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break on through

February 25, 2010

In my experience there is an odd side to international schools when it comes to the issue of making sure to teach the virtues of freedom of expression, studying great leaders, thinkers, philosophers, mathematical theories and ensure our students get a balance in the way we approach learning.  We believe generally that an open door philosophy towards different opinions, perspective and views is important. I would say we are quite passionate about this, and feel it is a critical element of many of our school’s missions.  The goal to ensure that our students get exposed to as many different perspectives as possible allowing them to construct their own knowledge. That is nice and of course something most parents and educators would find difficult to argue against. Then comes Web 2.0 Social Networking and/or some other technology and the general first reaction and approach is BLOCK IT! Now many will argue that social networking or blocking certain technologies is not the equivalent of teaching the virtues of freedom of expression. I disagree. Okay in my situation at my current school, we block facebook, twitter and others on our wireless network, a decision by the collective leadership team. On the two labs and one library lab we do not block it on the machine connected to our LAN network, the rational is that there generally is always someone there to supervise. This situation is flawed in my mind. In some ways I am to blame as IT Director for not pushing or developing a strong enough argument with my fellow administrators to have the conversation to unpack what we are doing, and exploring the pedagogic value of such blocking. Always easier to reflect in hindsight.

What happens then is when students sneak through our firewall via proxies, or have their own independent connection to the internet through a USB modem from the local cell phone company that they plug into their laptop, the blocking becomes useless. The times a teacher catches someone then the issue is brought up, and we the IT department have to again explain that however much we block the chance is that some student will find a hole. This is the flaw, we are focusing on the blocking and the events where students get around it and not on the more important issue what, how, why and when are they using this. We avoid the  opportunity to leverage this tool to engage both student and teacher into a conversation on the pros and cons of using this, and how and what might be responsible use of such tools in a school setting. This whole dialogue and dynamics is completely swept under the carpet.

Most educators would argue I assume that the issue of Facebook (Social Networks) as a teachable moment has no place in the classroom, and blocking it is good, as this allows us then to focus on the important task of teaching the lesson at hand. I challenge this perception and view. There are about 500 million plus folks on this planet involved on a regular basis in social networks in different shapes and forms. Attached to this is a huge industry developing to take advantage of this new form of communication. With this dynamic there are big economic opportunities for individuals, companies, organizations and institutions to generate incomes. This is something that will continue to develop and the reality is it will become more and more part of our own social communication fabric both on a personal and institutional level. Some would say it has already happened.

So……I think with this shift there is now a critical role for educators to start exploring how to integrate social networks into school curriculum.  We have a responsibility to share, educate and develop an understanding of the intricacies and options of using such communication mediums in our day to day lives. If Grade 2-3 students are setting up Facebook profile you cannot expect them to clearly understand the privacy setting tools on their own, you cannot expect them to read the fine print of an agreement. It has come to the point where instead of blocking this, and letting them work things out on their own undercover, we as educational institutions need to develop a robust set of learner outcomes for our students on the dynamics of social networks. It needs to be not the responsibility of some IT department technician or counselor but part of  the day to day fabric of each teachers tool kit: sharing, exploring, facilitating, and mentoring our students how to be responsible users of social networks. We need to let them explore these mediums with a critical mind unblocked, as we would expect them for the ~French Revolution, Plate-tectonics, a perspective on Macbeth or the Israeli- Palestinian situation.

The world changed yesterday! Today we need to engage ourselves in a clear understanding that social networks, youtube, chat, texting, virtual worlds, and the current digital landscape are now an integral part of our day to day fabric both socially and professionally. With this there are a whole host of issues, learning, understanding and perspectives that we need to equip our students with to be able to survive effectively with balance and as critical learners.  In today’s world, we as educators,  have an important ethical responsibility to take charge of this, and engage throughout our day within our own lessons what this all means, and how to develop a critical understanding of how best to use these: when, where, and appropriately….. if we do not, basically we are ignoring today’s world that we all live in. I would find it hard to believe that any of us would want this as part of our own educator’s philosophy.

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