October 24, 2009

Why backward social-network-banning education authorities are wrong


Where many education authorities continue to routinely block, filter and ban social networks not just for youngsters but for teaching and management staff, new research from Gartner (via Euan Semple) reveals yet more logic behind opening up networks and encouraging teachers, learners and managers to network online as well as at their twice-a-year in-service get-togethers:

"While a job may be regarded as an economic transaction, the human brain thinks of the workplace as a social system," she said. Social networking can make employees "feel valued, a part of a community, and earn the respect of peers."

Read more here. I therefore continue to be disheartened by the backward policies of regions such as Argyll and Bute, who admit that "social networking sites are blocked in all schools as policy... Staff are not able to maintain or access personal sites such as their own blogs or Twitter pages through the council's network." They want teachers to share practice through "all available means", but one can only assume they mean the telephone, one-to-one email or pigeon carrier. A shame really, since when I was a student at school there in the late eighties we were using Macs for desktop publishing and the authority area was a world leader in video conferencing for isolated community learning aeons before the rest of the world got the Skype collaboration bug. But, as they say, you're only as good as your last gig...

Three years ago the national education agency in Scotland and Don Ledingham, the then education chief in East Lothian, took the lead and paid me public cash to help amplify the groundbreaking, award-winning work with colleagues in East Lothian, who continue to reap the educational and managerial benefits of a more-or-less open network and promotion of sharing practice through blogging and Twitter amongst many platforms.

It is therefore becoming increasingly embarrassing to me that, three years on, most education authorities in Scotland continue to be ignorant of the possibilities, fearful of the occasional [human] mistake (and at a loss, it would seem, about what to do when someone does make such a human error).

Adding to the embarrassment is the apparent own-goal scored by me and my colleagues whose learnings are often adopted more enthusiastically in countries elsewhere around the globe while those leading education on our own doorstep put caution ahead of innovation. Our £35m national intranet has just added functionality of blogs and wikis, three years after I recommended they be the keystone 'learning diaries' of a personal profile. This is good, but it is slow.

What do I reckon could be done (only my tuppence worth, I add...) In a recent interview for Merlin John's new Innovators series I outline how I believe things could change:

  • design new and use existing tools and learning spaces that entice and delight young people, rather than tools contrived "for schools" which we have to mandate them to use - if the kid had a choice, would they use that or the competition?;
  • plan less up front, 'for the sake of planning', creating time and room for movement as innovations come up;
  • stand still and do nothing: carve out time to look at what is working in the world around you and steal, steal, steal (and give credit where it's due);
  • if there's a bandwagon, jump on it and see if it goes anyhere (a Coulterism, but not that kind of Coulterism);
  • don't do pilots, just do the real deal from the start (you can still start small and fail quietly, but the word 'pilot' tends to preempt an assumption of failure).

Thanks to Doug Belshaw's post for making me go back and fill in more detail on the above bullets.


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Applies to Economic Development Agencies too! Andrew "biting the hand that feeds me" Mitchell :-o

Perhaps we need to start a fund to purchase Smart Phones for teachers so they can by-pass these restrictions

John...sssch. Many of us use our Blackberry tethered to laptops to bypass the buffoons in Council IT. After all our kids get round the proxies on a regular basis. I sometimes wonder who thinks the Council IT are the experts because they haven't got a clue! 'Twitter is responsible for viruses being passed around and thousands of companies have banned it' (Council Senior IT man) Aye right...that's why the GOVERNMENT have a twitter policy and use twitter you halfwit.

I despair sometimes. 23 years in IT before becoming a teacher and when I see what they block with websense (bebo blocked face book not) (would that be so council employees can waste all day updating their facebooks?) and how they let teachers have old rubbish machines whilst giving HQ staff all singing all dancing that don't use a tenth of their power! Just like 1990 in some schools as far as ICT is concerned. The teaching with ICT will and the expertise are there, the equipment and support is not. But then it would mean IT having to work for a living!

Ewan - that's a rainy day post

Islay High School which is perhaps most innovative school in Scotland in delivery space ..Argyll and Bute.

The haul has been very much longer than the last 4 years, but it never makes it any less frustrating - BECTA are moving to quality standards around ICT - kite marking of schools on what they can offer ..and there may be other levers in Scotland that we haven't expolored yet.

The irony I think is that in the more financially constrained times to come schools will need to look to cloud computing and open up networks for resources.

Don't be embarrassed it's great to have folks like you out striding out around the globe and picking up good ideas on the levers we need to make education authorities more forward looking in this space.

And as a footnote imagine the equal frustration in Colleges and HE space where all these tools are available and many staff and students shun these as learning aids - the revolution is still underway it won't be televised but will be on twitter..

More power to you elbow

The Islay High School example is indeed world-leading, but is a glorious exception to the rule. Its success is clear when you visit, yet it's not being rolled out. Sustainability might be a reason, lack of will another - I'm not qualified to know the reasons for it remaining stuck on the island. All I know is that colleagues in education authorities the world over are still largely living a good few years behind where those in the real world are playing, living and learning (and thank goodness for the many exceptions and blips we see bucking the norm).

Banning and blocking any web services anywhere these days only shows up the ignorance of institutions who employ such practices. With more and more of us, students and staff alike, accessing anything and anyone we like whenever we like on our various mobile devices, educating users in the responsible and safe use of social networking sites is the only way forward.

