A Sticking Plaster Mentality to Open Web Access in Schools

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.

Optophobia by Hani Amir
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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

Blocked For Me, Open For You

pay heed by most uncool
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Children in my class cannot use YouTube at school, but as soon as they leave at the end of the day, they will.

Since the exponential growth of the online video giant I have never once used a video directly from YouTube in my classroom. It is exempt from my teaching routine. On reflection I find this fairly incredible.

In England each local authority can choose which sites are open to use in the classroom. YouTube is blocked by many due to inappropriate content, which includes the comments accompanying the footage. However I have never been shown, read or offered an explanation by my local authority about their reasoning.

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. And that is what has happened.

It is hard to fully appreciate the effect this will have on years and years of children not being given guidance about open content, from the very people who are best placed to provide it.

I consider YouTube an unprecedented source of information in the form of videos. Does the blocking of access to this information infringe on our rights? According to Kimberley Curtis,

Article 19(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights holds that freedom of expression includes the right to information.  Specifically, it states that

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.

It goes on to admit that governments can place certain restrictions on these rights, but only if necessary.  This has long been understood to cover access to government information, such as rights covered by the Freedom of Information Act in the US.  But increasingly some are starting to include access to knowledge, particularly in regards to the internet, in this rubric as well.

No hands ma! by OLD! (NEW! http://flickr.com/codooautin)
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I take it then that governments have given school’s local authorities the freedom to choose what to block “if necessary” and YouTube falls into this category and the easy short-term decision is easy. So what would I want to see? What would I do with an unblocked, unfiltered web? I would invest the money from filtering in high quality guidance, training and materials to provide teachers the ability to properly guide young learners in the web they use at home anyway. Bringing some parts of our teaching force up to speed with the internet their students are using, and equip them with the basic principles for teaching and using an open web.

Having complete access to knowledge will after all benefit an economy in the long run, right? The Every Child Matters aims and objectives state that whatever their background or their circumstances, every child should have the support they need to:

  • be healthy
  • stay safe
  • enjoy and achieve
  • make a positive contribution
  • achieve economic well-being.

With a filtered version of the internet are we providing children the best possible chances to feel they can make a positive contribution to society? Is their protracted exclusion from a growing information source such as YouTube  actually detrimental to their chances of achieving economic well-being? Would an unfiltered web make children more or less safe?

Jack Balkin from Yale University explains,

Access to knowledge means that the right policies for information and knowledge production can increase both the total production of information and knowledge goods, and can distribute them in a more equitable fashion. The goal is first, promoting economic efficiency and development, and second, widespread distribution of those knowledge and informational goods necessary to human flourishing in our particular historical moment– the global networked information economy.

I repeat: It’s not just a trade off between equity and efficiency. We are not simply fighting about how to divide up a pie. Access to knowledge is about making a larger pie and distributing it more fairly. Or, at the risk of extending this pie metaphor well beyond its appropriate scope, access to knowledge means giving everyone the skills to make their own pies and share them widely with others.

Durham

(“How to make a pie” returned 23,500 results on YouTube.)

Beyond the filtering of YouTube there is massive inconsistency across UK schools about which sites are blocked and which are open. I work in Nottinghamshire, for some reason many of the sites that I use for educational purposes are open to me in school. For many of my colleagues across the UK it is different. Would my development of learning technology use have been completely different if I was 30 miles further North,  South, East or West? Of course it would.

Similarly children in one school will be able to use different learning tools in the classroom than another. As someone said to me recently this is a sort of “learning technology postcode lottery.” Inevitably those teachers that consider certain web based tools crucial to their teaching will think twice about a post in those local authorities most effected.

I want to hold a lens up to the inconsistency between local authorities in England. I have started a Google Spreadsheet with a list of 80+ web based tools used in the classroom and the opportunity to state OPEN or BLOCKED for your local authority.

Web Tools in English Schools > Blocked or Open?

Ollie Bray has been working on something similar for Scottish authorities – perhaps when both documents have reached a critical mass they could be amalgamated to create a full picture of web filtering in schools in the UK.

I would be grateful if you would complete the spreadsheet for your own location (unless Google Docs is blocked of course!) and help encourage others to do the same, this way we will build up a complete picture.

Five things I am hopeful for:

  1. This will continue to keep the issue of open web access on educator’s agenda.
  2. Local authorities will look at the list and question their own decisions. “Why has Nottinghamshire left Wordle open and we have not?”
  3. I would like to see teachers who are using these tools become part of the process of deciding upon filtering.
  4. Explanations why sites are blocked are provided to teachers and not some random category. We have reasons we want to use them in a positive way, LAs ostensibly have reasons why they are blocking them – that debate needs to be had.
  5. More consistency for what the web looks like for teachers and for students.