Saturday, November 12, 2005

The Fear of Transparency

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As my classes receive more recognition for the excellent work they are doing on our blogs I find myself more and more often in the position of "blog advocate," or, as Will would say, "blogvangelist."

Whenever I suggest that students, teachers, administrators and superintendents should all have their own blog I'm invariably met with the objection that blogging is too public. Exposing students to blogs and blogging exposes them to porn, violence, and sexual predators on the net. Administrators and superintendents who blog couldn't possibly allow unmoderated commenting because some people would leave vicious and virulent comments -- we have to protect our students and ourselves.

Bud has been thinking about this for a while now in the context of school districts blocking access to websites. He and Miguel have been dialoguing about it.

Will commented on Bud's blog:

We cannot protect our children all the time in every way. We can, however, teach our children to help protect themselves. That's not happening in this instance.

Miguel responds:

The statement that we cannot protect children all the time in every way is a straw man. The truth is, we are obligated to protect our children as much as possible within our power to do so. We can also teach them to help protect themselves. They are not mutually exclusive points as implied in the comment.

In Miguel's podcast he says:

MySpace.com, as a whole, is not an appropriate resource; it is not an appropriate venue or meeting place. It's like saying; "Let's go down to the local bar where you can meet new friends and other people. You can meet other teenagers there." Would you rather your kid went to the bar to meet people or to a church? ...... It's the idea that schools would sanction or allow kids to go meet in virtual spaces that have inappropriate content. As a district administrator I can't allow that. There's no way that I would allow students in classes to use blogging environments, or podcasting environments, or places that allow them to publish who they are with pictures, sound, and text and put themselves out there in a place that is inappropriate.

Miguel goes on to take the perspective of a classroom teacher who would advocate for students having access to blogs and podcasting tools to facilitate their public voices. He also says, as a district administrator responsible for technology he would want to help teachers achieve these laudable goals. But, in the final analysis, Miguel seems to feel that blocking access to websites is a necessary evil -- necessary for the protection of students, teachers, administrators and all district personnel.

I disagree.

The argument Miguel presents in his podcast strikes me as a straw man. I don't think there's a teacher out there, using blogs or podcasts or other web 2.0 tools in the classroom who advocates or allows students to "publish who they are with pictures, sound, and text and put themselves out there in a place that is inappropriate." As a matter of fact, those of us who do blog with our students go out of our way to protect their identities. (see Bud's wiki, Steve's contribution, my post and Clarence's post.)

The fact of the matter is that filtering content results in the school environment being disconnected from the reality we are supposed to be preparing students to deal with. Historically, the response of educational institutions to new social technologies, like IM and blogs, has been to keep it out of the school. In effect, we've created these protected silos divorced from the rich social interactions these new technologies facilitate. It is not the case that students are therefore kept away from using and interacting with these technologies. It is the case that they use these technologies in all the inappropriate ways Miguel mentions.

Blogs have received a lot of bad press. People have been fired or lost jobs because of them. When a new job applicant is googled and their blog is found to contain critical comments of colleagues and former employers, prospective employers do not hire them. That's good business. That's the result of irresponsible blogging. Saying negative things about other people in a blog is tantamount to walking into the staff room and shouting out to everyone present "Joe is an idiot! Yes, you Joe sitting over there with your cronies. And y'know those morons in the office? Let me tell you, they're so dumb they have to have their autonomic functions crank started each morning!" The speaker should expect to be censured and fired. The problem is not with the blog -- it's with how the tool has been misused.

Twice today I've heard people compare this argument in defense of blogging as similar to the argument against gun control: "Gun's don't kill people, people kill people." The arguments are not similar. Guns are weapons. A weapon is an object created for the purpose of killing or causing harm. Blogs are social tools. A social tool is created for the purpose of facilitating and enhancing social interactions and connections. No comparison.

As for the notion that comments on administrator, teacher or student blogs should be moderated, well, that's to miss a golden opportunity to teach and learn. (See Anne's post Inappropriate Comments = Teachable Moments.) Miguel says: "We can teach our students to avoid predators without having them actually encounter one." Quite right. Open Commenting (not)= Encounter Predators. I have discussed with all my students and my son (8 years old and also a blogger) how we will respond should we ever receive a nasty or inappropriate comment:

(1) Tell me about it.

(2) Recognize that the comment isn't really about you; it's about the person who left it. If someone comes along who reads the good work you've done learning and can only think of something nasty or inappropriate to say, well, that doesn't really say anything about you. It does say a whole lot about them.

(3) We delete the comment and forget about it.

I think that lesson is the same for everyone, from students to superintendents.

All of this boils down to a natural fear of transparency. Going public, or in the case of blogs, global, with the work we all do in education can be frightening and intimidating. We all fear being judged negatively when we take a risk and try something outside the mainstream. It would be quite a blow to my ego and self-esteem to be told that I'm a terrible teacher. Making my process in the classroom transparent opens me up to criticism and, like you, I don't like to be criticized. On the other hand, being aware of my shortcomings engenders and encourages growth -- I become a better teacher. I have learned more about teaching and learning in the last ten months then I have in the previous ten years; all because of blogging. Everything I've ever done that has helped me to become a better teacher has been the result of taking a chance -- taking a risk. Taking risks for the purpose of growing and learning is something I try to teach my students in the classroom every day. If I don't take risks myself how can I possibly teach my students to do so? If administrators and superintendents (our leaders) don't take risks, how can they possibly expect teachers to do so?


