The problem with underage bias in Web 2.0 tools for schools

The online world of 2012 is a very different beast to the Internet environment of the late 1990s and and early 2000s. Social networking didn’t exist beyond email and chatrooms, dancing baby animated GIFS predated cats playing pianos on YouTube and publishing on the Web involved uploading fairly static webpages using basic WYSIWYG HTML software like Pagemill. Children,educational institutions and government bodies were new to the whole Internet craze and when nasty popups linking to porn and violence began proliferating, it was a natural and necessary reaction for adults To want to protect our innocent children.

Out of this environment of fear and uncertainty rose two laws in the USA that today have a huge impact on education today – CIPA and COPPA. ( Disclaimer – as an Australian teacher, I had little knowledge of these laws until only recently. I don’t profess to be an expert and would be happy to hear from US readers who can explain them more thoroughly). Circa 2000, when these laws came into effect, they made sense. Today, though, I think it’s time for a rethink. Prevention, banning and blocking needs to be replaced by education, engagement and appropriate use encouragement.

I’m writing about this because of recent events at my school. Last year, a tech savvy group of Grade 6 students started presenting their projects using a number of web 2.0 tools they were using at home. At this stage at school we were only dipping the toe in the water with online tools and at first glance, teachers and students were very impressed and wanted to follow the lead of these trailblazing students. It was only after I checked these sites’ terms of use and privacy policies that I discovered the constraints of using some of them. We knew Facebook was off limits to under 13s ( not that the children were necessarily following that rule at home with or without parental approval) but it didn’t dawn on us that these great educationally appropriate web tools were classified under the same umbrella as the social networking giant.

Fast track to 2012 and much investigation and rewriting of school acceptable user policy later, we had employed a range of web 2.0 tools that we had permission for children to use. Then out of the blue, one particular site changed its policy Terms and our students were locked out of their work the day before an assembly to present their work! We contacted them and were informed that because they were under 13 they were not allowed to use the site. We hadn’t broken their original policy but for some reason, even though we had parent permission, they were no longer allowed access.

So this is my beef. Back in 2000, children needed to be protected. There were no education programs dealing with digital citizenship teaching the children how to behave responsibly. Filters needed to be put in place to prevent risk taking students from accessing inappropriate material. There wasn’t much else for students to do on the Net other than look at stuff and play some Flash games. Fast forward to 2012 and the Internet is now an ever changing hive of engaging educational activity. Collaboration, publishing, blogging, video conferencing, researching and so on keep the students too occupied in real tasks for them to waste their time googling unnecessary pictures. (Yes, I know some still do, but hopefully you get the point.)

Educational authorities are espousing the importance of a 21st Century education but apparently that only begins when you become a teenager. Personalised learning is supposed to be about meeting the needs of the individual student but laws limit a 12 year old to Dora the Explorer and ABC for Kids while his 13 year old friend is creating powerful, interactive, collaborative projects online that are wowing classmates and teachers alike. I understand the privacy protection. As a parent, I put a lot of effort into teaching my children as they grew up about what they could and couldn’t do online. Now they’re both teenagers whom I can trust to behave appropriately.

And that’s my point. In 2012, it should be about teaching the students AND their parents ( and in many cases, their teachers as well ) how to exist online. I believe it is far more effective getting younger children to learn ‘on the job’ so that responsible digital citizenship is second nature to them once they reach 13. Waiting until they’re 13 and throwing them in the deep end without supervised training is a poor substitute.

Education in responsible use is the way we are heading in Australia. We still have our filtering ( which is still a necessary precaution) and our government is going too far down the filtering path for ALL Internet users, so I’m not preaching about a superior government here. But programs to educate responsible Internet use while being able to take risks and learn how to deal with problems are better than prohibition. Having said that, educational leaders here still make their own choices about how far they want their schools to go online but guidelines are guidelines, not restrictive laws that prevent potentially great products from being created.

I know US Congress has its hands full at the moment with more important matters, but any time education is on the agenda, can the conversation go beyond standardized testing, teacher layoffs and education budget cuts and move on to amending COPPA and CIPA to match current practice? It just might free up teachers of younger students to do great things with greater access to great tools.

So what do you think? Should Under 13s have more access to web tools? Or should we continue to protect them from a possible inappropriate animation or slideshow? Join the conversation.

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