Saturday, January 31, 2009

Random Thoughts from the Dark Side - Filtering Digital Education

For a while I was on the fence again. I couldn't decide which side of the filters debate I stood on. Are filters really bad, evil, horrible things that spell out "censorship" if played backwards? Or, are they a common-sense safety issue, much like asking your child to put their helmet on before they go for a bike ride? After much thought I've decided I'm against the over-use of filters. I feel that a little filtering should be in place, especially for very young learners, but that no filter is ever going to replace sound teaching. And any filter that stands in the way of teaching and learning, is a dangerous thing.

The Dark Side of Filtering - Enter Darth Filterer

I have moments of concern about the false sense of security that filters create. I am suspicious of the fear-mongering that educators are forced to endure when it comes to their
student's safety. And, I shake my head at the notion of protecting adolescents from themselves (as if MySpace and Facebook were some sort of Lord of the Flies scenario waiting to happen.)
If I were artistic, I might ink out a little cartoon of a line-up of kids leaving a school, covered from head to toe in bubble wrap. Their eyes have blinders on, and their ears are stuffed with cotton. The heading might read, "Since the filters couldn't go with them...."

In this weeks readings, one statement stood out above the rest (most likely because I had never heard anyone approach filtering in this way before). Stephen Abram's suggests, in his article,
Justifying the Social Tools: Improving the Conversation (2007), that we should really question what is being blocked and why:

"Those folks who choose to block social networking sites for good reasons should be required to make those reasons explicit and to prove how their approach encourages good learning results and doesn't over-reach. I've seen too many
instant messaging sites banned for vague or unsupportable reasons such as viruses or stalkers."
I agree that it is important to question what learning opportunities are being compromised by the sites that are blocked. But, I wonder who will argue against excuses such as virus prevention and threat of stalkers? It is like a trump card held by the powers that be, and it seems the only counter-argument strong enough to challenge over-zealous blocking is to argue that filtering itself is unsafe.

Mary Ann Bell argues this exact point in I'm Mad and I'm Not Gonna Take it Anymore (2008). Bell says, "[n]ot allowing access can be dangerous, as it keeps us from teaching kids to be safe and smart online when they are on their own" (p.3). Also, educators seldom state that the real dangers on the Net happen to kids outside of school. Filtering in school, then, seems more about educators wearing the blinders instead of the students. If the issues don't come up in the classroom, then maybe they don't exist - or, if they don't come up, then we won't have to deal with them. To me this approach screams of negligence at the highest level.

Students worlds are different then when we were in school, but the big scary issues have always been there (sexual predators, bullies, etc.). We can't hide our heads in the sand when it comes to these issues, and blocking them out is like closing the door to the skeletons in our societal closet and denying they exist. To me, it is imperative that we are open and honest with students, that we discuss safe on-line behaviour frequently. That we invite students into the discussions about their own on-line safety, instead of having the fight for them with regards to safe or unsafe filtering.

The Annoying Side of Filtering - My Light Saber Won't Work!

The school division I worked for last year had very strict filtering levels in place. I felt like I was constantly running up against roadblocks in my teaching. I was told that if I wanted a site unblocked, I had to apply for a tech request to lift the block. This seems easy enough to do, but when you are juggling all that has to be juggled in the ordinary day to day of teaching in a school library, that extra step becomes a nuisance. Needing to send a tech request in for a 3 minute video to be unblocked seemed ludicrous and a waste of everyone's time.

I found it very frustrating to work in this overly-filtered environment where many Web 2.0 tools could not be used or viewed. I resented the fact that the "higher ups" didn't have enough faith in my own professional judgment to either:

  1. Unblock sites myself that I needed for educational purposes.
  2. Have someone at my school remove the block.
  3. Be trusted to direct students to safe, educational, curriculum-related sites.

