On Not Banning Laptops in the Classroom

This post has been percolating for a while as a series of op-ed pieces and studies announcing that handwriting is better for learning or that laptops or other devices are ineffective or that tech shouldn’t be used in the classroom continue to emerge.  I know I’ll get push back about this response, but I’ve needed to sit down and write this for a while now (and it’s easier to have these responses collected together so I can point to them later when these studies and think-pieces continue to emerge).   [Apologies for the listicle approach to this post.]

1) Those studies about the wonders of handwriting all suffer from the same set of flaws, namely, a) that they don’t actually work with students who have been taught to use their laptops or devices for taking notes. That is, they all hand students devices and tell them to take notes in the same way they would in written form. In some cases those devices don’t have keyboards; in some cases they don’t provide software tools to use (there are some great ones, but doing it in say, Word, isn’t going to maximize the options digital spaces allow), in some cases the devices are not ones the students use themselves and with which they are comfortable. And b) the studies are almost always focused on learning in large lecture classes or classes in which the assessment of success is performance on a standardized (typically multiple-choice) test, not in the ways that many, many classes operate, and not a measure that many of us use in our own classes. And c) they don’t actually attempt to integrate the devices into the classes in question, a point that Kevin Gannon makes in his excellent post on the subject.  [It’s possible I have missed one of these studies that actually addresses all of these things and builds in training for students (and faculty) in integrating devices, or maybe works with a population of students that has had access to a robust, integrated (not nominal) 1:1 laptop program for an extended period of time before the study.  If I have missed it, I’m sure someone will let me know.]

2) Banning laptops is going to be a big problem when increasingly you have students like those in my local middle school who are exclusively using laptops in all of their classes to great effect and success. More and more students in K-12 are going to be doing that and a ban will be telling at least some students who are used to taking notes that way (who are actually BETTER at taking notes that way), that they can’t use the tools for which they have developed a process.

3) Banning laptops is also going to be a problem because of the trend toward digitized sources:  more and more campus bookstores are offering readings and interactive activities in digital form, sometimes because it’s cheaper, but often because it’s easier for them to manage, and because some students want them in that form. Some texts are ONLY being offered in digital form going forward, and many of the ancillary materials publishers are offering only work in digital form. Plus, increasingly faculty (like me, but many others) are assigning readings that are only online or in JSTOR or other online collections. That’s both because of access, but also because of economic fairness. And then, I want them to have copies of the readings with them and it’s not economically or ecologically fair to ask them to print those copies out and bring them with them to class.  [In fact, having students collectively or individually annotate class readings with a tool such as Hypothes.is is a powerful way to improve classroom discussion that would be much more difficult without devices.]

4) Let’s be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that banning technology from our classrooms does not help with the general perception in the public that universities, faculty, and the education we offer is not relevant or adaptable to the modern age.  [There are obviously many other reasons we seem to be losing this argument about the value of traditional education that have nothing to do with the laptop ban discussion, but my point here is simply that blanket bans on technology do not help the larger perception of academics.  I won’t use the L-word, but you know that others do when they see op-eds from teachers about banning tech from classrooms.]

5) I’ve seen faculty suggest that laptop bans just results in students using smart phones more, even when there is a ban on that as well. So then someone suggests (usually jokingly, sometimes not) jamming cell phones. Jamming cell phones violates federal law, so, um, good luck with that.

6) On the point of incorporating these devices into our pedagogy: I want students to be able to integrate the wide array of other sources available to them with what they are learning in my class, and I often ask them to go out and find good sources to answer questions that emerge during class lecture, discussion, and group work.  In other words, I work to integrate those tools and their connections to that larger array of information into the class.  [Admittedly, it also means that sometimes students will say, “but this other source says something different.”  That’s a terrific learning opportunity for us to talk as a class about sources, interpretation, and authority.]

6a) We should be working with students to meaningfully incorporate these devices into their learning.  I have no doubt that adding devices that students use in a wide variety of non-scholarly ways outside of class without attempts to integrate them into classes or to teach students to use those devices in academic ways risks ineffective uses of them.  I have plenty of conversations with students about how to take notes already. Most of the time their problem isn’t which device (pencil, laptop, phone, quill) they use to take those notes, but how to take them and how to use them to learn based on their own experiences, learning styles, and discipline.

