Sunday, January 29, 2006

the school administrators dilemma

In May 2005 the then Director of South Australian government school education, Steve Marshall, quoted Alan Kay:
"the best way to predict the future is to create it"

... with the release of the Department's Statement of Directions, 2005-2010 we have chosen to embrace similar sentiments.
On the one hand education departments are calling for innovation, change, creating the future, constructivism, more emphasis on engagement with less emphasis on content. On the other hand they are blocking one of the most important sources of the creativity (the read / write web) that they profess to crave for. Does the left hand understand what the right hand is doing? Probably not. It's far more likely that the "progressive theorists" are talking on a different wavelength to the hardnose technocrats. In short, the system is failing us.

There is a problem, but indiscriminate blocking of the internet is not the solution. Education Department administrators need to be more creative and flexible in finding solutions to real problems.

It is true that not all teachers are internet savvy. It is true that not all teachers supervise what their students are doing closely when in computer rooms. It is true that some students know more about computers than some teachers and are doing all sorts of off task and perhaps offensive searches in the computer rooms. These might be issues that the education profession does not want to talk about, but nevertheless, they are true statements.

These are real problems.

The South Australian education department has responded to these problems by imposing filtering software (N2H2 / Bess) that allows for no differentiation between teachers and students, no differentiation between primary, secondary and senior colleges and no differentiation between experienced web savvy IT teachers and teachers who are computer reticent or phobic. These settings cannot be altered. Whatever is blocked is blocked for everybody. Whatever is allowed is allowed for everybody.

Although web sites and groups of sites can be unblocked and blocked at individual campuses the problem remains that there is no differentiation on the above settings allowed within a site and this inflexibility creates huge problems.

Within each campus experienced and knowledgeable IT teachers who do know how to manage their classes searching the web are being treated exactly the same as the students on that campus.

This is an inflexible solution that in solving one problem - stop kids from finding porn on the net - creates another one - stop web savvy teachers who want to innovate and educate using some of the latest, most cutting edge web applications from doing so. It blocks and discourages creative innovation in schools.

It also puts school administrations into a difficult situation. What are they supposed to do when something goes wrong and the teacher involved has been neglectful in some way? If the blocking software was more flexible one possibility would be to permit broader internet access for teachers who are more web savvy. Less confident teachers might also welcome this option to help with a difficult management problem while they improve on their skills. However, rather than a human mediated resolution the software "solves" the problem of trust by trusting no one. School administrations may trust certain teachers to manage the situation but the software does not allow that. The "one size fits all" software takes the power out of the hands of local school administrations. So the simplest solution is to block everything that might be dangerous. Never mind if there are 99 wholesome searches of google images, the one sordid search will determine policy. Where is the trust in our educational professionals: the innovative classroom teachers and forward thinking administrators?

We also have a background environment of fear, where some groups are gearing up to pounce and sue a school when a child is exposed to porn, to create an "example" for others.

Put all this together and we have an educational disaster on our hands. In a fast changing world to delay the future is to disadvantage our students and frustrate our innovative teachers.

Web applications which require ability to write to the web are not the next big thing, they are the current new big thing. Unfortunately, those in the hierarchy who are doing this to us may not understand it. The technocrats may not understand the enormous educational potential. The constructivists may not understand the full implications of modern technology. At the very time when blogs, podcasts, photo sharing and many other web applications are coming on line the education department decides to "play safe" and block the lot. Teachers cannot even explore blogs at school. They have to do that in their own time at home. Encouragement for innovation? Forget it.

An indiscriminate piece of software is telling IT savvy teachers what they can and can't teach, even though they are quite capable of managing these issues successfully.

Since the software is not meeting the real educational needs the only satisfactory immediate option that I can envisage is to change the software.


Blogger Jason Plunkett said...

The other issue that has been created by using the filtering software is that those same problems that you mention now get bigger. Those non-internet savvy teachers now rely on the filter to supervise their students for them.
To the extent that when an inappropriate site has been accessed (and there are plenty that are not filtered) they blame the filters. "Why didn't the filter stop them?"
The system that is in place creates a false sense of security and encourages some less savvy teachers to rely on the filters. As such we are putting out students at a higher risk than before.
The most effective solution to keeping students safe is proper education of the risks and proper supervision.
Don’t get me wrong, filtering is needed to some extent, but the current system is failing us from the fact teachers can not find what they need and students don’t develop safe searching skills.