Further Random Thoughts

  • Internet filters, are like coffee filters. You want the grit taken out, but the flavour to remain.
  • Filters "protect" our children only so far. Parents need to be taught practical tips for raising Internet safe kids. I think teacher librarians can play a vital role in educating parents about the risks of on-line interactions (it takes a global village...)
  • Acceptable Use Policies are like field trip forms saying you give permission for your child to be taken out into the world for educational purposes - but a signed piece of paper doesn't ensure that your child won't sprain an ankle in the real world, or come across questionable content in the virtual one.
  • Acceptable Use Policies need to be written in an accessible manner. I wonder what would happen if students were asked to write them? We need to make sure that teachers, parents, and children understand what they are signing, so it doesn't just become another piece of paper.
  • There are a lot of gatekeepers doing what's supposedly best for kids. . . .but I have to question: is someone getting rich off of this? Have we been manipulated to believe our kids are in danger on the Net? Have school boards been manipulated by filter software companies to believe filters will protect them from irate parents ready to sue them for exposing their child to the evils of the net? Where are these irate parents?
  • Why bother to invest in new technology if all we're really comfortable with is word processing? Why not bring back the typewriter?
  • The safety issue shouldn't be about exposure - but lack of experience in dealing with exposure.

Final Thoughts, and One Anecdote - Trust in the Force

I truly believe students can rise to the occassion of social responsibility as they grow and learn with Web 2.0 technologies. Reactionary blocking based on fear of the darker side of the web must be questioned. I recently observed a Facebook group directing hatred towards a student by other students. It would do little good for educators to swoop in and block access to such a site (after all, educators can't block home computers, and it is unlikely that the group was started within the school walls). What actually happened was that another student from the same town (now away at university) stepped in and said the site was very uncool and wrong. I don't know if the students who started the site were humbled or not, but hopefully they will think twice before doing it again. I think in such a situation we can not act alone as educators - this is a community issue (on-line and off). Parents, teachers, and students themselves need to find their way in this new world. We need moral codes of conduct that transcend the walls of the school, and filters simply can't do that.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants .... Sticky Labels for Uncertain Times

I first heard about Prensky's argument about Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants from a teacher in Winnipeg who heard about it from a vice principal who heard about it in an administrator's meeting at the Board Office. I thought the notion of Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants was interesting - and tried to look at my students in this new light. Yes, they had grown up with the technology - many couldn't imagine a world without google, texting, or social networks. Without having read the article, I thought Prensky was likely onto something good.

Then I read the article.

Like Kathy Schrock in Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, and Digital Pioneers, I "bristled" to be called a "Digital Immigrant." I found Prensky`s portrayal of immigrants (digital and otherwise) to be offensive. He completely disregarded the prior knowledge and experience that immigrants bring to their new worlds. My distaste for Prensky's article goes beyond simple semantics, however, as I found the entire tone of the article was demeaning to educators. Prensky wrote:

"It's just dumb (and lazy) of educators - not to mention ineffective -to presume that (despite their traditions) the Digital Immigrant way is the only way to
My response, I'll admit, was to do something unscholarly... I googled: "against Prensky's digital natives," and found a very interesting response: an article called Digital Nativism, Digital Delusions, and Digital Deprivation by Jamie McKenzie. He sums up Prensky's work in the following manner:

"In a rather shallow piece lacking in evidence or data, Prensky offers the terms "digital natives" and "digital immigrants" to set up a generational divide. His proposition is simple-minded. He paints digital experience as wonderful and old ways as worthless. He lumps people together by nothing more than age and exposure, spending little time on differentiating or understanding. He offers
learning with video games as a digital Nirvana that should replace forms of learning that he claims are now outmoded."

Mckenzie also provides a different point of view that I think educators must contemplate:

"Being born into a culture saturated with things digital is not a complete blessing despite the eager claims of digital drum majors and pied pipers.
Neither is such immersion an automatic state of grace."
I'm reminded not to generalize, and not to expect students to know innately how to manage their learning in a digital world....teachers still have an important role to play, even if that role is evolving.

Still, though, I concede that their world is different (not better, not worse), and that the way they are learning is different. I want to be able to understand what it means to be a student growing up in the digital age. . . I want to know if I really need to adapt drastically how I do things in the classroom, or the library, or even how I work with my own children at home.

