Thursday, 22 October 2009

Digital exclusion

There is a lot of talk these days about digital inclusion but as the internet and on-line applications become more and more part of life I am having problems with the restrictive policies operated by IT Services departments at a UK Further Education college.

Web design students need to test their pages in several browsers but can only access IE8 in class. Firefox has some great web developer tools but they can't get at the browser, never mind the add-in. Students make videos but can't access YouTube, never mind upload their work or share them that way, which is where they would normally just click a couple of buttons and have the job done. I have developed some useful Facebook pages on e-learning but exchanges of ideas, comments and the like are invisible as no-one can access that anywhere, not even staff!

Twitter is regarded as some kind of new threat and students will be using it inappropriately when it could be a great way to share progress with tasks and even search for ideas in a different way or find answers from others in the big, wide world. Again, no-one can access Twitter on College equipment.

Students ask me why. I try to defend IT Services' position but it is getting very difficult. I tell them that if something inappropriate is viewed then the College might be sued by parents. I can't honestly think of any other reason. Yes, it's in some strategy or policy or procedure but that will have been written several years ago and probably just to satisfy OFSTED inspectors that we were complying with whatever was the initiative of the day, Every Child Matters et al.

Some staff worry that their students will all immediately lurch into bad places or spend the whole lesson sending each other rude messages. Sure, some will. Maybe many will, at first. But the novelty will wear off. And, anyway, tutors should be able to control this. It is pretty obvious when a student isn't looking at what he's supposed to be - the body language gives it away if the giggles, red-faced laughter restraint or even expressions on nearby faces don't give the game away. Then there's the swivelled monitor. Easy to spot. A little hard discipline should sort that out soon enough. If it proves really hard to control then surely it must be possible to have some extra restrictions applying within a particular part of a network? I have seen systems that allow tutors to see what students are looking at on their own screen. It wouldn't help me as I am seldom looking at a screen when teaching but for those still stuck at the front behind a monitor then using the monitor to monitor will show who's misbehaving (or teachers could just pretend it did which would deter quite a few!)

I have a pretty crazy diversity of students. Some will use proxy browsers and get round the system anyway but, guess what: most of the time they're doing so to access sites they want to get genuine information from for my tasks! A few minutes checking e-mail or facebook these days is no big problem. If I were to tell them to do so then it would probably soon become uncool to do so as well! Some have some very dubious interests and visit apalling sites. But they only do so once. They don't like the idea of their parents being shown a list of sites visited by them. The threat works on all occasions. I don't have the very young - everyone is over 16 and most over 18 and adults in other legal respects.

I am aware of anyone's sensitivities - it's all about getting to know one's class and understanding what may offend them or cause upset. The worst problem I face is actually the language that the boys and girls come out with. I should be the one suing their parents!

It seems that no-one wants to make a move on this. My colleagues just shrug their shoulders and don't bother. The rules help them as they probably haven't thought about using anything other than very safe sources and few know there's anything other than Internet Explorer anyway. Tweeting is seen as very strange behaviour and Facebook, well, "why on earth would I want a Facebook account?" they ask!

What a shame. They're all missing so much.

I have also recently heard about something that might prevent me even having students as 'friends' on Facebook or similar. This is a really worrying development and seems to indicate that I shall be assumed to have bad motives which is atrocious. Something has to be done to stop this steady State control of how we think, how students think, what we may or may not say, do, act like. So much has happened already and I seem to be surrounded by tacit acceptance that the authorities must be right and anyone who objects is to be regarded with suspicion.

I am used to being regarded as a bit of a rebel but this latest development, if true, wouldn't be amusing. I so much hope that someone somewhere can see sense and start trusting teachers, tutors and decent staff generally. We don't need procedures, policies, regulations. Many of us are parents, quite used to making decisions. In some circumstances my rules might be even more draconian than the college (certainly on litter, manners and language!). In others they may be more relaxed but I know what kids try to do and can control and maintain a decent, clean and respectable environment in my class. I dislike not being trusted by others to do so.

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