I received an email today from an internet company that promised to “help teachers bring the power of the Internet to the classroom without the distractions that come with it.”
It is apparently a hyper-local filtering system that allows teachers to control what sites students can go to inside a class, which at first blush, probably sounds really appealing to a lot of people. All the bonuses of the internet with no ability to have kids get distracted by the rest of the internet. But what a reductive version of the internet, what a reductive vision of learning, and worst of all, what a reductive version of our students. From the email:
..if a teacher at your school wanted their students to only be allowed to go to Khan Academy during that class period, they could make that setting for all of the students in their class in two clicks. Now the only website their students can use is Khan Academy, and they don’t have to worry about their students going to inappropriate or time-wasting sites.
There’s no question that when you have the internet in your classroom, there is always a concern that students will be off-task. But that’s not because they are students. It’s because they are people. I admit it – I got more productive when the School District of Philadelphia started blocking Facebook. But I go home at the end of the day, and learning how to be productive on my home network where Facebook can be open at any time (and usually is) was important to my being a successful principal.
The same is true for the kids. Part of learning how to be a fully realized citizen in today’s world is learning how to be productive when the ability to be unproductive is, perhaps, more powerful than ever. (Although, judging by the box of high school notes passed to me that I found in my mom’s basement a while back, it’s always been pretty easy to be unproductive in a classroom. We should remember that too.)
But that’s not the half of it.
Behind the theory that this company is selling is the idea that the teacher can still know everything that the students will need to learn. The time has come for that idea to die. When we lock down the internet, we send a powerful message to students that their ideas, their creativity, their interests have no place in our classrooms. That’s the wrong message to send.
It can be frustrating to have to manage all the distractions the internet can bring. It can be scary to realize that our role as teacher is not to be the arbiter of all information anymore – that our students may come to find information and ideas that do not neatly fit into the developmental lesson plan, but that’s where we need to go as educators. Honestly, it’s where we’ve always needed to be, but now the tools make it that much easier to do so.
I understand the impulse to try to create software that can limit our classrooms to four walls, floor and the tiniest of windows that the internet will allow. I get that there is a level of safety in the control that comes with being able to deeply restrict where our students can do, what they can read, what they will do. But educators have to fight that impulse, and work with students to help them to learn how to be productive digital citizens, which is, of course, part of being a citizen these days.
And we have to embrace the idea that if we thoughtfully teach, if we help kids to discover the power of their own ideas within whatever class they happen to be in, if we help them to discover the beauty and meaning and relevance of the ideas and concepts we introduce, then we have no reason to ever lock away 99% of the internet in our classroom. In fact, we have everything to gain.