Born Digital - A Glance at Learners

I found the direction I was looking for in Palfrey and Gasser's portrayal of digital learners in their book, Born Digital. This text is thought provoking and much more sensible than Prensky's article. Palfrey and Gasser do an excellent job of explaining the concerns that adults feel for their digitally saturated children....while at the same time, they explain the digitally born student's perspective. Thankfully, the authors walk the line between both worlds with a certain grace that does not resonate of Prensky's fear mongering. They write:

"There are no hard data to suggest that Digital Natives are smarter than anyone who came before them. Neither is their any sign that kids are dumber, or in any way less promising, than previous generations of kids. Digital Natives are doing the same things their parents did with information, just in different ways. While they may not be learning the same things through the same processes, it's not the case that Digital Natives are interacting less with information. They are simply coping with more information, and that information comes to their attention in new ways -offering new possibilities for engagement." (p. 244)
So, how are Digital Natives learning? According to Palfrey and Gasser, they "graze" (skim the headlines and read brief summaries, etc.) , "deep-dive" (examine longer articles, watch video-clips, listen to podcasts, etc.),and "feedback loop" (add comments, respond via blogging, create own podcasts, etc.) (p.242-243).

This cycle reminds me of the Guided Reading approach. Students look at the title and pictures, and make predictions about what the book will be about and teachers provide necessary background information that will help to spark an interest in the book (grazing). Then the students read the text (deep dive), and finally they will discuss the book to check for comprehension (feedback loop). This may seem too simplistic a comparison, and perhaps I have misunderstood the learning cycle that Digital Natives undergo. But maybe Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants are not so unalike after all?

Still, the book, Born Digital provides a realistic, practical, and perhaps conservative approach to technology that I found very interesting. The good news is that they feel,

"[w]e don't need to overhaul education to teach kids who are born digital. . . . [l]earning will always have certain enduring qualities that have little or nothing to do with technology." (p. 246)
The authors go on to suggest that we do not need to use technology because it's cool and it's what the students are using outside of school. They remind us that we need to "figure technologies can support our pedagogical goals," (p.246), and I believe that a time will come when the flow between technology and curriculum will become seamless.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Manifestos and Mash-Ups

"Welcome to my Libratory . . ."

I imagine posting this picture of Einstein on my school library door, with a speech balloon stating “Welcome to my Libratory.” From now on, thanks to Joyce Valenza’s Manifesto for the 21st Century Librarian– that is exactly how I will view my library space –“a physical space that is about way more than books.” I think I've always felt that way - that the library could be more than an encyclopaedia repository. It had the potential to be a place for students and staff to centre themselves, to unwind, to lose themselves in a narrative similar to, or completely unlike their own. A place to think, read, get inspired, breath, and cry if they needed too. Now, with the web 2.0 thoughts engaging my senses, I realize school libraries also have the potential to connect students with the world in ways unimagined even 10 years ago.

I began this weeks readings with Joyce Valenza’s Manifesto – and I must say There’s nothing like a well written, and well contemplated manifesto to make a person hold their head up high – "this is what I do - I AM a school librarian!" While I write this, I could flip the same coin, there’s nothing like a well written, and well contemplated manifesto to make a person want to put their head in the sand, and forget they ever saw it - "there's too much, I don't know where to start". What am I – a 21st century, forward-thinking, innovative librarian, or an ostrich?

A manifesto has power – and thankfully Joyce Valenza uses that power for good instead of evil! The fact that she welcomed changes to her manifesto via her wiki, made it clear that this was a vision for all of us to hold onto. A dream we all could share. I actually took a moment to look up the word "manifesto" (as I’ve previously associated it with Hitler, and other extremist views) on, and found two meanings:

1. “a public declaration of intentions, opinions, objectives, or motives, as one issued by a government, sovereign, or organization.”
2. “A public declaration of principles, policies, or intentions, especially of a political nature.”

So, Joyce Valenza created a public declaration of objectives for teacher librarians and presented them in a political format. Why? Perhaps because many of us feel our positions are tenuous - we are trying to convince school boards and school administrators that teacher-librarians are relevant and necessary in a digital world. With such a manifesto, we can show them a vision of what a school library can be, provided we have open access to Web 2.0 tools, and forward –thinking staff willing to take the leap into the digital landscape.

A few ideas that struck me from the manifesto include:
"You welcome media production—podcasting, video editing. You welcome
telecommunications events and group gathering for planning and research and
social networking.”

