How to talk about technology in education without losing your mind to fear

Dangerously Irrelevant's "26 Internet safety talking points" is just about the best essay I've read on creating a sane, evidence-led, pro-education, anti-fear Internet safety policy for a school. Given that schools are third in line to receive oppressive technology mandates (behind autocratic nations and prisons, ahead of corporate enterprise users and the general public), this is desperately needed.

B. The technology function of your school organization exists to serve the educational function, not the other way around. Corollary: your technology coordinator works for you, not vice versa.

C. Mobile phones, Facebook, Wikipedia, YouTube, blogs, Wikispaces, Google, and whatever other technologies you’re blocking are not inherently evil. Stop demonizing them and focus on people’s behavior, not the tools, particularly when it comes to making policy. You don’t need special policies for specific tools. Just check that the policies you have are inclusive of electronic communication channels and then enforce the policies you already have on bullying, cheating, sexual harassment, inappropriate communication, illicit behavior, etc.

D. Why are you penalizing the 95% for the 5%? You don’t do this in other areas of discipline at school. Even though you know some students will use their voices or bodies inappropriately in school, you don’t ban everyone from speaking or moving. You know some students may show up drunk to the prom, yet you don’t cancel the prom because of a few rule breakers. Instead, you assume that most students will act appropriately most of the time and then you enforce reasonable expectations and policies for the occasional few that don’t. To use a historical analogy, it’s the difference between DUI-style policies and flat-out Prohibition (which, if you recall, failed miserably). Just as you don’t put entire schools on lockdown every time there’s a fight in the cafeteria, you need to stop penalizing entire student bodies because of statistically-infrequent, worst-case scenarios.

E. You never can promise 100% safety. For instance, you never would promise a parent that her child would never, ever be in a fight at school. So quit trying to guarantee 100% safety when it comes to technology. Provide reasonable supervision, implement reasonable procedures and policies, and move on.

It starts at A and goes all the way down to Z. Every one of 'em's a gem.

26 Internet safety talking points


  1. Despite being a proponent of freedom on the internet, I’m afraid I simply can’t agree with a lot of these points. The key distinction for me is that corporate and education networks are not personal networks – if you want to do things that aren’t allowed at work or at school, you have plenty of opportunity at home on your own time. It’s analogous to allowing people to play gameboy in class, and generally shouldn’t be allowed.

    It’s right that a corporate network ban first and ask questions later because corporations (and school administrators) move too slow to understand all the threats before they crop up – and that includes threats of liability as well as threats to network security. As long as the questions really are asked, then there’s no problem with that policy in those circumstances.

    If there is a genuine educational or work-related need for a filtered resource to be unblocked, there should be a fair policy for getting that done, and if we’re arguing that such a policy should exist, I can agree. But if we’re arguing the the default on an educational or corporate network should be to allow access to things that would be best left at home, then I don’t think this article has argued that effectively.

    I also want to add something about use of network resources for non-educational purposes (one of my friends’ personal folders on our school network was over 5gb by the time he left) but this comment’s already quite long!

    1. I once worked for a Fortune 50 company with the following internet policy: “No non-company related pornography.”  Sounded pretty reasonable!  I’m still trying to understand what prompted that particular wording.

      1. I’d like to know what company-related pornography there would be. Knowing the internet, even if it were strictly company-related, there would still be a lot of it.

        1.  It was a surgical company that has ob-gyn products.  Any pictures would be of the medical textbook variety.  Showing surgery, disease, cancer, etc.

          Which makes the policy really disturbing.  Regular porn would be banned, but any freak who got off on that stuff would be following policy.

  2. This seems to be aimed at the worst of the school filtering programs.  Most are trying to find the sort of balance described between teaching information and teaching morality (and schools are unfortunately stuck with doing both).  They need help finding the middle, not avoiding the extremes.

    Even looking at other schools can be misleading.  My wife would trust her 8th graders with metallic sodium.  Her 7th graders managed to screw up eating ice cream (She was in shock over that one).  Try finding a system that can cover both levels of maturity and trust.

