A Sticking Plaster Mentality to Open Web Access in Schools

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Just before Christmas Google announced the YouTube for Schools platform, which runs through a schools Google Apps for Edu account, allowing students to access selected content. In a week where the focus is on the changes of ICT curriculum I am concerned that the wider debate around open web access in schools will be once again lost.

This post is in part an effort to scrutinise Google’s YouTube for Schools more closely and to maintain and continue the important discussion on school web access, by bringing together some thoughts from around the web.

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Many schools will sign up to this flavour of YouTube because it quickly plasters over the crack of an unfiltered open web and means they don’t have to think about that.

An open YouTube allows teachers to use their own professional judgement about the type of content that a class will focus on and the ability to have the discussion about appropriate content, online behaviours and freely use whatever resources are appropriate to that class.

This “new” service, although it may well be more easily digested by school admins, means Google has become a further conduit of knowledge. A version of the web chosen for us – or in fact a team from YouTube Edu. This is literally a Filter Bubble in plain view! Eli Pariser explains in his book and TED Talk that due to an algorithmic filtering of the web we are seeing a version of the internet that is built from our preferences and previous interactions – the one the internet “thinks” you should see.

Schools using this will present a set of educational content on this platform decided by someone else and in my opinion are sidestepping the bigger issues we need to tackle. But this is a flawed model anyway, because at 3.30pm children will have access on the way home to an open web! We are sticking a plaster over the major issue of open content and how we must educate children and trust the professional teaching community on this issue. Summed up well by Liz Christensen a teacher from Nevada in the US who responded:


@ I think that since I am a professional, I should be treated as such. Let me make the judgements on youtube.
@grouchyteacher
Liz Christensen

Theo Kuchel, an expert in the use of video in teaching and learning, wrote the first piece I read in response to the YouTube announcement

Teachers should be encouraged to address the issues raised by comments and how related videos algorithms work and evaluate their effectiveness. This is all part of developing digital and media literacies. Offering a solution based on ‘removing’ comments and related videos is pedagogically unsound.

Dan Stucke an Assistant Headteacher from Manchester in the UK reacted to Theo’s post:

I’ve often found it useful as a spontaneous relationship builder too, many times a conversation in class leads to a story from my childhood or similar, and many times Youtube brings some video context to the story.

David Rogers the Curriculum Leader for Geography at Priory School in Portsmouth further underlines the importance of this, video material that doesn’t neatly fall into the “educational” category but requires a context to be built around it to make it meaningful, inspiring and useful at the point of learning. In many case the context is a very personal, subjective thing – if teachers the world over decided only to use media, resources and learning materials labelled “educational” just imagine the opportunities that would have been missed. Eli Pariser explains that:

…the search for perfect relevance and the kind of serendipity that promotes creativity push in opposite directions…By definition ingenuity comes from the juxtaposition of ideas that are far apart…

David goes on to explain:

While I admire Google for trying, the only real people that should be making decisions on what is useful educational content is teachers. Teachers who understand their own educational context, the learning styles of young people and their classroom. I think that it’s the wrong argument to have, but admit that it is a start.

I agree with everything David has said in his post, right up to the last 7 words in the quote above. I can’t bring myself to think that this can be a start – because many schools will see this as the only way, it is not a good starting point for schools because they are, all too easily, sidestepping the broader discussion about filtered and open web access.

I would like to think that using this version of YouTube in schools will make teaching colleagues question why it is in place and broaden their understanding and appreciation for the filters we put in place, but I worry it will simply be swallowed as is. In my opinion Google have given them an easy way out. (In addition both Theo and David ably deal with the roundabout language Google use in their announcement too about the “new” service.) Alastair Creelman from Linnaeus University in Sweden closes his blog postabout it with a telling statement:

…somewhere along the line we still need to discuss issues like attention, distraction, source criticism and information retrieval so that they (stuents) can find the good resources for themselves despite the distractions. We need to be careful of the line between benevolent protection and censorship.

Not enough discussion or debate has taken place, both online and within schools, Ryan Bretag has recognised this too:

And I have to wonder, are these Marlin-like administrators at all concerned about their choice between YouTube, YouTube for Schools, or <gasp> neither? Are they engaging their leadership teams, their faculty, and their students in a broader dialogue about this?

Back in 2009 Ewan posted findings by research consultant Kim Farris-Berg from a US, South American and Australia study:

In 2007, [filtering] was high school students’ number one obstacle to using technology at their schools (53 percent). For middle school students, two obstacles tied for the greatest barrier (39 percent each): “there are rules against using technology at school” and “teachers limit technology use”. It’s likely that when students face obstacles to using technology at school, they also face obstacles to inquiry-based learning opportunities which can include online research, visualizations, and games.