Like the dinosaurs, the ignoranti will eventually die out. It is just a matter of time. Until that happens I feel sorry for all those kids who fall victim to cyberbullying because their overprotective school or college denied them the digital safety/digital literacy education they deserve.

I am constantly frustrated by illogical internet blocking and banning in an age when digital literacy is [IMHO anyway]an essential element of the curriculum. Staff and pupils alike are denied the opportunity to collaboratively develop and exercise digital discernment. Internet safety is important - that's a given - BUT
where is the scope for educational exploration and intellectual expansion if all we are allowed to see is through the grimy, antiquated, poorly designed portholes of LA policy?
It's all too narrow, airless, claustrophobic and ultimately unhealthy.

I can relate to your frustration at the lack of vision people in leadership positions tend to have.  I have many stories.  Here's just one. 

I have encountered a similar situation here in California.  I live in Silicon Valley-center of technology advances-and even here, not everybody (especially educators) are innovators and visionaries.  As someone who has used computers since I was 12 years-old (that's over 20 years), I was disheartened when my new principal told me not to mention my use of technology in the classroom in the staff room.  Apparently some teachers feel intimidated by it.  I just know too much and some people are not ready for me, including the principal. Go figure! A

I have been designated to be the technology site leader, and one of my job functions is to share my expertise with staff and support them in the area of technology.  I have been a tech site leader before at other schools; this is the first time I've been told to hush because I am intimidating. 

Yet, when I offer my experience with people outside my school setting, others are excited to listen to me. Check out what I am doing in my classroom at spangler.schoolloop.com,  and at http://msherrera2010.pbworks.com/. Use username: visitor, password: guest to access the wiki.

Keep the digital revolution alive!

Excellent post, Ewan, thank you.

One or two of your commentators allude to the underlying problem here: it's not the technology, the methodology or any other -ology that is the issue. Rather, it is TRUST. Education authorities simply have such contempt for their graduate professional teachers that they are not trusted to innovate by themselves. Worse than this, is that the dialogue is thin if it occurs at all. Getting face to face with somebody who owns the problem - and thereby can allow the solution - is all but impossible. They are in my experience not only full of contempt but also cynical and cowardly.

My own experience in Fife is that I spent a lot of time putting together my own (Moodle) VLE long before GLOW could even clunk. It had 2000 man hours of content. It was blocked manually by the LA. The one meeting I was granted made it clear that the block would be lifted if I were to hand over the content for hosting and presenting as being owned by Fife Council. Naturally, I refused. That site remains blocked in Fife to this day, and pleas to even the highest authority are ignored.

It's not a matter of access to social media or any other web resource. It's a matter of trust.

I saved an English lesson one day using my Virgin Mobile Broadband...Prezi, Wordle...You name it - it's blocked.

Imagine what pupils in Modern Languages, English, Drama could do with applications like http://www.xtranormal.com/

ps. hope you are well!

In my last school I happened to be on the IT Strategy group and fought long and hard to get students access to social networking sites. At first I was laughed out of the room and had to endure a lot of public scepticism. However once a few people thought about it we eventually agreed to let them have access to one of the networks.

I feel really frustrated with the current policy of banning things and then forgetting that we are educationalists. It is the same with food and other aspects of school life. We seem scared to educate children on real world issues and allow them the trust to try things out and learn from it. I do not think that we want to advocate a free for all, but want to encourage responsible use. As always with these things as soon as students leave the school guess what they are doing? Yes on their social network sites.

We have recently been teaching internet safety to Year 7 groups and one of the questions we ask is who uses network sites? 25-50% of the class admitted to it.

This is a serious concern as we are not prepared to address it in schools and continue to hide under a blanket pretending it is not our problem.

I had never equated the argument to the same one we have about food, but you're right. The only challenge here is that educating kids about the perils of eating to many fries didn't do much for stopping them, in Scotland at least, becoming second only to the States as the world's most obese children.

In all these arguments it's important for us to remember it's how we teach as much as what we teach that's going to win the day. Unfortunately, annua; plans don't have a section where we cover HOW we teach.

Hi Ewan -

Thanks for continuing to bring these issues to light. This is the #1 issue that prevents us from preparing students adequately for the 21st century. I'd love to see a repository of exemplary schools and their stories who are doing great things with open networks. Maybe a wiki where people could add themselves. Such a repository could be pointed out to schools that are reluctant to change their ways. As Cheri Toledo said to me last week, we have to educate the fear out of administrators in this area. And from my perspective, it's not so much a parent/community problem, but an administrator problem. I think parents get the power of this stuff if it's presented to them in a rational and thoughtful manner.

Take care,

Lucy Gray

Great post and marvelous thoughts. Perhaps the only item I'll content with is the use of Pilots. We have a pilot program with our Eracism project (http://www.eracismproject.org) and used the term intentionally to scare off people who wanted some pre-packaged perfected some kind of project in a kit which is NOT what a project that is being run the first time would have!

It is a pilot NOT because we expect to fail, but it is a pilot because we expect there to be issues to work out and only want teachers willing to work them out with us.

Sorry for the mis-type I meant to say the only item I'll contend with is the use of the term "pilots."

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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