To protect and prepare. . .

I think I’ve finally calmed down enough to think through my frustration with firewalls blocking the Web 2.0 tools that I’m trying to use in my classroom.  If you read my last post, you know that I was pretty jazzed.  Heck, I even pulled out the word “thwarted!”

My  “spirited opinion” comes from a place that most teachers can probably relate to:  I’ve invested hundreds of hours into trying to understand technology….and all too often that effort ends up wasted when a tool I’ve mastered suddenly gets blocked.  In a profession where time is limited at best, that is almost heartbreaking.

For most teachers, similar situations are enough to discourage them from ever talking tech again.

But over the past week, one thing has become clear to me:  District technology leaders are in a digital pickle that I’m just plain glad I don’t have to deal with.  You see, they’re forced into the uncomfortable position of having to deal with two completely opposite—and powerful—-competing interests.

Think about it:  The primary responsibility for district leaders has to be protecting children, right?  And the prevailing message being sent—even overseas—in the media is that our kids are at incredible risk while working online.  Pornographic material can be found at nearly every turn and heartbreaking stories of students who’ve fallen into the hands of predators draw front page attention at an all-too uncomfortable rate.

Even though these stories often overestimate the actual degree of risk (in a recent NSBA study, less than 7% of students surveyed report ever being asked for personal information online and less than 3% report having unwanted strangers attempt to repeatedly contact them online), we can all agree that even one incident of a child falling into harm’s way because of action taken online at school is too many for any district to be comfortable with.

But districts also recognize that digital literacy and the ability to use the Web to create, communicate and collaborate are essential for success in today’s day and age.  They’re literally inundated with stories about the need to prepare “globally competitive citizens” who have “21st Century Skills.”  They’re told time and again how our public school system is “failing to prepare children for tomorrow,” and how our children are “falling behind China and India.”

And these are smart, tech-savvy men and women.  They certainly recognize that the “world is flat,” they are likely to understand the true benefits of technology better than any of us, and they’re probably using technology more efficiently than the rest of the system combined.

District technology leaders clearly aren’t the Anti-Techs that I sometimes make them out to be!

Instead, they’re progressive folks whose hands are tied by the almost overwhelming pressure to keep kids safe. If something horrible happens, a community isn’t going to care about the number of students that have created digital partnerships or developed personal learning networks. All they’ll want to know is who was responsible for approving a particular application.

And that guy will get hung out to dry!  This is America—the “land of the lawsuit”—after all.

So what’s the resolution?  How can we protect children today while preparing them for tomorrow?

That’s a tough one for me to answer because I don’t know what is or isn’t possible from a technological or a legal standpoint…But here are my thoughts:

First, I think that states and districts have to become much more rigorous about teaching children how to protect themselves online.  Most frightening to me in this entire conversation is that there’s not much being done to introduce Internet safety habits and behaviors in our schools—even though there are some simply remarkable materials available for free online.

“Keeping kids safe” means far more than “keeping them out of harm’s way.”

If we were more proactive about teaching Internet safety, we’d probably have fewer instances of students ending up in trouble online….and we’d build confidence in parents and the general community that we were being responsible when tackling new uses for technology.

Looking for a model of a proactive approach to teaching Internet saftey?  Then check out this site created by the Henrico Public School System in Virginia.

Next, I’d like to see more sophisticated firewall technology employed by schools, districts and states.  What if we developed a series of permission levels for students in a district that determined just how much of the Web was available to them?

Better yet, what if we required parents and students to complete a course on Internet safety together before a student was granted access to wider portions of the Net?  At the end of the course, parents could sign a waiver agreeing that they understood the potential risks involved in opportunities for digital communication and collaboration, releasing the district from liability for the actions their child took while online.

I’ll freely admit that I don’t understand district firewalls well enough to know if this is even possible—-either technologically (different passwords and logins for thousands of kids sure seems daunting) or economically (such tools may break the budget for some districts)…..but in the interest of sparking conversations, I figured I’d throw it on the table.

I’m sure that there are probably a million other ideas about how to effectively balance the need to keep kids safe with the need to give them exposure to the kinds of tools that they’ll use in tomorrow’s workplace— I stumbled on this article just recently addressing that very topic.

And I’m equally ready to recognize that this is a conversation I’m not the best prepared to lead.  The real experts are the district leaders who have a broader view of the ramifications—legal, financial, political—of any decision to make digital tools available to students.

What I can say is that something’s got to give!  We can’t continue to claim to be interested in introducing students to “the tools of the 21st Century” if we’re going to make accessing those same tools nearly impossible.

Instead, we’ve got to start having meaningful community based conversations about the kinds of risks that are involved in allowing kids to create, communicate and collaborate online, about the amount of risk that we’re comfortable with, and about the best ways both protect and prepare our kids.

To do otherwise is to fail.