Update
I work with a couple of Fearless Leaders. ;-)

7 comments:

Miguel said...
17/11/05 06:01  

Darren, thanks for your reflective response. I've decided that we have different vantage points on this issue and I appreciate differing opinions. That we took the time to discuss this will perhaps be of benefit to others who hadn't even considered the issues...at least, when they read your post and Bud's (grin).

Some believe exposing children to harm is the best way to learn. To some degree, I support that...it's exactly at what degree that we should allow that in schools where we differ. In a recent Education Week, there's an excellent discussion of Hogwarts (J.K. Rowling's creation) and the quality of that campus. It's hilarious and may make the points you and others have advocated.

Thanks again!

Best wishes,
Miguel Guhlin
http://www.mguhlin.net/blog

Clarence Fisher said...
17/11/05 09:09  

This is phenomonally powerful writing and thinking. You have made some excellent points in this post. I have been reading some quite negative things lately about blogging now that many more people are beginning to understand the danger of things like MySpaces and unrestricted access to online spaces for kids. A lot of the fear seems to me similar to fears around sex education in the past... What will the kids do with all that knowledge?.....

"They" were wrong then and they are wrong now. Setting kids loose without education is dangerous; so let's give them the skills they need for success.

Beautifully written Darren. (especially for a guy who teaches math ;)

Darren said...
17/11/05 12:25  

Miguel,

I do not believe that "exposing children to harm is the best way to learn." The "risk" that I'm refering to is the risk of being criticized.

When we go public with our points of view we open ourselves to opposing perspectives. That can be intimidating. The host of misuses of social tools that are proliferating in our society are the result of uneducated uses of that technology. Like Clarence said: "Setting kids loose without education is dangerous." It is the uneducated minds that are the dangerous minds.

You strike me not only as a well educated person, but also as an active blogger and influential person in your school district -- your perspectives will effect the choices and options available to teachers and students in your district. It worries me that such a well educated, influential and active edublogger feels that access to content should be restricted as opposed to teaching students and teachers how to use the technology appropriately.

I haven't read the Education Week article you mentioned yet but thanks for the pointer; I've added it to my "must read soon" list. ;-) And thanks for dropping by, I appreciate you sharing your point of view.


Cheers!

Anne Davis said...
17/11/05 18:38  

This is a great post, Darren! Perhaps if we get our kids to stand tall in the real world they will set the example for others. I think you and Miguel have shown an excellent discussion of "agreeing to disagree". The respect you show each other's opinions and the willingless to discuss and reflect is uplifting. What a great model for our students!

Miguel said...
17/11/05 19:45  

Darren, ok, let me know when you want me to stop (smile). I'll be posting a follow-up podcast later tonight. It's a conversation between two technology directors about this subject. Look for it soon at http://www.mguhlin.net/blog around 9:00 PM. It's a wonderful discussion between two directors who have only just been introduced to blogs.

Thanks and, btw, did you know I couldn't access your blog from a regional education service center? I wanted to work some of your points into the discussion but couldn't access ANY blogger, movable type posts!! (sigh)

Proves your point, huh? (wink)

Will said...
18/11/05 09:37  

Darren,

This is a great post, and I'm glad to see the conversation continue. I too am really concerned about what happens to education when we are more motivated by liability than the needs of our students...and teachers. As I've thought about this more, the scariest part of all is the fact that it seems the teachers in Miguel's district are being denied access to these sites as well. That is absolutely tragic, because any solution to this has got to start with the educators who see our kids every day. I've got to say that if I lived in a district that had so little confidence and trust in its teachers to make decisions about content as to deny them access to your blog and the millions of others with quality, thought-proviking content, I would pack up an move.

Sean said...
18/11/05 14:35  

Miguel says "Some believe exposing children to harm is the best way to learn."

I feel moved to challenge this, as I think it's a straw man and not what advocates of open access to social tools are saying at all.

I think this issue is not about exposing children to harm, I think it's about exposing children to the real world! Students go straight home from school, jump on the computer and have instant access to everything that was blocked from them at school, with less supervision.

If children aren't taught how to discriminate about what they view and do online, and how to protect themselves while they are at school, where are they going to learn?

There are neighbourhoods and streets we don't want our children to walk down, but we don't lock them in the house in the chance that they might deliberately or inadvertently wander into one of those neighbourhoods.

Instead, we teach them where to avoid, we have discussions with them about why we think they should avoid these areas and what to do if they take a wrong turn and find themselves in a dark alley somewhere.

By not taking the opportunity to address these issues and teach these skills to children we do them a great disservice, and fail to fulfil our responsibilites and duties to teach children whatever they need to learn to protect themselves.

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