WARNING:  What you’re about to read is the tale of a semi-exhausted, tech starved teacher!  You know the type:  Strung out on email…a carpel-tunnelled Twittering mess….Babbling about URLs and HTTPs…But also likely to understand a thing or two about the challenges of digital integration!

The past few days have been nothing short of a massive headache for me. You see, I’ve been fighting a seemingly never-ending fight against our district’s firewall. Having heard the call for introducing students to the skills necessary for succeeding in the “21st Century,” I’ve begun exploring online services that allow students to use the Web to create, communicate and collaborate with others.

After all, those are the skills that will determine success in an increasingly digital future, aren’t they? Businesses are beginning to recognize that bandwidth allows them to break large projects into smaller chunks that they electronically “ship” to professionals in faraway destinations.

“Teams” in the most progressive work places today (and the most common work places of tomorrow) are just as likely to be comprised of several individuals who collaborate online instead of face-to-face in old fashioned conference rooms. By relying on digital tools for collaboration and communication, businesses guarantee themselves access to the most accomplished employees…or the cheapest employees….or both!

As a result, isn’t it essential to teach today’s students how to use the Web efficiently and effectively for communication and collaboration? Won’t doing otherwise literally fail our students, leaving them unprepared for the work world that they will inherit?

And while I still place a priority on using technology to deliver the required elements of my curriculum (to do otherwise is to waste class time that I don’t have), does anyone else believe that teaching technology for technology’s sake is becoming somewhat essential, too?

Consider this quote from eSchool News:

“Educators, economists, and forecasters all agree on the growing importance of so-called “21st-century skills” in the workplace. While reading, writing, and arithmetic will always form the foundation of any solid education, digital communication and media literacy are on the verge of being elevated to the same level of importance. In addition to requiring advanced skills in reading and math, the employers of tomorrow are going to require a high degree of digital and multimedia fluency.”

But teaching “21st Century skills” has been anything but easy for me. At every turn, my efforts are thwarted (you can tell I’m jazzed anytime I throw down the word thwarted!) as each service that I discover is blocked by our district’s firewall.

First it was Flickr—which I was using to have students annotate images of families from around the world, looking for similarities and differences to their own lives.

The reason it was blocked: The presence of inappropriate content in the Flickr community.

Then it was Trailfire, which I was using to have my students study—ironically enough—Internet safety. I had created a collection of annotated websites that my students could navigate through, answering questions that I had left for them about responsible Web behaviors. I had also planned to have my students find sites exploring both sides of a controversial issue (think global warming), organize those sites into a Trail, and then leave annotations that shared their thinking about each site.

The reason it was blocked: The presence of inappropriate content in the Trailfire community.  (And no joke, there was some crazy sick inappropriate content in the Trailfire library.)

Next is likely to be Voicethread. I say “likely to be” because I’m fighting tooth and nail to get it on the “approved software” list—and as of this morning, it is still currently available in our school. Voicethread is literally the tool I value the most.

I’m using it to engage my kids in collaborative conversations around images, and it’s been a huge success. My kids—on assignments that are completely ungraded—have viewed our Voicethreads over 2,000 times and have left over 200 audio and text comments on our pictures since September.

Even better, we’re right in the middle of establishing a digital partnership with a school in Kuwait and another school in Denmark where we are hoping to use Voicethread to reflect on different cultures by studying images from our homes and communities. Our students are going to have their first chance to literally use the Web to create, collaborate AND communicate with kids abroad, mirroring the work that they’ll be asked to do in the future.

Why do I suspect it will be blocked: Because if you poke around long enough in Voicethread, you’re likely to find someone using it to create inappropriate content.

The blocking of Skype has also been a problem for me this week—even though my district hasn’t blocked it! Instead, it’s been blocked by a sister school in New York that I’m hoping to connect our kids with. They keep a really neat blog about current events that mirrors the work that my students do on our classroom blog, so we figured we’d Skype each other to share ideas about how we’re using blogs to think and write about the news.

Why was it blocked in New York: Because people can definitely use Skype to create inappropriate content—and in real time, too!

The final straw (which is what led to this extended rant) was when I walked into school this morning and found out that Snip URL has been blocked too! Of all of the services blocked to date, Snip URL may be the simplest…but it is also one of the most important! Snip URL allows users to take really long web addresses and convert them into shorter, more manageable addresses.

Think about how important that is for my middle schoolers when they are researching for classroom assignments? Sometimes they find websites that they want to cite in their research that are over 100 characters long—like this one, linking to a map of Kenya:


How exactly is a twelve-year old supposed to copy that web address down on their Works Cited page?

The answer is simple: Copy and paste it into Snip URL to get a shortened version. Need an example? Then look at this link to the exact same image that I created using Tiny URL, a similar service that is sure to be blocked once someone figures out that it exists:


Why is Snip URL blocked: Because people can use it to disguise links to inappropriate websites.

Now don’t get me wrong: I completely understand the need to keep our children safe while surfing the web in school, and I believe that the creators of Web 2.0 content authoring tools should work diligently to design systems that block or to “quarantine” explicit content from their sites if they hope to ever tap into the massive marketplace that is the K-12 school community.

What I disagree with is the method that our districts are choosing to use to “keep children safe.” By simply blocking services, we give parents, children and teachers a false sense of security.

While they won’t be able to get to inappropriate content while in school, kids are certainly stumbling upon it all the time while online at home—-and we haven’t done anything as educators to prepare them to make responsible decisions when they land somewhere they shouldn’t! I would argue that a more responsible action on the part of our schools and districts would be to develop a comprehensive Internet saftey curriculum that is delivered in every classroom.

My real frustration today, though, lies in the fact that a “block it all” mentality on the part of district technology decision makers is preventing me from engaging kids in the kinds of creative uses of technology that education advocates have been pushing for the past five years. Heck, in our state, developing students who are prepared to succeed in the 21st Century as globally competitive citizens is the primary objective of the State Board of Education.

How do I do that when every free tool available becomes unavailable every time that I turn around?

More later….My mind is just starting to slow down enough to put some real brainpower behind this issue. Until then, what kinds of challenges is your district facing in balancing the need to keep children safe with the desire to prepare “21st Century” citizens? Have y’all brainstormed meaningful solutions to what is sure to be a constant issue in the upcoming decade?

What are the barriers in this debate? How are successful schools and districts getting around those barriers?

(This article is continued here in the post titled To Protect and To Prepare)

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