    They can’t ignore the 5%.  I think the phrase “This is why we can’t have nice things” is sad, but true.  If a school didn’t try to build a system resistant to those 5%, some administrator is going to be crucified as soon as one of them does something dumb.  And be replaced by an administrator that will imediately put something fare more draconian in place.

    Balance: easier said than done.

      1. Large quantities smeared all over their faces.  And oblivious to the fact.  And not just a few kids, most of them.

        Certainly not an apocalyptic disaster.  But it’s certainly hard to trust a kid who isn’t mature enough to get food in their mouth.

        1. Meh, for all we know one or more of the “in crowd” managed to pass of having icecream on their face as the new thing. And so everyone that cared about such “had” to do it that way…

          1. Sadly, it wasn’t.  They were oblivious to ice cream all over their face and clothes.

            And if it were true, that just means they weren’t acting mature enough to make their own decisions.

  3. Some policies seem to me to be aimed at teachers and administrators, rather than kids, although kids are the ostensible targets. Banning Facebook at school, for instance. Is that really a problem for most kids, or is it an incredible time suck for the administrative types?

    1. “Is that really a problem for most kids, or is it an incredible time suck for the administrative types?”

      It’s entirely possible that it’s both. Although if the kids are playing Words With Friends that arguably has some educational value.

  4. This isn’t an example of an Internet type of trust, but I think it is a good example of how a teacher can set boundaries on behavior rather than outright bans: My daughter’s second grade teacher’s wife was a dental hygienist. One of the things he knew from her was that chewing sugarless gum is really good for teeth. So, he not only allowed his kids to chew gum, but he encouraged it. At break time all the kids would run around handing gum out, which was a super cute sharing moment in the day. So, what about gum on the desks? He just made it clear that they’d lose their gum chewing privileges if he found gum on stuff. Not a problem! 

  5. I wonder if these would work in corproate-cube-land. The cube-land I work for is so paranoid, that they block The Onion for profanity, yet the profanity exclaimed by the co-workers here, make the Onion look mild.

  6. Having read through all 26 points, as a burnt-out former middle/high-school math algebra teacher, I also can’t agree with all of them. There’s certainly a lot of good stuff in there, but a lot of problematic assumptions, too. Overall, the article tends to assume that the school is working well in most aspects _other_ than IT, that the administration is competent and intelligent, and that most of the students want to be there, or at least have some interest in learning from an adult.

    In my experience, most administrations are not particularly competent. So points like E: “Why are you penalizing the 95% for the 5%? You don’t do this in other areas of discipline at school” are based on faulty assumptions. For many administrators (and teachers), this is how everything is run.

    Point D says, “You don’t need special policies for specific tools. Just check that the policies you have are inclusive of electronic communication channels and then enforce the policies you already have on bullying, cheating, sexual harassment, inappropriate communication, illicit behavior, etc.” However, this doesn’t really make sense, when teachers and school disciplinarians often don’t have the knowledge or savvy to identify _who_ is doing the bullying, cheating, sexual harassment, illicit behavior, etc. If students in a computer lab are messaging each other inappropriately (using any of a variety of applications), but not using their actual names, who do you discipline? Or (another issue I had to deal with several times), when you discover an inappropriate image (usually porn) set as a computer’s desktop image, how do you determine which student set it, especially if it was set by someone in a previous class?

    Point J says: “Schools that ‘loosen up’ with students and teachers find that they have no more problems than they did before. And, often, they have fewer problems because folks aren’t trying to get around the restrictions.” This definitely would have been true with the magnate high school I attended. When most (or even half) of the students are well-read or at least intelligent, they will not spend most of their time actively trying to make trouble, because they occasionally consider the consequences of their actions, and they generally are interested in learning. However, I taught at a middle school whose notable contribution to the internet was a series of YouTube videos (recorded and posted by phone) of schoolyard fights, and where 13- and 14-year-old students were smoking pot _in class_ the third week I was there. Maybe a quarter of the students were actively interested in learning. Roughly half the students were ambivalent, and could be persuaded to learn if nothing more interesting was going on (read: anything related to sex, drugs, or violence; nothing else came close). Roughly a quarter were actively trying to interrupt the learning process (there are always a few at any public school, but this year at this school had an unusually high percentage of kids who also happened to be assholes). And maybe 5% read for fun (in any language) or had strong arithmetic skills, or were even thinking about their future. Most of these kids considered the internet (like every other part of their life) to be a rules-free playground. If the school would find no more problems with a loose IT policy than with a draconian one, it’s only because it had a lot of problems to begin with, and because it had no good way of _really_ seeing how often students were misbehaving online (just as it had no good way, in part due to more money going into district administration than school security, of monitoring students at lunch time).