6b) Incorporating devices into teaching will require faculty training and support.  I suspect that some (though certainly not all) of the support for these bans stems from the fact that many faculty don’t feel confident in using technology broadly and in particular for academic purposes (for note-taking, for social media, for research and analysis, for blogging, etc.) themselves and so don’t feel confident in having their students use those tools in and out of class.    [One answer to that at UMW is our Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, our Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation, and our student-centered Digital Knowledge Center, as well as the week-long Digital Pedagogy Lab institute. But there are more and more options out there to get faculty members the development they need to become more comfortable with digitally enabled pedagogy.]

7) Other critiques of laptop/device bans include: accessibility issues for studies with accommodations, the argument that bans are more about professors’ egos, the notion that bans demonstrate an inflexibility of approach, and the point that other distractions exist too.

8) Caveat: It’s the blanket ban with which I have such issues. I don’t have a problem with faculty asking students at certain points to close their laptops or put away their devices because the type of engagement at that moment is changing.

9) Caveat #2: When there are devices in the classroom, especially larger ones, a few students will use them in ways that will be distracting.  I’m not opposed to strategies or explicit conversations about reducing that problem.  It’s the throwing-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater approach of blanket bans that are the issue here.

10) Finally, having conversations with students about how they use devices more generally and laptops in particular for academic success is important, as well as how best to take notes. I do it with students in my First-Year Seminar in detail, and in other classes in general. My school is working to develop these practices more generally and to support faculty as they incorporate technology into their classes.

Encouraging good learning practices among students (and faculty) is a terrific thing to do. I’m just not convinced that entirely banning one set of those practices and the tools used to engage in them is the way to get either group to develop those practices more generally.


[Thanks to Sue Fernsebner for pointing out the appropriateness of this discussion in the wake of the many pieces reflecting on Seymour Papert‘s life and work.]

Thinking about Public History Projects: A DIY history toolkit

My good friend, Leslie, begins a new tenure-track job this fall in Idaho. She recently asked for input on her next big project. If you haven’t read the post yet, you should. The gist is as follows:

Whereas public historians traditionally have done history for the public–e.g. in museum exhibits or in documentary films–there’s a small but growing group of public historians who want to foster and study history done by the public, by passionate amateurs and average folks instead of created for them. I’m one of those historians, and as I transition to life on the tenure track (I’ll have 4-5 years to prove I deserve to be employed for the next 30-35 years), I’m searching for a project or two in which I can make significant progress in 3-4 years.

I’m hoping you can help me by telling me a bit about how you use history in your life, either everyday or on special occasions. I want to find a project that not only interests me, but that really gets people excited about engaging with the history of their family, neighborhood, house, community, hobby, or whatever else they’re passionate about.

My response in her comments included two ideas, which, you’ll notice, don’t really answer her question. They do, however, raise a couple of ideas about ways to approach her rethinking of public history’s goals:

1) Create a centralized set of resources on a topic. I’m thinking of collecting links to web-based resources, but they might just be lists of various sources/works for the topic. Gathering those together in and of themselves could prove valuable to a group that has not done that yet for its own history and would allow you to bring the experiences of a public historian to help as well.

2) Create a resource that would provide access to tools, methodologies, approaches that would help people engage in their own group/family history. This would be a kind of DIY family/group history kit. You might include advice on how to do interviews; how to scan images and documents for historical purposes; discuss using WP or other blogging software (or software like Omeka) to create exhibits; how to use wikis to create crowdsourced projects like the Davis Wiki; examples of other sites (and ones that inspire a sense of possibility, not major, grant-funded institutional projects); how to fact check family/group stories (or why those stories are valuable regardless of their validity), etc.

Here I’m thinking of initially virtual tools. But with an outside grant or support from your institution, you and your new department might become known for lending the equipment (cameras, audio recorders, scanners, etc.) and expertise needed to empower people in your area to do their own individual or group history projects.

The more I think about it, the more I really like the second notion, the DIY history toolkit. Think about the value of such a guide/checklist/resource. What would you include in a DIT history toolkit?

