The thin red line….

We walk a fine line in our schools today.

To block or not to block, that is the question.

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outraged parents,
Or to take arms against a sea of misinformation
And, by unblocking, free them.

OK. My apologies to William Shakespeare, who’s probably rolling over in his grave right now!

But the issue of blocking vs unblocking is a vexed one in schools. At my school, we are trying to be as open as possible. We want our students to learn how to navigate the Web responsibly. For many of them, there are no filters when they use the net at home. I think I’m right in saying that the philosophy we’ve adopted is that school should be a place where students can make the most of the resources the Web offers, with the help of responsible adults guiding them in their learning.

I’ve said it many times before, but it’s worth repeating. Sites like YouTube are at the core of my teaching now; I really don’t know how I’d function without them. I was speaking with a public school teacher today who was telling me how the Department blocks this wonderful site. It bothers me greatly that my counterparts in the public system are forced to download videos at home if they want to use them. Some of my best teaching over the past year has sprung from moments when we’ve been able to jump into sites like YouTube to enhance discussion and extend our thinking. Because we have a 20mg pipe, the videos load quickly and we are streaming just as quickly as our ideas are forming.

But sometimes, you just have to block. Sites like Omegle and ChatRoulette, where you are encouraged to talk to strangers, are just not appropriate in any school setting. ChatRoulette has upped the ante, using WebCams as the basis of their communication. I found out about ChatRoulette via Twitter last week, and immediately notified our Network Administrator to put a block on it. I was surprised this morning to see The Today Show, here in Australia, feature it as the site for discussion for their technology segment. Their pitch was that they were helping parents out there, and to some extent they were. But they were also giving national exposure to a site that may not have hit some teen’s radars yet. Plenty of families would have had television sets on this morning, and if the teenagers today are anything like I was when I was young, a segment like that would have been the Pandora’s Box I just had to open. I know, it’s probably spreading like wildfire through sites like Facebook and Myspace and old media like television is probably not where the kids are. But still, I wonder where the thinking comes from sometimes with the media; do they want to fire up a debate for ratings purposes or genuinely help out the unsuspecting public?

Danah Boyd has written an interesting post about ChatRoulette. I’d encourage you to read it to gain her perspective. She makes this interesting observation;

What I like most about the site is the fact that there’s only so much you can hide. This isn’t a place where police officers can pretend to be teen girls. This isn’t a place where you feel forced to stick around; you can move on and no one will know the difference. If someone doesn’t strike your fancy, move on. And on. And on.

The problem as I see it, is that our young people are not always blessed with enough maturity to make wise decisions like ‘move on’, particularly if they are with their peers while engaging with a site like this. The thin red line that is our ability to block is a defence needed in schools for sites that put our young people in situations that many do not have the maturity to handle.

11 Comments

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11 responses to “The thin red line….

  1. Tsbray

    As difficult as it maybe, we need to teach & train young people to use the Internet responsiblily. It isn’t easy, but it is the only solution.

  2. Pingback: Suggested Reading for 02/25/2010 | Clif's Notes

  3. While I appreciate your concerns and aren’t questioning your reaction, I do think that our whole attitude towards “strangers” is misguided. We immediately associate strangers with something negative which continues to foster the belief that the unknown is inherently bad. I’m not suggesting that sites like chatroulette are good but merely microcosms of the internet and indeed the world in general, some good, some bad.

    Again, I can see why schools would choose to block the site but I would be careful in how it’s characterized.

    • jennylu

      I agree with you Dean. It’s the strangers I’ve met online who’ve become some of my friends and colleagues. It was the strangers I met in real life in New York recently who helped me negotiate the subway and find my way around the city streets. We all need to function in society and reach out to find human contact, but I think we need to help our students understand that there are safe and ethical ways of negotiating their way around the net. The parents in our schools expect nothing less from us. Personally, I feel uncomfortable about a site like ChatRoulette. I go with my gut – if it doesn’t feel right, I don’t do it. Being a parent of a 13 yr old, it doesn’t feel right to let a site like that go unchecked in a school setting.

  4. I suppose it’s the intent that’s worrisome. Just like I wouldn’t let my 13 year old wonder the streets seeking out strangers, I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing so in this space. So that’s why I don’t disagree with your decision but just suggesting how you characterize “strangers” is important.

    • jennylu

      I agree with you re the characterisation of strangers. This is part of the teaching we need to do; it’s part of the new skill set our students need to learn. In face to face exchanges, we are using many cues, both visual and auditory, to assess a person and their character. The new skill set is learning how to do the same thing, but in online environments.

  5. Thankyou for a very interesting post, Jenny. Incidentally, I think Shakespeare would have a chuckle at your mashup of his famous soliloquy. And thankyou for a very interesting conversation in the commenting section. Whatever you do with regard to blocking or not, discussion of issues and concerns is the best way to go. Challenging and defining our views with others can only broaden perspectives and define beliefs.

  6. It certainly is a fine line. Some sites that were okay yesterday are not okay today. A note that re public schools, in Victoria at least, to my knowledge it is not the Department of Education blocking sites, but ISPs or even the school’s own IT technicians.

  7. johnp

    Hi Jenny,

    I’m with you on educating our students to be responsible and ethical when on the web. We can’t sit on the shoulders of our children every moment of the day. It’s for those moments when we’re not around that we need to prepare our students so they don’t have to rely on us to provide the rationale for decision making. Certainly some students will make decisions we would rather they didn’t make but therein lie precious authentic learning and teaching moments. The trust that’s required to fit this model, both that vested in the child and arguably the harder one, the trust by the adult that they can cope with problems arising from poor decisions made by children are tricky but I think ultimately have the biggest payoff.

    BTW it’s my understanding that YouTube isn’t blocked by DEECD but rather it is an ISP and/or local school based decision.

    re Chatroullete, (Dana’s opinion aside),I’ve posted a couple of posts now on this little beauty :). FYI, the posts can be found at http://johnp.wordpress.com/2010/02/17/chatroulette-a-spin-not-worth-taking/ and http://johnp.wordpress.com/2010/02/25/more-tiny-chat-and-roulette/

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