing styles from people all over the world, not just their English teacher. Have the kids make videos and post them to YouTube. Show their photography skills off on a Flickr site. The more feedback these kids get from outside sources, the more effort and creativity they will expend making their art. You can have meaningful conversations about copyright laws (and try to convince kids to stop stealing music). And other classrooms can use the educational videos you make.

Okay, maybe not that one, but you get the idea.

B. Time management.
A problem with all of these sites like YouTube is that kids will spend hours searching the web for funny pictures and videos when they should be doing their homework. Personally, I’d rather that my kids (students) learn time management skills while they are living under my roof (school) rather than when they get to college. In high school, I have the opportunity to watch them closely, and have a chance to teach them better skills. I don’t want to shelter them from all worldly distractions, then send them off to college where they will be left completely to their own devices. I’d rather that the novelty of the web wear off a bit in high school than be completely new in college. But then again, I think the drinking age should be abolished too.

C. Data management.
Kids have a hard time understanding that everything they put up on the web is in the public domain. What they write in their blogs is fair game to everyone; friends, family, teachers, and stalkers alike. And it is persistent. Google has a hard time forgetting information and likes to give it to anyone who asks for it. Again, I think that this is a teaching opportunity. Be proactive rather that reactive. Instead of pretending that the kids aren’t posting on the internet and get angry when you find out what they have done, have open and honest discussions about what kinds of things that they should and shouldn’t be posting. Have a night where everyone in the group tries to find out personal information about other people in school and talk about what kinds of people may be doing these same kinds of searches. Show the kids how to use privacy settings properly. Talk about the realities of chat rooms. One of my favorite video’s to show is The Parlor.

I wanted to rip the world wide open. Use the internet to our advantage to learn and create and explore. Let disruptive technologies influence how we teach. As teachers, we might just be able to learn if we are willing to change.

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