 

If we compare that with the information from the 2010 Speak Up campaign in the US it is sobering to realise that students frustrations with filtering in schools not only remain the top problem in their mind but also that it is growing even more acute. As Audrey Watters points out:

When a similar survey was undertaken five years ago, students’ number one complaint was the speed of Internet access at school. Now, they point instead to school filters and firewalls. 71% of high school students and 62% of middle school students say that the most important thing their school could do to make it easier for them to use technology would be to allow them greater access to the websites they need.

An increase from 53 percent to 71 percent of frustrated high schools students does not indicate we are making progress with open access in schools. We certainly don’t seem to be listening to the students themselves.

I wanted to hear from teachers on this subject as although the posts above prove a useful starting point there simply is not enough debate about the open web and open access to resources like YouTube. There were some really interesting replies on Twitter that back up many of the points made above, so I thought I would share a selection of them below:


@ open sensible access. Safest swimmers are those that can swim. Safest road users those who have passed. Safest Internet users..
@1jh1
john


@ some of our schools (over 80 I worked with in school district) never had YouTube blocked! Should be acknowledged.
@heyjudeonline
Judy O’Connell


@ We’re more adult based but our Institute has open FB, YouTube & Vimeo. It’s all about rights & responsibilities.
@gsyoung
Geoff Young


@ asked many schools this year “why is YouTube blocked?” And got the same answer “because we always have”
@PPotter
Pete Potter


@ We don’t use the LEA servers as they block sites such as youtube. The ethos of the school is of education rather than prevention
@andyhudson77
Andy Hudson


@ We’d have YouTube open to students in school during the day were it not for the bandwidth issues that arise each time we do so
@digitalmaverick
Digital Maverick


@ yes, our school does. We teach the kids discernment and how to check for approp content. Better that way than banning!
@krivett1
Kimberley Rivett


@ The “story” is simple: we teach digital citizenship. And we rely on student responsibility as well.
@surreallyno
Cristina Milos


@ we don’t block YouTube. No story. We just don’t. :)
@Dowbiggin
Diane Main


@ Work at a K12 school in Norway, we have 100% open Internet, incl FB, Youtube etc. Zombies roaming the hallways, of course.
@bjornhg
Bjørn Helge Græsli

What encourages me most about the tweets I have shared above is the number of schools and teachers working with open access to the web in their schools. Primary, secondary and higher ed institutes just getting on with things, helping their students tread thoughtfully and carefully through their experiences online.

What is missing though is the fanfare and celebration of what these schools, teachers, parents and pupils have accomplished together – we conveniently do not hear enough of their stories, we don’t share enough of their expertise. I hope that can change.

The teachers at these schools are doing their job and it is an opporunity we should all have.

I was writing about this topic 2 years ago and much like the statistics above, sadly not much has changed:

At the end of school children will go home and use the website, open to the inappropriate content we block in school. Not only is YouTube exempt from my teaching, I am exempt from helping children better understand, process and find value amidst a mass of video content. I am exempt from demonstrating and educating the children in my class to appreciate the power of such an information source. Apparently that is a good thing.

In my opinion it comes down to some hard decisions. The longer, more protracted path of educating young primary school children in dealing with open content on the web (including YouTube) is too hard a path for some to consider. The easy route is to block it. 

Or in fact use an impoverished, diluted version.

The ICT Curriculum is set to change in England and I just hope that we don’t lose sight of the role a more open approach to web access can have on learning in our schools. After all the students are telling us straight:

We are taught how to save documents and search for simple information, but we are on the internet at home and do most of our homework on the computer so we know how to do that. So IT lessons are kind of boring and we all really want to say to the teachers that we already know what we’re being taught. I wish we could learn how to do graphics, how to make a game or how to use Facebook safely – then we’d feel like we were actually learning something useful. I want to be a dancer or an actress when I’m older, so I’d like to learn how to look up videos to help me with my acting.

Ellie Magee, 12, Rivington and Blackrod high school, Bolton, Lancashire

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  • http://twitter.com/esafetyadviser Alan

    A very well written piece about filtering, and personally I don’t think it is an issue that will ever settle down due to the wide ranging views.  Personally I could not ever agree with an unfiltered school connection, not because I don’t want to, but because I don’t believe we can – I’ll explain further shortly.  I posted a blog recently where I briefly discussed schools managing a filtered internet – http://www.esafety-adviser.com/blog – to me that is a fundamental piece of the safeguarding jigsaw that is missing for a number of reasons in the large majority of schools I have visited.

    Wearing my other hat, I am a Service Manager in a large UK local authority, my focus is schools, and therefore the responsibility for filtering lies with me.  I have always believed that schools know best – therefore in the context of this discussion if a school asks our support provider for a particular site to be unblocked for any reason, my instruction is “unless there is any legal, safeguarding or security issue that cannot be mitigated against then the site is to be opened”.  The problem with this approach is that when you open for one school, you open for all (depending on how policies, groups etc are set up).  Therefore, a school could phone up and say they want the same site blocked.  A good example of this would be a legitimate educational gaming site.  Many schools simply will not allow that type of site in their school!

