Thursday, January 7, 2016

Let's Think Before We Block

A Voxer group that I follow has a lively discussion going about how schools should handle site/content blocking and restriction requests from parents and/or teachers and administrators.  Those involved in this discussion are primarily professionals who work to integrate technology into teaching and learning for individual districts.

This topic of discussion is not new.  Generally those who are comfortable and familiar with communication and social media tools (I include myself in this group) hold the view that excessive restrictions placed on student access to these forms of communication are misguided at best.  Further, they often point out that restrictive policies and practices may actually cause real harm by avoiding the responsibility we all share in providing education to our students in the areas of personal responsibility and citizenship.

Those who are less comfortable with these relatively new forms of communication and media distribution usually cite the need to protect our children from objectionable content.  Filtering and restrictive policies are justified on the basis that we need to provide a safe and secure learning environment for our students.

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Regardless of which camp you belong to or even if you can see it both ways, the fact remains that there is a wide range of strategies and policies in place across districts.  Surely if there was a common sense, easily arrived at answer to how districts should handle this, most of us would be doing the same or similar things.

The problem is that like the debate itself, what is "best" for students in this arena is primarily a matter of personal opinion and intuition.  I have strong personal feelings about this issue, but as an officer of a public institution, I should not be allowed to create policy affecting an entire community based strictly on my own personal views.  The existence of social media and the explosion of access to all sorts of information streams is a relatively recent phenomenon, and there has not been time nor experience enough to base such policies on solid, research-based evidence.

Unfortunately, almost every district's approach to this issue has defaulted to the personal feelings of one or a few individuals, in most cases those administrators or technology managers who were around at the time such decisions were first necessary.  Once set, the practices have been "baked in" to the leadership culture of the district.  And we all know that once we've set a precedent, it is very difficult for educational organizations to change.  "We do it that way because that's how we've always done it..."

If we can admit that we really don't know the right answer, at least we can try to make the best, most informed decisions possible.  In that spirit, I implore school leaders to re-examine this issue and fight the urge to fall back to the default, least controversial path.  There is too much at stake, and every year we are sending another group of students out into a world in which they must personally and professionally deal with the very subjects on which this debate is centered.

My next post will begin a series of questions that I think we need to ask ourselves BEFORE we decide what is best for students.  While I will provide my own views and opinions, I certainly don't expect everyone to agree with me.  What I hope you will do is to begin asking these questions in your district, and to start some conversations.

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