learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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Learning.now is a weblog that explores how new technology and Internet culture affect how educators teach and children learn. It will offer a continuing look at how new technology such as wikis, blogs, vlogs, RSS, podcasts, social networking sites, and the always-on culture of the Internet are impacting teacher and students' lives both inside and out of the classroom.
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Online Social Networks Join the Fray Over Online Social Networks

It’s been just four days since word got out about the Digital Online Predators Act of 2006 (DOPA), the legislation that would require all schools and libraries receiving federal Internet subsidies to filter online social networks and other interactive websites. From all signs so far, the online response has been very negative, with teachers and librarians leading the criticisms against it. And to mobilize opposition, they’re using the very tools that are at risk of being blocked by the legislation.

“Just when so many in the educational world are beginning to believe in the value of blogging and wikis in curriculum, Congress is introducing legislation that will require all schools and libraries to filter student access to online social networks or risk losing federal Internet subsidies,” writes long-time education columnist and blogger Joyce Valenza. She continues:

Web 2.0 is a huge and growing movement; it is where communication is heading. Trying to stop it in schools is both short-sighted and futile. Tools are neutral, we can teach students how to use them creatively and responsibly. We can teach students when it is not safe to reveal information. It is NOT always unsafe to use a “mechanism for communication with other users.” In fact, sometimes such communication can be enriching, rewarding, and yes educational. If you are reading this, you likely already know that.

Wesley Fryer, one of my favorite educational bloggers, compares the situation to China’s attempts to clamp down on free speech:

Can any US legislative body ban all digital social networking in schools and public libraries and stop these technologies from not only becoming more robust and powerful, but also from being utilized by increasing numbers of people– students included? No, they can’t. Even authoritarian China cannot stop our web 2.0 enabled conversations and our voices. They can put people in prison, they can silence individual voices, but they can’t stop the dialog. Because we (collectively) are NOT going to stop talking, sharing, speaking out and acting.

Wesley continues his critique in a separate post:

How many read/write websites and technologies would be banned under this definition? Blogger? Flickr? Del.icio.us? Again in this situation we see the tension behind those supporting reactionary, statist responses and those supporting more dynamical and empowering approaches to conflict resolution. And again, conversations are the answer. Of course:
  • We need (and should want) to protect our young people from predators and indecent materials - and -
  • We need (and should want) to comply with US laws that are constitutional and moral.
But banning technologies cannot be our ONLY response to the reality of digital social networking by students and others! The answers to this and so many of the complex problems we face in society are not more technocratic, top-down legislated rules. People are the problem, and people are the solution.

BusinessWeek offers its own take on the controversial legislation:

[E]ven though the bill is in early stages and almost certainly will change as it wends through Congress, it’s already drawing fire from Internet companies and even groups whose very aim is to keep kids safe on the Net.

Another problem with DOPA is that it may do little to actually ensure safety, says Anne Collier, co-founder of BlogSafety.com, a site promoting safe Internet use. Sure, it limits access for kids who don’t have a computer at home, but for the most part, schools and libraries are “secondary” venues for kid computing, she notes. Internet protection is a “moving target,” and social networking is evolving more quickly than the legislation aimed at regulating it, she says. “I don’t think lawmakers have had a lot of time to think about the implications of Web 2.0,” and they are indulging in “fear mongering,” Collier says.

The list goes on and on. Bloggers like Miguel Guhlin and Doug Johnson have even started letter-writing campaigns to Congress. They soon may be joined by Internet-savvy young people as well. Mobilize.org, a youth activism network, has just started its own online campaign to catalyze youth into action to protest the legislation. They’ve set up campaign pages on sites like Facebook, essembly, MySpace and Friendster, all popular social networks that would be affected by the legislation.

In many ways, I see DOPA as a powerful teachable moment. It would be fascinating to see educators tackle this legislation with their students, engaging them by dissecting the potential impact of the bill. Would it simply stifle youth entertainment and protect kids or would it curtail free speech? Do your students see filtering as an effective tool for protecting them or is it merely window dressing that ignores the reality of online youth behavior? Meanwhile, I would hope the legislation would also lead to some serious conversations in the teachers lounge as well. Are filters effective at protecting your students or do they inhibit learning opportunities? Is filtering a national issue, a state issue, a community issue? Or is it something that each of you must determine individually in your classroom? No matter where you may stand on the legislation, it would be a shame not to take advantage of the opportunity to have a constructive debate about it, encouraging students and fellow teachers to make their opinions known to their political representatives.

These online campaigns are barely a weekend old, so only time will tell if they will have any impact. But young people and adults alike are embracing online social networks - the very tools that would be restricted under the proposed law - as organizing platforms to rally support and make their case to Congress. They may even succeed because of these tools. Now wouldn’t that be ironic? -andy

Filed under : Policy, Safety, Social Networking


Defining what constitutes a “social network” is next to impossible in and of itself. They seem to be focusing on blogs, public picture exchanges, public favorites listings, and things of this nature that make the press, but when does an online forum—even a support forum—cross the line to becoming a kind of social network. Any site that posts their feedback or submitted comments publicly, is, in effect, an open forum and can be used as a kind of social network. If the Wikipedia list of social networking websites is even partially complete, then they’ll be chasing this one forever.

I believe there is a basic issue of semantics going on here. Social software does not mean the software is being used for socializing. Social software has so many applications, particularly those that truly engage students in learning. I think this is like swimming against a riptide and to attempt to ban this software is mistaken. I think money and effort should rather be spent on education and not carte blanche blocking!

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