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

About Learning.Now

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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Panic! at the Capitol: The House Passes DOPA

Yesterday, the US House of Representatives unexpectedly moved forward in voting on the Deleting Online Predators Act, or DOPA. This legislation, proposed on May 9 of this year, would require all schools and libraries receiving federal Internet subsidies known as the E-Rate to filter out all interactive websites under the mere possibility that they may lead to contact with online predators.

The vote wasn’t even close.

I’d expected there would be a bigger fight on this issue, but I was totally wrong. DOPA passed the House a whopping 410 votes for it, 15 votes against it. That means that more than 96% of Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, voted in support of the measure.

Online criticism from librarians and educators is just beginning. American Library Association president Leslie Berger issued a statement highly critical of the vote:

This unnecessary and overly broad legislation will hinder students’ ability to engage in distance learning and block library computer users from accessing a wide array of essential Internet applications including instant messaging, email, wikis and blogs.

“Under DOPA, people who use library and school computers as their primary conduits to the Internet will be unfairly blocked from accessing some of the web’s most powerful emerging technologies and learning applications. As libraries are already required to block content that is “harmful to minors” under the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), DOPA is redundant and unnecessary legislation.

“Librarians are very concerned with the need to protect children from online predators, and we know that the best way to protect our kids from harm is by teaching them to make wise choices online.”

Blogger Wesley Fryer, meanwhile, noted how the vote reflects just how disconnected the “digital immigrants” generation is from the “digital natives” generation:

Do we need and want to protect our kids? Of course. But should we prohibit all technologies in schools in which students create a “profile?” Definitely not.

I asked Will Richardson last night at dinner (we’re here at MTI 2006 in Winfield, Kansas) what he thought DOPA would mean for schools if it passes. He said, since the language of the bill would prohibit use of any website at a US school by students or teachers where the kids have a “profile”: this would stop use of all blogs and social networking software. I am thinking this means students would not even be able to access, much less post, to WikiPedia.

Give me a break. This is the biggest example of digital immigrants being disconnected to the REAL world that I have ever heard of.
I suppose I really shouldn’t have been surprised by the vote, given the anti-MySpace mass hysteria that’s spread throughout the US like some recursive virus. Bruce Schneier, in his book Beyond Fear, described five different tendencies people exhibit while evaluating risk:
  • People exaggerate spectacular but rare risks and downplay common risks.

  • People have trouble estimating risks for anything not exactly like their normal situation.

  • Personified risks are perceived to be greater than anonymous risks.
  • People underestimate risks they willingly take and overestimate risks in situations they can’t control.
  • People overestimate risks that are being talked about and remain an object of public scrutiny.

While Schneier was talking about terrorism, he might as well have been talking about public fears of MySpace. These tendencies, particularly the first and the last one named by Schneier, seem especially relevant in the DOPA debate. In May I talked about an essay by Benjamin Radford, who dissected national crime and online safety statistics to show how exaggerated the threat of online predators was to the average child. But the media exaggerates the threats until parents take them as the gospel truth. Online safety expert Anne Collier has referred to this as Predator Panic.

There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re going through a state of predator panic today. Almost every time you turn on Dateline NBC or pick up a newspaper you’re bound to see a story about how threatened children are on the Internet. No matter how rare these incidents are in real life, the media hype has stirred up public sentiment to the point where Congress has found an easy way to score points during an election year. Less than three months after the DOPA legislation was proposed, it’s already passed the House, with almost no public debate. How often do you see legislation move through Congress that quickly? Not too often, so they must be on to something, right? Unfortunately, if enacted, DOPA could stifle all innovative uses of the Internet in the classroom. Maybe I’m the one who’s a dope, but this strikes me as throwing out the baby with the bath water.

To help people follow the DOPA debate, I’ve create a news digest called DOPA Watch. It automatically aggregates the latest news and blogs about the legislation, as well as incorporating legislative updates from GovTrack.us. If you’re interested in DOPA and its potential impact on schools, please feel free to check it out. -andy

Filed under : Policy, Safety, Social Networking


Andy -

Thanks for your comments on this. These days, I too spend a bunch of time trying to ease educators and parents’ fears on this topic. In fact, I have a piece that will appear in the Amer Acad of Pediatrics Newsletter (Sept 06) on this. The hype is enough to frighten anyone… Next time I’m in your town, we should go over to JP Licks and gripe about how policy makers aren’t addressing more important and statistically significant issues.

Regards, Dina B

Right on, Andy. You’ve done well here to cull some interesting points about DOPA and many politicians would be better of for reading this. The lack of public debate over this issue is frightening. Those voting on this issue are clearly locked in a box, with only people who agree surrounding them. It’s a big problem when you aren’t even aware of the reasons people might disagree with you.

So now what do we do?

I’m a high school teacher who makes extensive use of blogs and social bookmarking sites in my classroom. If this passes, my curriculum takes a big hit and could cause some real stress as the year begins and I have to scramble to rearrange a long-term assignment that uses student blogs. Not only that, but I am sent struggling for another way to incorporate essential computer skills in my classroom and other classrooms on campus. It’s entirely possible this pushes schools back 5 or more years in terms of instruction with computers. It certainly doesn’t help advance the level of instruction schools are capable of delivering. And it only makes public education even more irrelevant to the world students live in.

What can I do? How can I help fight this? Is it all over and I missed my chance to contact a representative? Any ideas, anyone?

As a public school teacher, I find DOPA to be extremely upsetting, patronizing and classist. The only access many kids have to the internet is through schools and libraries. Filtering out specific sites as a means of “protecting children” is archaic and just plain wrong. Don’t these people get that the way you keep kids safe is by educating them?

Teaching children to use the internet safely as a way to connect to the world empowers them and facilitates learning. The web is a powerful classroom tool that DOPA has the potential to destroy.

We’re going to end up with a country full of young adults suffering from arrested development.

In this country, we keep young people totally in the dark about sexuality and violence. In so-called “backward societies”, entire families sometimes live in one room and the realities of conflicts & struggles in life are both inside and just outside the front door.

At least young people in those environments learn the facts of life and how to survive.

Washington D.C.

Move by fears of corporeal predators congress voted unanimously to dismantle all playgrounds and public pools. Children’s museums, science centers, zoos, and cultural institutions catering to minors will have to close their doors. Congress John Smith (R-Missouri) said, “We have to keep petting zoos free of pedophiles, and if that means shutting them down, then so be it.”

The Senate version of the bill, which includes a provision to de-list all phone numbers of homes with minors in residence, is expected to pass later this week.

After reading the act I breathed a heavy sigh of relief to know that these websites do not need to be blocked when used for educational purposes. I mean for a second I thought that it would be always blocked, but now that I know that all I have to do is contact the system administrator, who in turn will contact his supervisor, who will then take it to a vote at the next monthly board meeting, I figure everything is okay.

I gave up a long time ago when I was told that my students couldn’t access Black Planet because something bad might happen. At first I thought it was racist, now I know that it is just plain ignorant.

Friday— YouTube.com was blocked from all computers in the NYC school system and now the NYTIMES is also being blocked. How are we suppossed to have the students engage in the real world if we do not allow them access to it?

Was this in response to the new legislation?

This is just the begining. The internet is growing so fast and more and more people are using it and sharing everything with the world that it was inevitable. Blogs have become a staple to the net and with people saying whatever is on the minds could be a scary thing. Doesn’t mean I agree with it nor like it, but there it is. Thanks Andy.

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