While the technologies are important, the simple words "you welcome" stand out for me. You welcome the changing needs of your staff and students. People are welcome to use the space for a myriad of needs.

"You “[k]now that one-to-one laptop classrooms will change your teaching
logistics. You realize you will often have to teach in a partner teacher’s
classroom. You will teach virtually. You will be available across the school
via email and chat."

While I think we could reach the needs of our students and classrooms quite simply by using e-mail, I have to wonder how many librarians share their e-mail with students, or chat with them on-line? I think this is a grey area for many of us - facebook friending is frowned upon, but e-mail is okay? I found myself asking - what is right? I have to think of the greater good - the educational needs of the students - and not fall into the trap of being afraid to use the technology the students are comfortable with.

"Don’t stop at “no.” . . . You fight for the rights of students to
have and use the tools they need. This is an equity issue. This is an
intellectual freedom issue."

I know last year I did stop at no. I was able to collaborate and create projects that I hoped were engaging and meaningful for students, staff, and myself. But, everything I did, I wondered, how would this look on-line? What if we could blog this? Wouldn't it be wonderful to get feedback from the world?

Stepping away from the manifesto, I find my thoughts reverting back mostly to Kathy Sanford's article Videogames in the Library? What is the World Coming To? Sanford's use of a 2003 quotation from Gunther Kress is quite interesting to me.

"dominance of writing [is] being replaced by the dominance of the
image; the dominance of the medium of the book [is shifting] to the
dominance of the medium of the screen" (p.2)

Some might argue that by today's information standards, what was written about digital technology in 2003 is already ancient history. I might argue that these shifts have already been replaced in my own world. Almost all of my non-fiction reading is done on-line. I read the world through images on Flickr, and likewise represent my family to the world in images. (Whether or not the world is watching remains to be seen!)

Sanford's notion that videogames belong in libraries goes against traditional notions of a library collection, yet when I look back at my own experience as an educator, computer games were embraced almost immediately for young learners. We had CD Rom games for Magic School bus, Franklin, and Math Blasters, etc. Most of the games had some element to support the curriculum. All of them were geared toward young learners in Kindergarten to Grade 3. As long as the games were educational, and engaged young children in learning the basics of reading, writing, math and science, video games were promoted. Once children grew up, games on computers were pushed aside for more academic pursuits. Funny how we can easily accept that young children learn through play, yet we don't make that claim so easily for older elementary students, and almost never for teens.

"As educators and educational researchers look more closely at new
technologies, we recognize that learning has become different; engagement
with videogames supports new types of learning, learning that is
multi-faceted, complex, non-linear, and fast paced. " (p.5)

While I understand that learning occurs while playing video games, it remains a platform I am not completely comfortable with (for myself). Gaming is something I am not likely to do on my own, so, how do I engage with my students learning when I haven't the foggiest notion what they are doing? What would Professor Sanford say? She mentions that:

"it is critical to ensure that appropriate funds are directed to library
services and up-to-date resources in order to best support student (and teacher)
learning about new technologies, new literacies, and new learning." (p5)

But the question remains, do I have to learn how to be a gamer, in order to fully appreciate student learning? I wonder if my own reticence in this area mirrors the concern of other educators. . . and even as I wonder this, I know the answer. It's been in the back of my mind all along, and the video Did You Know 4, created by Howie DiBlasi reminded me:

"We are currently preparing students for jobs that don't yet exist. . .
Using technologies that haven't been invented. . .
In order to solve problems we don't even know are problems yet."

I know that if I am to do my job properly, I have to have an open mind. I have to be able to think critically, and engage in the discourse. I have to mash-up my own manifesto, and make sure that I don't put my head in the sand.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Turning a New Page

The direction of this blog will be following a slightly different path in the following weeks, as I work through my new course, EDES 545 Information Technologies for Learning - a follow up to EDES 501 I took last term. In this class we will look at the issues surrounding Web 2.0 technology in Education - rather than testing each web tool. So, we are turning a new page, but it's the same book. I'm thinking the blog posts that follow are the epilogue, the afterward, or perhaps even the sequel? At any rate, the page is turning....

Aidan's Adventure in Reading

By the way, this is Aidan, he plays a starring role in my life story (one he shares with his big brothers, of course)!