Good luck to Leslie with her move, her new job, and her new projects. Head on over and help her out.

Lecture: Teaching and Learning with New Media

I’ve not posted on this blog in a while (see ProfHacker.com and http://mcclurken.org/ for other goings on).

However, I was honored to be asked to give one of the inaugural lectures in the Teaching Excellence series begun this year by UMW’s Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning.

What follows is the video and a list of the links mentioned in the talk.

Thanks to all for the opportunity and the questions. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions.


  • What is New Media?
  • My Goals in using New Media tools
  • Examples of Classroom Use
  • Assessing the Impact
  • What Can You Do?
  • What is New Media? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_media


  • Blogging – Teresa Coffman (EDUC) and Steve Greenlaw (ECON)
  • Blog as course management toolSue Fernsebner’s Freshman Seminar: Toys as History
  • As site for collecting hard-to-find research sources for students –Steve Harris’s Hist 485: Researching Russian and Soviet Resources
  • UMWers & New Media

    Low Levels of Technology Use

  • Wiki for discussions in all my courses
  • Blogs as Individual/Group Reflections
  • Blogs as Research Logs (Historical Methods/Digital History)
  • More Intensive Uses of New Media Tools

  • Examples of Individual digital projects — US History in Film
  • Class Museum of history of technology projects (http://historyoftech.umwblogs.org/)
  • See also Krystyn Moon’s 19th-Century Museum – http://amst312.umwblogs.org/
  • Adventures in Digital history course
    Digital Toolkit
    • 2008 Class & Projects http://digitalhistory.umwblogs.org
    • – Historical Markers Project (HMP) — [6]
    • – James Farmer Project (JFP) — [7]
    • – James Monroe Papers Project (JMPP) — [8] and [9]
    • – Alumni Project (AP) — [10]

    Adventures in Digital History 2010 — http://dh2010.umwblogs.org

    • UMW Images Project
    • Life and Legacy of Mary Ball Washington
    • James Monroe’s Letters as Minister to France
    • City of Hospitals: Fredericksburg in the Civil War

    Student Impact Survey — From November 2009Contact me directly for details

    Strategic Planning for Academic Technologies and Libraries

    So I posted almost two months ago about the strategic planning process going on at my institution and the subcommittee (now called a “discussion group”) I was working with on Academic Technologies and Libraries. I wanted to post a link to what we came up with to recommend to the larger Strategic Planning Steering Committee. I’d appreciate any feedback that people had on what we came up with, especially since I’m on the Steering Committee and we’ll be taking this report (and 14 others) into account as we write the school’s strategic plan to present to our Board of Visitors in July.

    Here’s the report, in MS Word form.

    Writing a Strategic Plan for Academic Technologies & Libraries

    Our institution is going through a major process of strategic planning, and one on a fairly accelerated timetable. We need to have a complete draft by May and after feedback from the Board and the rest of the academic community, have a plan in place by November. I’m a member of the strategic planning steering committee, the group responsible for directing the process and for writing the final report, as well as being part of some of the discussions of the pieces of the report.

    Now, strategic plans are funny things. Done right, they can set aspirational and practical goals for an institution that can drive fund-raising, shape organizational decisions, and determine the investment of key resources. Done wrong, they can create needless animosity, fear, confusion, and leave an institution in worse shape than before the process. But even when done well, the best strategic plan is useless unless the administration and the academic community as a whole relies on it, turns to it, uses it. So, the first question might be, why bother? Why invest time in an enterprise that has such a potential for failure? The answer is that I believe that this effort is a real opportunity for change, a true chance to articulate a vision for the direction of this institution, a remarkable moment in the life of the institution. I, and many of my colleagues, choose to see this as a time to think boldly about the future of the liberal arts university we care so much about.

    One area in which I believe bold, visionary thought is both required and possible is in the area of academic technologies and libraries. I see the three key reasons why this area of discussion is particularly important for Mary Washington right now.

