Participants or Spectators?

Last week, I spent my time presenting workshops at the Idaho Summer Institute of Best Practices (two days in Idaho Falls and two days in Wendell). At each of the venues, Superintendent Tom Luna from the Idaho State Department of Education stopped by during lunch to briefly address the audience. During his remarks, he highlighted Phase I of the Idaho Education Network, a program ultimately designed to assure high-bandwidth connectivity and fully-equipped, distance learning classrooms for schools, even in rural areas. He repeatedly commented on the need to bring the “virtual world these kids live in” into the schools. He gave several examples of how today’s students do things differently than “we” do — things like using digital means to locate a phone number instead of a paper phone book or taking guitar lessons whenever one wants via the internet instead of being locked into a scheduled time with a real person. He was very plain that schools must take advantage of social media tools to engage students. Does he realize that most of his schools currently block most social media tools?

As an “after-session,” I presented an overview of many Web 2.0 tools that teachers could use to engage students (blogs, wikis, podcasts, etc.) and strengthen their own professional growth (Twitter, diigo, delicious, ning, etc.). A district technology coordinator attended and commented on how many of the tools are blocked for both teachers and students.

I applaud Idaho’s efforts to assure connectivity throughout the state, but it brings to mind a slightly modified version of a line from Field of Dreams — “Build it and [they] will come.” In this case, “building” isn’t enough; “they” are already coming but are not allowed to play.  I hope the Idaho planners of this initiative realize schools need participants, not spectators. I hope they don’t install the infrastructure then realize nobody can access it.

An incredible (and ever-increasing) array of Web 2.0 tools already exists that can enhance student learning in so many ways. People are flocking to use these tools — right up to the school door. Due to the many restrictive policies in too many school districts, our students cannot even be spectators, let alone participants, during school hours. I understand we have to consider privacy, safety and security. But don’t we have to consider those issues outside school, too? How are these same students managing in the wild, wild, wi-fi world outside school? Certainly, students need to learn to manage digital content and their online presence. It would be easier to teach them if schools could access more of the content students access outside school.

Recently, a Twitter colleague posed the following question: “If Govt applied EDU policies and banned and filtered for the abuses of some, would we still have credit cards or mortgages?” (@tomwhitby) It’s worth thinking about. Ultimately, there is an element of risk in everything we do in every area of life. Sometimes, the benefits outweigh the risks. And now I’m feeling a little Reagan-ish — “Tear down this wall!”

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2 Comments on “Participants or Spectators?”

  1. Paul Bogush Says:

    I can only imagine what it would be like if a person with one iota of education experience ran the filters…

    Here’s a post I wrote about our filter last year:
    http://blogush.edublogs.org/2008/12/07/no-bikinis-at-my-school/

  2. Shery Kearney Says:

    So much of what I want to use in my classroom is blocked that I didn’t take my classes to the computer lab one day second semester. However, there were days we would hide from the tech gestapo, huddled in corners with iPhones watching blocked videos created by young filmmakers that were exactly on point for the literary device or work we were discussing. My students enjoyed the rebellion and felt like we were part of Les Miserables or A Tale of Two Cities fighting the oppression of rules clearly designed for the best interests of the organization not its people.


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