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

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March142008

School Authorities Stifle Student Blogging Project

An Australian teacher renowned among educators for his use of blogging in the classroom has just had his latest blogging project shuttered by state authorities. Are other edubloggers next?

Al Upton has always been one of my favorite educational bloggers. A teacher at the Glenelg school in Adelaide, South Australia, Al has pushed the envelope for several years in terms of using student-generated blogs as a way of improving writing and critical thinking skills. He teaches what’s called a “miniLegends” class - a group of eight- and nine-year-olds that get to experiment with all sorts of media and online technologies over the course of the year. Along with experimenting with video and other tools, the students each get their own blogs as well, which they use for publishing writings and other projects.

Student blogging is nothing new for Upton; his students have been writing their own blogs for several years now. This year, though, he extended an invitation to fellow edubloggers to mentor his student bloggers. Fellow Australian edublogger Sue Waters explained the concept this way:

This year Al is working again with another group of incredible miniLegends and has invited the educational blogging community to mentor a mini. The idea is for the mentor to drop by their blogs from time to time throughout the year and leave a positive comment. He would really like mentors for all students from as many different countries as possible. I’ve already chosen a miniLegend which I’ve added to my Google Reader. I’m always happy to help out Al and his students plus the added benefit is I get to watch, closely, how Al uses blogs with his students through the year and see the students’ gains.

The idea is a well-tested one. Educators like Ted Nellen of New York have been promoting the idea for years. By having students publish drafts of their work online, they receive constructive criticism and tips from “cyber-mentors.” Among other things, this helps the students learn to write for an audience and understand the value of critiques. In Upton’s case, he set up the project by getting permission from the students’ parents, then creating student blog accounts in which he was the administrator. Students could author new posts, but he had ultimate authority over managing the blogs, including incoming comments from the public. He described the setup to me as “highly moderated,” even having all student emails forwarded to him so he could monitor and control everything.

All in all, it seems like Upton had yet another great project on his hands, one that would inspire educators around the world. Apparently, though, it didn’t inspire the Department of Education and Children Services (DECS) of South Australia. Today, Upton posted a notice saying the blog had been ordered closed by DECS:

This blog has been disabled in compliance with DECS wishes (Department of Education and Children Services - South Australia)


It seems that this blog in particular is being investigated regarding risk and management issues. What procedures should be taken for the use/non-use of blogs to enhance student learning will be considered.

From what I’ve been able to make of the situation so far, apparently a parent who had agreed to have their child participate in the project changed their mind, apparently concerned about cyber predators, and demanded that their child’s picture be removed from the blog. The removal didn’t happen as fast as they would have liked, so they filed a complaint with DECS, which in turn shut down the project altogether. (I’m hoping more information about the circumstances will come out in the coming days; if so I’ll add updates here.)

The shuttering of the blog has drawn a swift reaction from other educators, all of whom appear to be siding with Upton and his students. Commenting on the blog, Drew Buddie wrote:

Al, I am absolutely gobsmacked at the decision to stop this amazing initiative. I can understand the need to ensure that young people need to be safe online, but why on earth there is a problem with blog comments that are left on a page, and therefore TRANSPARENT, is utterly beyond me. Shame on the bureaucratic nincompoop that made this decision.

Added Robin Ellis:

I was very sorry to see the message above, I have been using the mini legends as an example for my administrators and teachers in our conversations regarding the wonderful opportunities blogging provides for students to reach beyond the walls of their classrooms. All students need to learn how to navigate the online world safely, and what better models than those who use the same world in their own practice and themselves model appropriate behavior? I would hope this decision to remove the blog will be reconsidered and you allow the students to continue developing the skills which will help to shape their future.

Meanwhile, Twitter has been all a-twitter, to say the least:

“what kind of a whacked out world are you living in? I feel badly for you and your kids”


“sigh @ such public exhibition of intolerance”


“I am crushed at the close down- Time for government to stop superceding parents!”


“I hope your “setback” will highlight and publicize the positives of what you’ve been doing, resulting in more classroom blogging”

Perhaps the best comment I’ve seen so far comes from Nancy White:

Wise and savvy digital kids become wise and savvy digital citizens, employees, entrepreneurs and innovators. If we stifle them in grade 3, what can we expect down the road. The internet is here. We cannot cover our ears, eyes and mouths like the three monkeys.

This story is just beginning to break across the Internet. No doubt more educators and experts will chime in. Already I’m worried that the decision will create a chilling effect among educators taking their first steps into student blogging, not wanting to rock the boat and stand up to educational institutions that don’t understand online learning or online safety issues as well as they should. A few people might applaud the decision, but I’d surmise that the vast majority of online educators will take Upton’s side. And meanwhile, the students get caught in the middle.

I hope this is resolved soon. Upton and his students are too talented and creative to be silenced for long. -andy

Filed under : Blogging, Policy, Safety

Responses

While this might seem to stifle other educators, perhaps it might instead educate those who are responsible for this decision, and those who might make similar rash decisions elsewhere?

Clearly those responsible for this have not considered the opportunities they have removed from his students.

How embarrassing! I wonder if the person(s) who made this decision realized that it would be spread around the world in a matter of hours.

We train our children how to drive before we let them out on the road alone. It continues to amaze me that so often a school’s response to something that could be dangerous is to hide it away instead of teaching children how to safely deal with it.

Roger

Wow. As I’ve said before… we don’t shut down recess because a student tripped and fell, do we? Nope, we teach them how to get back up properly, how to avoid falling next time, etc. Hopefully this will just be fodder for higher-level discussions that will bring this issue to the forefront for administrators, policymakers, and others.

Teaching Matters provides a free service where teachers can set up their own eZines for student writing. It allows for all the controls Upton has on his blogs, but perhaps is less cumbersome. Any teacher can sign up at:
www.writingmatters.org

Unbelievable! Talk about creating barriers to learning and creativity! I’m shocked by the fear expressed through such action. We’ve just started blogging with our 9 and 10 year olds and they love it. The motivation and engagement in writing for a purpose, expecting others to engage with their ideas, is overwhelming. I was very sad to read your post. Somebody, somewhere needs a shift in their thinking, wonder if they even tried blogging themselves!

Perhaps this is an opportunity for action to rise out from the words and comments left on blogs like this as a result of this issue. This medium has given us power to summon and corral the collective voice. Now lets do something about it! Write a letter, make a phone call, use your influence to effect change. It has never been easier………and in this case
desperately needed.

It’s too bad that the parent had to react that way, especially after signing a consent form. Public school teachers are sometimes afraid to venture into the world of blogging, and this could indeed be a setback. How can kids learn to be responsible if they are not given a chance? Hopefully, the decision will be reversed.

Wow, have you tried to figure out how to fix the program to be satifactory to the school board and to parents? It sounds like a fantastic program I hope you can get it back up and running so I can see it in action.

This is another case of the serious digital divide between the generations. Our digital kids are completely comfortable expressing themselves online, but our generation is skeptical. It is unfortunate that fear of the unknown is stifling online learning opportunities for these kids. The Internet is here to stay. We need to learn to deal with it. Not the other way around. Hopefully, this incident will generate debate and discussion of the true benefits of these types of online learning experiences.

One good thing we can say about this is that the comment “I hope your “setback” will highlight and publicize the positives of what you’ve been doing, resulting in more classroom blogging” seems to be coming true.

I’m new to both teaching and blogging and might not have discovered Al Upton if it weren’t for this publicity. The more I learn about his classes and his minilegends, the more I’m inspired to try some of his ideas with my own students.

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