    1. Virtually everyone who talks about the future of institutions of higher education sees academic technologies and libraries as critical vehicles (paths, jump-starters, incubators, facilitators — choose your metaphor as you wish) for the growth of colleges and universities.
    2. Academic technologies offer a chance for smaller institutions to compete with much larger schools with much more sizable resource budgets. Also, assuming a basic computing infrastructure is in place, digital tools and technologies also allow for a quick ramp-up time for projects, easier piloting of new ideas, access to significantly larger (and better organized) library and archival collections, and widespread changes to existing systems or practices.
    3. Finally, UMW already has a number of critical resources in place with which we can build, create, and innovate boldly. [UMWblogs is perhaps the best known digital tool, and Faculty Academy may be the best-known event; but by “resources” I really mean a dedicated group of librarians, instructional technology artists, staff, and faculty. It is these genuinely creative, caring, thoughtful, reflective, and revolutionary people who must lead and effect the bold changes for which I’m hoping.]

    In the next month, the strategic planning discussion group on Academic Technologies and Libraries needs to come up with 2-3 big goals in this area for the institution with several smaller objectives and a number of specific measurable benchmarks that would reflect progress toward those goals and objectives.

    So, help me and UMW to think boldly about these critical components of a successful institution. What would be on your top list of goals for a small (~4,000 undergraduates, ~1,000 graduate and professional students) institution of higher learning? What are the necessary digital and/or library components of an liberal arts university of the 21st century? What could we do to be a leader among our peers in the fields of academic technology, library services and information resources?

    Digital History and Undergraduate Digital Literacy

    As so many of my posts, this began as a comment on someone else’s blog that grew unwieldy as a comment…. In this case, I was joining a discussion about teaching undergraduates digital history begun by the wise Mills Kelly at edwired and continued in the comments by Sterling Fluharty of PhD in History and others. Mills expresses concern about the lack of attention to the question of undergraduate teaching in a recently published panel discussion in the Journal of American History about “The Promise of Digital History” . [As Mills points out, it’s quite a useful panel other than this glaring omission of teaching undergraduates.]

    So, my comment (and now this post) is an attempt to explain from my perspective why digital history is important to teach to undergraduates.

    My goal in teaching undergraduates digital history is to offer students new ways of approaching their own research and thinking and writing. Our department has agreed that “digital literacy” is core to our expectations for our undergraduates (along with critical thinking and reading, the creation of original ideas, the deployment of evidence to support one’s arguments, and the ability to present those arguments in sophisticated written and oral forms).

    Now, I know the notion of “digital literacy” has been overused and has multiple definitions, but I actually like the phrase for people’s familiarity with it and for that very richness of meanings. So, I’ve viewed the goals of my undergraduate digital history course through some of those definitions.

    • One goal of my digital history course is to teach the most conventional form of digital literacy: How does one find and evaluate online materials for scholarly (and non-scholarly) uses? How does one begin to sift through the massive content that is available in an systematic and/or creative way? What are the pitfalls and perils, the promises and potentialities of the online information experience?
    • Another facet of digital literacy is the notion of digital identity: This is a class that, through individual and group online presence (often blogs and wikis, but many other tools are available as well), explicitly engages students in discussions of their digital identity. How should we present ourselves to the online world (personally, professionally, and intellectually, but also individually and in groups)? [In future iterations it might even encourage them to create their own centralized online presence that wouldn’t necessarily be housed by the university (or restricted by a single course). We’ve been engaged recently at UMW in a number of discussions related to this notion of enabling students to take control of their digital identity. See Jim’s post and comments for one take.]
    • Increasingly I have become convinced that a key, but often overlooked, aspect of digital literacy is a willingness to experiment with a variety of online tools, and then to think critically and strategically about a project and to identify those tools that would be most useful to that project. [Note that I’m NOT talking about training in a specific tool or even a set of tools. This is not an MS Word or Blackboard skills class. This digital history class offers students a “digital toolkit” from which to choose. There certainly needs to be some basic exposure and technical support, but part of the goal is to get students to figure out how to figure out how a new tool (system, software, historical process) works on their own.]
    • Broadening the previous point, one of my desires for students is for them to be comfortable with being uncomfortable as they try new things. Figuring how to deal with constantly changing technology is something we all are dealing with, yet in higher education we often put students in new situations only when they first begin. Before long, they’ve got the process and procedures down and can churn out 8-10 page papers in their sleep. Yet what kind of preparation is that for the larger world? I know, I know. There are much larger philosophical and practical and even political issues at work here. But my point is simply that it’s good for college classes to shake students (and faculty) out of their comfort zone. Real learning happens when you’re trying to figure out the controls, not when you’re on autopilot.
    • Finally, I think digital literacy for undergraduates in history should encompass at least some exposure to the complex new approaches to research in the discipline offered by recent advancements in computing, including text-mining or GIS (if only because that those methods are influencing a new generation of scholarship that students will need to understand to assess). As they become more accessible and widely used, there will be more opportunities for students to also engage in the application of these tools in their own work.

