I spent two days a week in a middle school a few years ago. I was there primarily to drive Cindy who was recovering from a broken leg and who was not allowed to operate a car. I spent my time hanging around the computer labs and working in the teacher's lounge. Accessing the Internet from the lounge provided some surprises. I soon learned that parts of the Internet I use in my professional work were not available.
One of the greatest frustrations was that Gmail, the free email system from Google, was blocked. I prefer Gmail to my university account because it offers gigabytes of storage for old messages and my university account offers 30 MB. What could possible wrong with Gmail? It turns out that Gmail does not require users to incorporate their actual name into their email addresses. I use my name, but this is not a requirement and this is not a decision made on a case by case basis. This free service with great economic value is blocked because senders do not have to reveal their names.
It would be irresponsible and in some cases illegal for educators to involve their students in the participatory web without careful consideration of some of the possible risks and the institution of the appropriate safe guards. The dilemma we face is how to address the concerns without scaring educators and parents away. This is a difficult position to be in because the hint of danger may be enough to scare many away from what for them are unfamiliar experiences and practices that are optional.
We would not be involved in this project if we felt we were promoting overly dangerous practices. I suppose the logic of our position to encourage teacher and student involvement would be based on:
- the belief that many productive life experiences are connected with some small element of risk,
- the reality that students are often already heavily involved in the participatory web and bringing participatory web activities under the guidance of training professionals can only improve the general well-being of students, and
- the belief that intelligent use of safeguards and practices can reduce the statistically small dangers that do exist.
Let us be clear on what some of these dangers are. When online anyone may encounter:
inappropriate content - the web offers hate sites, pornography, and sites encouraging a wide variety of dangerous and unlawful activities.
physical danger - some are known to locate and then entice individuals into face to face meetings allowing for sexual molestation or other forms of physical violence.
bullying - online services are used in the cyberbullying of students.
identity and financial threats - information shared online may increase the likelihood of identity theft resulting in financial loss.
How should students be protected?
There are several ways to protect students from danger. These methods include:
- policy and education, and
Filtering: Certain actions are required
Schools must meet two of these requirements (filtering and policy) before the school can qualify for e-rate funding. Educators must be aware of the dark side of the Internet and take steps to protect students. Legislation has made this responsibility clear. The Children’s Internet and Protection Act (CIPA) enacted in 2000 requires schools to filter incoming content to block inappropriate material and to monitor the activities of minors to prevent potentially harmful or dangerous behavior.
Filtering makes use of technology to control the flow of information through a central point. A computer with specialized software stands between the Internet and the school network (the local area network - LAN). Depending on the software, this computer can block sites included on a "black list" and/or allow access to sites appearing on a "white list". The software may also screen for dangerous activity and log what sites and services have been accessed by whom.
Legislation does allow educational institutions to unblock specific sites for specific activities. Our experience has been that the spontaneous nature of many activities makes this an impractical solution - modification of protection is a hassle and often not an opportunity afforded the average classroom teacher. Hence, the companies making the decisions about filtering end up controlling what sites and services are available in most classrooms.
Filtering is both not enough and too much
In our opinion, filtering is overemphasized. We say this because filtering:
- cannot block all inappropriate content,
- typically reduces the opportunity to make use of useful content and services, and
- tends to reduce the commitment to prepare students to function in an unfiltered environment (often their homes).
Mandated restrictions and concerns that prompt protective measures do have an impact and these restrictions will often be in conflict with the practices and activities we promote here. For example, a 2007 study commissioned by the National School Boards Association (link to summary pdf) surveyed school district leaders and the data collected offer some insight into the restrictions schools impose:
- 62% prohibit blogging or participating in online discussion boards at school,
- 60% prohibit sending and receiving email in school, and
- 52% prohibit any social networking sites in school.
This same study may indicate attitudes are changing. In addition to findings related to the restrictive approach taken in many schools, the study notes:
- Use of social networking among students is increasing (some data from present study contrasted with 2002) and students make a surprising amount of use to accomplish educational tasks on their own.
- Safety issues and inappropriate experiences associated with social networking do exist, but are lower than many adults assume - especially educational officials.
- Online experience may help students learn to deal with inappropriate experiences.
Policy and Education
Students and often their parents or guardians need to be aware of policies that must apply so that educational use of the participatory web will be allowed. Guidelines sometimes must be created for legal reasons as in the example we provide of the inclusion of guidelines in the ''Code of Student Life'' provided college students where we work. Sometimes having such a document is not sufficient to meet expectations regarding awareness of official policies. Students and in the case of minors parent/guardian may need to sign a form that is retained by the institution to indicate awareness and agreement.
We regard these approaches as meeting only minimal standards and argue that awareness may fall short of the level of understanding necessary for self-regulated behavior. Why not take advantage of any requirement to create and disseminate expectations to also discuss the importance of the expectations for school activities and for other circumstances students may encounter outside of school. The is what we are attempting to promote by connecting ''policy'' and ''education''.
A common approach to organizing expectations is to generate a clear policy statement often described as an acceptable use policy (AUP).