Thursday, July 05, 2007

Redux: COPA, teachers, schools, and student Internet use

In December I wrote several blog entries (main one here) summarizing my experiences as a substitute teacher. I resumed subbing in one district in January, and am considering again the whole subject of licensure, and in a couple of blog entries I want to revisit in more detail some of the points and concerns that I covered in earlier blogs.

On this blog, of course, the focus is on the suitability of content when found by minors. School districts have a new problem with the Internet. They may scratch and claw over politically and socially (from the viewpoint of parents) curricula on sensitive issues (like sexuality). For example, recently the state of Maryland approved a modest curriculum of education that includes discussion of homosexuality in public schools. The controversy is covered here:

Also, recall that I had contributed an essay on the subject to the Opposing Viewpoints series, discussion at this link or this blog entry.

Because of the open nature of the Internet and search engines, in practice kids will often be able to find material not in curricula, whatever the wishes of their parents. This information may comprise non-pornographic medical information (as about condom use) that goes against the cultural values of their parents. Teachers could have written these entries because of their own personal values, and students may recognize their names. This could, in the view of some, undermine the credibility of accepted public school curricula – but it is the new reality.

I’ve said that permanent teachers (those with the authority to grade kids) should avoid making themselves Internet celebrities without employer supervision, but that short-terms subs, paid less and with no real authority to make decisions about kids, should be able to say what they want (as long as what they publish is “objectively legal”).

I’ll come back to that in later entries again, but I wanted to emphasize here that I felt that by working in the school systems for a while, I could communicate to schools how technology really is “democratizing” the publishing and flow of information. This process seems profoundly important, and definitely should be presented to kids in conjunction to what they learn now in English (how to interpret literature in its original context, and compare it to context today) and social studies, especially government.

Again, one way this is democratizing is that it gives any individual or small party to reach the entire planet with new ways of linking information and drawing out new elements of “truth” about social and political problems. The potential is to reduce the dependence of ordinary people of “professional” lobbyists and unions to represent them, and to improve the intellectual level of citizen participation, beyond protests, strikes, boycotts, and form emails. One downside is that “professionalism” as a whole suffers (as described by Andrew Keen in his recent book “The Cult of the Amateur”, link here, , and people may value interpersonal interactions for their own sakes less.

In fact, as readers know, I took large advantage of this after publishing my first book (1997), letting search engines make me an “Internet pseudo-celebrity” with simple but large-in-content website, especially from 1998-2002. After about 2003, Internet self-promotion steered in somewhat different directions with social networking, a capacity that presents new issues (opportunities and dangers) for kids.

On one assignment, well before the “crisis” described on the aforementioned blog, I had the chance to present COPA (the Child Online Protection Act) to history and social studies teachers at a high school. During the planning period, I had them linking to various ACLU and government briefs, as well as court opinions as they were known by early 2005. They found all of this eye-opening, and could see there were many (not just two) facets to the issue.

I hoped, and still hope, that this would lead to a larger role for me in addressing the need for care in how students approach use of the Internet. I have been in classes where students used search engines all period long to look up technical answers (as in chemistry) to classwork. I’ve also seen students go to hip-hop. Many school districts have blocked access to many social networking and similar sites from their computers.

I’ve also maintained that schools should start teaching intellectual property law concepts, such as copyright, trademark, and especially defamation. It does not make sense to turn minors loose into developing a planet-wide audience without a sense of the legal responsibilities involved. Many teachers, even in history and social studies, do not have a modern understanding of these issues as the Internet mediates them.

Full-time public school teachers often seem to be living in a sheltered world, explained partly by the pressures they are under to get disadvantaged students to perform with basic skills, which seem mundane in the “outside world.” Much of the content seems aimed at the “lowest common denominator” and is based on hardcopy handouts and texts with carefully circumscribed content with more “traditional” interpretation of issues. (This slides with time; I can remember that in the 1950s, presenting “Brown v. Board of Education” was a big deal.) Teachers cannot assume that all students have Internet access at home (as many parents are squeamish, and limit computer use and place the computer is a public area), even though many students benefit from advanced Internet use.

The issue of “protecting minors” on the Internet reaches into many areas beyond what one usually hears (COPA – and the chat rooms). This includes intellectual property, socialization, family dynamics, and professionalism. This is certainly a big challenge for schools, and I would like to be able to do something about it.