    Point O says: “Schools with mindsets of enabling powerful student learning usually block much less than those that don’t. Their first reaction is ‘how can we make this work?’ rather than ‘we need to keep this out.’” Okay, just imagine you’re putting together an online service. Now imagine that a full 10% of the people who access your service will be black-hat hackers who want to cause frustration for you (the administrators of the service) or your customers. Would this be your security policy? Of course, allowing customers to get the most out of your service is good for business, but remember: _education is NOT a business_. Maybe 25% of your users are “customers” (people who actively want to use your service), if you’re lucky. The rest are kids forced to be there (forced to use your service). How can I make this clear? _8th Graders act like anonymous internet forum trollers when they’re NOT on the internet._ Now do you really trust a mentality of “let’s give them what we can and hope it works out”?

    Point Q says: “If you trust your teachers with the children, you should trust them with the Internet.” Most administrators don’t really seem to trust their teachers with the children. And after being a teacher, I don’t see why they should be trusted with children. While most of my colleagues were hardworking and many were intelligent, I had many classmates in credentialing programs who were neither. Heck, I’ve had supervising who encouraged plagiarism in those credentialing classes, and heard of instructors at credentialing classes who assumed it and okayed it. Some classmates had almost no ability to write coherently, and many had to take basic state teaching tests multiple times to achieve a passing score. But let’s assume you start with a pool of ethical, intelligent, trained teachers who would otherwise be trustworthy. After repeated weeks of 5 or fewer hours of sleep a night (due to grading, class planning, contacting parents, attending or managing extracurricular events/activities for students, tutoring, and professional development), even otherwise good teachers quickly become stupid, easily angered, and increasingly irrational, simply due to sleep deprivation. Add on the pressure to move quickly through the mandated curriculum and somehow get high test scores with students lacking pre-requisite knowledge and skills. Add on stagnant or decreasing wages and benefits, and increasing class sizes. Take away support roles like TAs and aides. Remember that teachers with less than 3 years in the same school generally have no job security, and that administrators often cycle them out every year to avoid pay raises or tenure. When the pressure builds up, teachers are bound to stop caring. After two years of teaching in public schools I couldn’t trust myself to be a nice person anymore. So why should teachers be trusted at all?

    Point T says: “When you violate the Constitution and punish kids just because you don’t like what they legally said or did and think you can get away with it, you not only run the risk of incurring financial liability for your school system in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars but also abuse your position of trust and send messages to students about the corruption of power and disregard for the rule of law.” However, the Supreme Court has for the most part ruled _against_ student free speech, even outside of school. Read up on Morse v. Frederick. It’s not right, but it’s a fact.

    I like these talking points. But I think they’re naive.

    1. As the author of the post, I’ll chime in here. I’m an educational leadership professor. I prepare school principals and superintendents. I have a law degree and have taught School Law numerous times.

      Contrary to the claim at the end here, the courts have quite consistently PROTECTED off-campus student speech, whether online or offline. There are a few cases that have gone against students, but the list of those that have gone against schools – as well as the number of times that schools have had to settle lawsuits and pay students without even making it to trial – is much longer.

      In regard to the other issues listed here, ARM_ed Pirate is correct that lack of effective leadership, incompetent teachers, and other dysfunctional school characteristics can trump any policy or process. But that’s true for any organization and doesn’t obviate the need to open up access to the Internet more of the time for more students and staff. We have schools that lock down the Web so restrictively, even for the adults that work there, that it might as well not exist. As I say in Point Y, I can think of no clearer way to highlight their irrelevance to students’ futures.

      Thanks for the dialogue. Much appreciated.

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