    Now, one of the issues raised by Sterling on Mills’s blog post was whether the goal of an undergraduate history class was to train students for particular jobs. My response to that is both practical and pedagogical. No, I don’t see this course as preparing them for particular jobs. However, I do see the class as preparing students to be adaptable citizens and workers, with a sound grounding in who they are (on- and off-line) and a willingness to try new things, to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Having said that, I’ve had several alums of my first digital history class get jobs that were direct results of the skills (and portfolio of projects) gained in the class. In some cases it was because of a specific tool that they’d worked with; in others it was because of the package they were able to present to their potential employers. Certainly those students felt like the class had been worth it for them.

    Finally, although I’ve been talking specifically about one class, aspects of these ideas have made their way into most of my classes, as well as those of several of my departmental colleagues, including that of our methods class for majors. Still, I suspect there will be a need for (at least) one class in my department that is explicitly focused on Digital History for a long time to come.

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    Responding to a Post about Teaching and Technology

    One of our students, Joe McMahon, has posted a blog entry about the problems related to the (mis)use of technology by professors. [It’s amusingly titled, “You Can’t Make Me Drink the Kool-Aid: Part One.”]

    I wrote one of the longest comments I’ve ever written and decided I spent enough time on it to repost it with slight modifications here.

    I asked others for their opinions on this piece and now Gardner’s called me out on this as well, so here goes.

    I would say that blogging (or wiki-ing, or any assignment, technology-based or otherwise) needs to be created with a purpose. I suspect that all of my colleagues have a goal (or often multiple goals) in mind when they create an assignment. What do I hope to accomplish? What form should it take? What sources do I expect students to engage with? How creative/analytical/exploratory/argumentative do I want students to be? How much freedom should they have to shape their own assignments? The list goes on and on.

    For me the question about the use of technology is integral to every assignment I create. [Of course writing your papers on lined note pads is using technology. But Joe is raising the point that for some of these assignments the technology is transparent and well known, allowing students to focus on the content (their argument, their research, their style) without having to spend time figuring out to create a new page, while for others the time spent (in and out of class) figuring the tech out distracts from the focus on content.] I get that. As a result, it’s a conscious choice (one of many that I make when creating an assignment and a class) when I ask students to learn a new technology in order to complete my course. [And frankly I try to always make my thinking on the goals of assignments transparent to students (regardless of the tech involved), although not always at the beginning of the class — sometimes having them struggle a bit on their own is part of the intended process.]

    Where I think I really have an issue with the post’s argument is with the notion that students are losing out on content by spending time learning a new technology. First of all, every course I create leaves out much, much, much more “content” than I can possibly cover in a single semester. So, each class is a series of choices I have to make about what gets left out. Are students disadvantaged by the material I leave out of my US History Survey on the battles of Revolution so that I can focus on the popular culture of the time? Maybe, but since I can’t cover everything then I have to focus on the areas that I think are most important in creating a general student experience of learning about the past.

    I’ll give you another example with even more of a parallel: I could probably cover those Revolutionary battles if I didn’t spend a third of class time engaged in class discussions of primary sources about the Revolution (and other topics), but instead lectured every class period. Lecturing is an incredibly efficient way to dispense content, though fairly problematic in terms of learning content and even worse if you want to build more skills than just passive note-taking and oral processing. I choose to leave out historical content in order to encourage a set of academic skills that I think are useful beyond the classroom (reading primary documents, understanding context, placing yourself in the past, contributing orally to an ongoing discussion, connecting the words of people in the past to the modern perspectives).

