Friday, March 13, 2009

School Internet Policies: Protecting Students or the Organisation??

Since the introduction of Web 2.0 technologies the gap between what school students can do at home, Internet cafes or public libraries has grown dramatically.
This is exasperated by most Australian State Education authorities being painfully slow to even acknowledge the need for an integrated approach to the inclusion of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs)into school learning environments.
While States like Queensland are rolling out a new Managed Operating Environment across its state schools, the draconian policies of blocking almost all Websites and virtually all the available Web 2.0 tools, means that student learning experiences are much poorer than those they can experience outside of school.
Not only are they poorer, but the gap between what is possible and what the schools can offer is growing very rapidly.

When you add these issues to the ridiculously complex security regime that requires students to log on twice with different usernames and passwords and again if the computer is dormant for a relatively short period of time. The task for teachers becomes enormous, particularly for younger students.

Unfortunately, the issues with school Internet access does not stop there. Many schools in Queensland are starved of bandwidth. The author has worked in one large school in Central Queensland that was expected to manage with 1.5MB of bandwidth for around 800 students plus staff. Showing a streaming video clip, even in low usage time was not even possible. In this school, staff were told that they had to use the Internet as much as possible so that they could demonstrate to the State governing body that they needed more bandwidth. Of course, in these circumstances teachers give up on the technology as their working lives are already busy enough without having a disgruntled bunch of students complaining and becoming bored at the slow access.

Restricting access to all externally hosted Web 2.0 technologies and most external Websites, appears to be motivated by the organisations fear of being accused of allowing student access to inappropriate material and uncontrolled contact with persons outside of the school and the student's immediate family. This fear is not without foundation as the Australian media is quick to judge and make inaccurate assertions. Pedophilia (or grooming), and child access to explicit material sell newspapers and fuel television ratings. Because the State education authorities are responsible to the State governments of the day, the issue becomes political with ultimate responsibility resting with the Minister and the government.
But what about the Internet access at home, friends, Internet cafes and public libraries? Just because this is not "on school grounds" does not mean that the State authorities do not have responsibility for educating school students in cyber safety and issues around inappropriate material.
As yet none of the Australian State education authorities have integrated cyber safety and issues around inappropriate material into their curricula. "Stranger danger" of the physical type is there but not the former?
The video below offers a student perspective on blocking technology and access:

In Queensland, all of the mentors charged with implementing the "
Smart Classrooms
" initiatives that the author has spoken with, want better access to external Web 2.0 tools and are frustrated by the intransigence shown by the State authority in this area. They are also frustrated by the over the top security that make access difficult for students. These professionals are tasked with professional development that will result in the integrated use of ICTs in Queensland State school classrooms, but the teachers find it all too hard with the issues mentioned above.

As a teacher educator, the author regularly has students and graduates who complain that they are unable to implement the innovative digital pedagogies they are taught at University because of the security policies and procedures present in State schools.
As the video shows, this is not just an issue in Queensland schools. Other Australian States and other countries have similar problems around these issues.

Why is Web 2.0 so important?

As you would see from much of this Blog, learning engagement is the key to successful and deep learning experiences. In Australian schools the Literacy and Numeracy crisis is not due to the curriculum taught in school, but to a lack of learning engagement that leads to absenteeism and behavioural management issues that block learning in the students' early years. Once the student is behind the schools system marches them through into areas they are unskilled and under-prepared for and the die is cast for the majority of those students. They feel "dumb", develop low self-esteem and finish school completely unprepared for work or further study.
Low socio-economic status (SES) and indigenous students are over represented in this area and this leads to generational poverty and disadvantage (Vinson, 1999; Black 2007).
Keirsley and Shneiderman (1999) and Herrington & Oliver (2002) assert that authentic learning experiences with outcomes valued in the real world lead to learning engagement. In both cases, the integrated of ICTs plays a pivotal role in this authentic learning, as a quick search of this Blog will reinforce.
By way of example look at the video below to see just one example of how this can work with Web 2.0 technologies:

What's the Answer?

So here is the the tough question and one with no easy answer.
First and foremost, there needs to be a national curriculum that has cyber safety and recognition of inappropriate and dangerous material integrated within it.
Secondly, there needs to be a scaled approach to School Internet security with the most security applied to the youngest and most vulnerable students and a gradual relaxing as the students reach later years. In all cases, where a teacher deems it necessary/desirable for their students to have access to a particular technology, it should be provided and the teacher supported throughout its use.
Lastly, we need to ensure that the Australian media are aware of the reasons for this approach and an undertaking from them that they will not sensationalize incidents that may occur.

Regardless of what happens, there should be wide consultation with all the stakeholders an a genuine attempt to educate children, their parents the general public and the media on the need for 21st century learning approaches.
It is not impossible and many private schools are already managing this issue very well.


VRBones said...

This fits neatly into my Internet Access WebQuest. I've tagged this post so hopefully this year's students can also review it.

As a counterpoint, I'm working in a private school in QLD where we do allow most web 2.0 technologies, but are spending resources (ie: ~2 hours a week of my time) actively policing internet usage for inappropriate use and cyberbullying. As K.Rudd is finding out, giving money for PCs is just the start and is now having to fork out 1.5 times the amount over and above the original for infrastructure, administration and maintenance.

On the school conneciton, is it limited by the school or the infrastructure? Here in Bundaberg we have just been able to upgrade to DSL2, so up until a couple of weeks ago we were limited to 1.5 Mbps regardless of what we wanted from an educational point of view. We still were able to use youTube etc in a moderate manner, although most video is distributed internally via ClickView. Fibre to the Premises was on K.Rudd's list, but not anywhere to be seen yet.

Scot said...

Hi Tony,

Thanks for your input.



Anonymous said...

Scot, I think your post is timely.

The problems mentioned have been around for many years but the consequences have never been so keenly felt.

This is a discussion that needs to take place.

Mark D said...

Just to throw in a curve ball, do you think that the blocking issues will become less as the educational environment becomes less and less structured, with students becoming increasongly connected away from the traditional classroom environments?

Of course my tongue is wedged firmly in my cheek, and I probably thought of this because of a conversation with a native Canberran who told me that the 'city' had been designed without the need to cope with high volumes of traffic as flexible working hours were to be the norm, meaning that an age-old problem (overloaded roads) would become a non-event.

Its a shame that whereas some parts of our world seem to advance at a phenomenal rate, many others move far more slowly, and the rumbling from the shifting of the tectonic plates is felt by all.

Pointless ramble over - great article Scot :)

Scot said...

Hi Mark,

You pose an interesting question and one I'd not considered. The simple answer is probably, although we will need our education authorities to take a more student-centred approach as it is likely that the most disadvantaged Australian students will rely on institution resources for many years to come. This could further exacerbate the digital divide that currently exists.

My fear is that by the time state schools are dragged into the 21st century it will be too late for Australia and our school graduates will be substantially disadvantaged in a globally competitive economy.

I smiled at your Canberra example--when I lived there in the late 1970s, there was a 30 minute peak hour twice a day. The rest of the day the traffic was scarce--it may be different these days!

Many thanks for your comment.



Anonymous said...

We have a similar situation here in NSW, with many indispensible 2.0 sites e.g. being blocked for state school students, yet private schools can offer learning activities relating to these websites, which highlights an equity issue because state school students would be disadvantaged for external exams. The focus should be on teaching students how to use web 2.0 websites in a responsible way.

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