7:01 AM  
Blogger Leigh Blackall said...

8:07 AM  
Anonymous Graham Wegner said...

Bill, you sum the situation here perfectly. Maybe our next step is to track down all the contradictory policies that our system uses as its blueprint for the future, and see whether they hold water in a Web 2.0 world. You, I and others suspect they don't so in this age of accountability it may be time for the decision makers to show us how we achieve their vision of the future of global learning when our technological hands are tied behind our back. I'll try to find some of the dept's e-learning and ICT policies and see what they say and post to the nonscolae discussion group.

2:55 PM  
Blogger Bill Kerr said...

perceptive observation, jason, if I do a rewrite as some stage then I'd like to include the point you make

thanks for the plug, leigh

graham, see if you can get your hands on this document: "DECS Strategic Plan for Learning Technologies 2005-2008". It does indeed contain vision statements that are undermined by the N2H2 filter.

3:20 PM  
Anonymous Darren Kuropatwa said...

Bill, you've articulated the issues beautifully. This is simply an outstanding post. I'm glad you've mirrored it to I'm sending more and more people there all the time to find exactly the kind of perspectives you've shared here. As they say in French, chapeau. ;-)

5:12 PM  
Blogger Bill Kerr said...

The generous comments from Darren and Leigh (who both provided feedback to an earlier draft) remind me that I should have acknowledged that a few fellow bloggers provided very valuable feedback to a pretty rough earlier draft of my article - Leigh, Josie, Darren and Al. This helped me to pause and think the issues through more clearly. It is hard work redrafting but made easier by the thoughtful and constructive criticisms that they provided.

8:27 PM  
Blogger Blue said...


As an internet savvy parent, I applaud you! My son has been incredibly frustrated by the amount of research he has had to do at home due to the filters at school. He is now in year 6 - last year he was doing a project on Ghengis Khan - he couldn't find very much - because all the accurate history sites mention 'rape' - a filtered topic. His teacher had no idea & simply suggested he do another topic.

I would like to see more education for teachers in this area, but also some internet savvy skills for the students. Critical literacy if you will. Teach them that just because information is on the internet doesn't mean it is accurate. Teach them to assess the information and its sources. I suspect there are teachers (esp junior primary) who would benefit from this also. If kids are taught to question what they learn - regardless of the source - then they will be less susceptible to some of the *dangers* presented by the anonimity of the medium. Removing fear of the unknown will go a long way to enlightnment.

9:46 PM  
Anonymous John Hackett said...

A very interesting post which has just come to my attention. I agree with much of it and, in particular, I agree that blogging and other such tools are (a) here to stay and (b) should for a central part of modern education and learning. But (isn't there always one around somewhere!) filtering is essential for both the protection of the unwary and prevention of the malicious (I'm being very general here but I'm sure you get the general drift).

It seems to me that the main problem raised in the post is that the filtering system being installed is the same for both staff and all students. Frankly this is absurd but not uncommon on commercial systems.

I am working with an RBC in England (we are a consortium of educational authorities supplying internet connectivity and service to all the schools in the region) and recently we have developed and rolled out a filtering system based on DansGuardian where we have four profiles tailored to different age ranges (including a staff one) which has both content and URL filtering. We - and our users - have found this much better than any of the commercial systems. Soon schools themsevles will be able to buy a local cache/filtering server to modify their local policy while still taking advantage of the regional services.

We are also looking at providing blogging and other services ourselves to we can track back to the user if there is any abuse - which is the main problem with the public systems (like blogger).

11:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

3:35 AM  
Anonymous Peter said...

Well said Bill, I’m quite certain I could not have said it without getting your page added to the filters
Educonnect or 'edu-con' as we like to call it, represents allot of extra work for no extra benefit, it does not scale to a large school at all and what it offers was being done better in-house before hand. If you think the filtering is bad try managing their email system with well over 1000 users. Here's a new motto for them 'Predicting the future by making the future predicable' or perhaps more simply 'Zero flexibility'

2:31 PM  
Anonymous Artichoke said...

Ahh Bill, this is a fabulous exploration of the issues that matter most - your comments on the artichoke wiki on "knowledge building" are the catalyst for so much new thinking for me - I find myself quite feverish with new ideas - and as a consequence - incapable of blogging. I love being undermined by ideas - just love it

4:09 PM  

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