    For me the use of (newer) technology fits this category as well. Yes, I’m asking students to do something new, or to push themselves, or to think about doing something in a different way, and yes, that potentially takes away from their time to read (or learn) about those darn battles, but that’s a choice I’ve made as the creator of the course. That choice is based in my desire to balance the skills and content portions of my class (that’s an over-stated dichotomy here) to provide the best possible experience for the students going forward, not just in that course, but hopefully in others as well.

    [I haven’t discussed engaging students directly here. I would simply echo Gardner’s perspective on this in his comments on the post, adding only that by being as transparent as possible about my thinking with my students that I’d like to think I’ve been fairly successful as engaging a sizable percentage of them over the years.]

    Joe has followed up his first post with a series of suggestions for professors thinking about using technology in the classroom, many of which I agree with. He’s also suggested a Faculty Academy session with students and faculty brainstorming about ways to increase student engagement related to technology. Sounds like a good idea.

    Brief Update — End of Week 5

    I’ve been kept from blogging here lately by managing various class details and two searches, among other things. Still, I wanted to post a brief update of what’s going on in the Digital History Seminar.

    All four groups have submitted proposals (“contracts”) with their plans for the projects and how they will complete the project. [They did this via GoogleDocs that each group had used to write the contract.] These contracts included a description of the project, an annotated list of the digital tools they were planning on using, and a timetable for the completion of the major components of the project.

    My observations, in brief, after reading these contracts:

    1. In most cases, the proposed projects are more ambitious than those I would have assigned had I been very precise about what I wanted. [I was intentionally broad in my initial descriptions of the projects.] Although one or two of the groups may have to ultimately scale back their goals a little bit, thinking creatively and ambitiously about these projects is exactly what I hoped for these students. They have done that.
    2. The tools they’ve chosen to use are mostly those that DTLT and I presented to them as part of their digital toolkit. [Omeka, GoogleDocs, SIMILE/Timeline, WordPress (via UMW Blogs WPMU), WindowsMovieMaker, scanning, etc. There are a few exceptions that were outside that list (e.g., Adobe Contribute for a site that’ll be part of the school’s official site), but that’s okay. The groups at least had a chance to think about which tools made the most sense, given what they wanted to do.
    3. The schedules were often very ambitious, and that was the most common comment I made to the groups. Still, in almost every case the group members wanted to forge ahead with their ambitious set of deadlines, hoping that it would keep them on track throughout the semester.

    Each group received my comments and has until tonight to revise their contract for my approval. [They can still make changes, but they’ll need to have a good reason to do so after this point.] Next week we’ll continue our weekly discussions of a topic related to digital history (this week’s topics are Copyright and Wikipedia) and we’ll see the first groups present status reports to the class as a whole. Not only will these weekly reports force students to articulate where they are and what they’ve been doing, they will also provide a forum for students to share their problems and successes with their classmates.

    Honestly, I can’t wait to see the products these groups produce. If anything, I’m more excited now that I’ve seen their proposed contracts. I was talking to a group of alums this weekend about the project and many of them expressed the wish that they were back in school again. [This kind of project is infectious. Be warned!]

    The one thing that I’m slightly let down by has been the relatively light blogging of the process by many of the students. [Some have been quite good.] But, since that blogging is a major part of the way I can assess their work (and ultimately leads to part of their grades), I’m a little surprised. Still, that is a minor issue (and one that I’m working on) that I think does little to detract from projects that have the potential of being some of the best student work I’ve ever been a part of. [I don’t think I’m being overly hyperbolic here, but I’m not exactly unbiased either. Besides, I said this would be a brief post, and look at it now…. :-]

    Week 2 — Still Chaotic

    This week the digital history seminar addressed information architecture and web site design, the open-source presentation software Omeka, and looked at other examples of digital history projects. [With the help of DTLT’s programming, semantic web touting, open-source and server guru, Patrick, of course.] Finally they split into their groups to continue brainstorming about their projects.