    To overcome this, the filtering solution used allows schools to take local control of their own filtering.  This allows schools to override the LA settings and manage their filtering properly in accordance with their own needs and wants.  All secondary schools have taken this up, one primary school out of over 300 has taken this up.

    In discussions with many of the primary schools, they simply do not want the extra burden of responsibility, and this is perfectly understandable.  Yet will still complain that the LA filtering is too restrictive (which it isn’t).

    In a roundabout way, this brings me back to why I do not believe we can have unfiltered access.  Firstly, I don’t think our culture is ready for it.  By that I mean that despite the work of Becta and many other agencies, some schools just don’t get e-safety.  To them it is a technical issue rather than a safeguarding one.  Actually the issue is one of governance, policy, procedure and education.  
    To those schools who do allow unfiltered access and say they don’t have a problem, I would ask, “how do you know?”   I’ll give a true example going back 3 years of one student who was trying to access i_n_c_e_s_t sites (I’ve spelt it that way to stop all the inappropriate spammers).  This young person had typed in the address of 20 of these sites, in other words he knew what he was looking for, he hadn’t searched for them.  Thankfully the IWF blacklist kicked in and he couldn’t access any of the sites.  I called the Headteacher to make him aware of this very concerning behaviour.  His answer?  “Is he doing that again?  I’ll get his class teacher to have a word with him.”  Suffice to say, I reported the matter to Safeguarding!  Another example would be of a primary teacher who gave her username and password to all her class so that they could get onto YouTube (our filters allow for staff access).  When she had returned from making a cup of coffee she was horrified to see the children watching an extremely graphic movie – not as horrified as the parents were!

    To summarise, should we allow unfiltered access within schools?  Yes, in my opinion.  Teachers should be allow to teach, they know best and we should not be seeing these forced restrictions.  Can we have unfiltered connections?  No, the culture is not there, the knowledge is sparse, and the vicarious liability to the school is too great.

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  • @Psycho65

    A thought provoking and well written overview of this contentious issue. Filtering remains a massive hurdle in allowing children to becoming true independent learners. The guidance of educators in how to self-filter, be eSafe and access appropriate content is difficult if not impossible to achieve in the training pool of content available to many schools. We then expect the students to tread water in the ocean when they get home.

  • Karyn

    May I preface my response by saying that (a) I am not a school teacher and (b) I have huge regard for those who are able to stick with the teaching profession in the face of increasing limitations and strictures, and who seek creative ways to actually educate their charges (hooray for responses like @andyhudson77).

    That said, my own (totally unscientific) observation is that those limitations and strictures are producing a breed of teacher who is purely a consumer of suggested resources and an unquestioning follower of government guidelines. It’s the easy way to be able to say ‘I’m doing my job’ without fear of contradiction. It’s the path of least resistance. And with all the administrative boxes teachers have to tick nowadays, an understandable choice, I guess.

    I found myself in a cohort of people with this mindset some time back, and many of them were mildly scandalised by my suggestion that they should teach students to negotiate the wider Internet with wisdom and discernment instead of trying to restrict them to only the safer, ‘shallow end’ where they couldn’t ‘get into trouble’.

    Living in my home right now is a young man who regularly quotes nuggets he has picked up, not from watching an entire YouTube clip, but from the caption underneath it. This, in his mind, is ‘research’.

    Sigh.

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  • http://www.mrstucke.com Daniel Stucke

    My extended views and an interesting discussion are in this blog post http://danielstucke.com/post/14124761599/youtube-for-schools-solving-a-problem-that-doesnt-exist#disqus_thread

    I’m in complete agreement with you Tom. I accept there are some issues at Primary level. But at Secondary/K12+ level the filtering needs to stop.

  • http://elearningr14.blogspot.com/ Kimberley Rivett

    To add to this, now that I have had the chance to read all of the comments too, I have to say that I totally agree with the idea of ‘swimmers drown because they never learnt to swim’. However, we need to remember that many of the strongest swimmers also drown, so the idea of teaching kids ‘to be safe’ on the internet does not mean that they will never get it wrong. We have to use the ‘oops’ moments in our classrooms and teach within those – using the ‘mistakes’ made on the internet give us the chance to teach discernment and create open opportunities for the children to have ‘safe’ problems occur – one where they know to tell an adult, they feel comfortable reporting what has happened.
     Last year, there were about 2-3 incidents per term in my classroom. Because we have a class agreement as well as strategies in place, and are always open to problem-solving together rather than blocking things, the children quickly reported their problems and mistakes and we all had the chance to learn from them together. Never putting them in a pool doesn’t mean they will never drown.Teaching them to swim doesn’t either, but boy it’s a good start…