    I suspect the notion of information architecture is still a bit overwhelming as they are just beginning to narrow down the possible choices for their projects. Figuring out how to lay out their data in a structured way is difficult to comprehend if what that data might be is still not clear. I think they really liked Omeka, though they’ve been running into some problems figuring out how to use it. [I’ve mostly told them to just play with it on their own in the test install Patrick set up, something they’ve had mixed success with.]

    For two groups (the James Farmer project and the James Monroe Papers project) the process of deciding on the scope, nature, and form of their project is both enriched and complicated as they are working directly with interested faculty members who have expertise in their area. These two faculty members came to meet with those groups on Thursday and began the process of working with them. Getting to know each other, getting a sense for what each can bring to the process, and getting a feel for various expectations were all part of the process of that meeting.

    I’m still very excited about the class and I continue to enjoy going in each day. I’m a little concerned that content is still secondary in the students’ minds as they struggle with the various tools and skills they’re being shown. I’m going to need to continue to remind them (and me) that the digital tools and skills are just different ways of presenting what they want to say.

    Web Filtering and the Schools

    Fair warning: This is a rant about the inability to access certain social tools in certain K-12 school systems. [For another rant on a similar subject see this rejection of over-the-top web-related fears in education.]

    I’ve presented and talked with a number of different K-12 teachers from a number of different school districts in my roles as a history professor and as a relative of numerous such teachers.

    I’ve increasingly been annoyed by the trend among many school districts to block access from their networks to more and more websites. Now, let’s be clear. I understand that there is a great deal of material out there that we’d rather our students did not look at. But the process of filtering and blocking is done is such an awkward, blunt manner that the process of teaching is being impacted. [This is not to mention my problem with the notion that blocking access makes these things go away; we should instead be teaching students to engage the Internet in responsible ways.]

    Let me give you some examples.

    • del.icio.us and ma.gnolia.com — social bookmarking sites — I tried to demonstrate del.icio.us to a group of teachers recently, only to find that it was blocked, for reasons no one could explain. — How exactly are these a threat to individuals? Seriously, can somebody explain this one to me?
    • Basic Searches — I was on a K-12 school network and trying to find a citation for a friend to a scholarly article on Civil War prisons. I remembered the title, “Houses of Horror,” but was stymied by the keyword filter placed by the school system on the Google Search I ran. Now, I was able to find a workaround to locate the citation, but finding things online are difficult enough without such restrictions.
    • YouTube — YouTube is blocked by many school systems, and perhaps I can understand why. However, there are many useful videos on there for history (and other) teachers. Why can’t teachers access such materials, even if students can’t? Why block an incredibly useful resource for teachers? [I know there are walled garden version of these: TeacherTube, unitedstreaming, etc. But none of these are YouTube, the largest and most important of the video sites.]

    The two biggest problems I have with the filtering are:

    1) It ignores the reality that most students will figure out a way around such filtering. Or even if not, they’ll find this stuff outside of school, and likely outside of the guidance of the people who are trained to teach students how to process information in a responsible way. At the least, guided time online outside of walled Internet gardens better prepares students to be better Net citizens. How are students to learn information literacy if they get only a filtered version in the place where they are supposed to be learning critical thinking, source evaluation and knowledge creation?

    2 ) It shows a remarkable lack of trust for teachers themselves. Blocking teachers’ access suggests that although they are trusted with teaching 20-40 students at any given time, they are not capable of figuring out which sites are appropriate and which are not. The filtering systems used are too often blunt objects which make it harder for teachers to do their jobs well. [I’ve talked to teachers who’ve never been on YouTube, never heard of del.icio.us, never tried any one of a number of tools central to Web 2.0, and the main reason is that they don’t have access to them in the classrooms and schools where they spend so many hours each day.]

    I acknowledge that K-12 school systems face real problems in protecting children and young adults from the worst that is online. I understand much of the effort that they’ve made in this area, and comprehend that there are very real financial and technical constraints. However, in order for school districts to prepare their students for the digital world in which so often live, filtering systems have to become more targeted, and until they are, teachers need to be able to bypass those systems to gain access to some sites that are wrongly blocked.

    Am I off the mark here? Am I missing something? Are there other obvious sites/tools being blocked I haven’t listed here? Let me know.