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Online Edge

To Block, or Not to Block

Education, not filtering, may be the best answer

Chris Lehmann, principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, had a problem. Some of the students at his first-year public high school had begun using the iChat instant messaging program on their school sponsored laptops in various inappropriate and disruptive ways. Students and teachers at the school were becoming upset by the messages, and, as Lehmann wrote on his Weblog, "we saw a creeping loss of a sense of safety" at the school.

For many school administrators, what happened next would have been a no-brainer: flip a couple of switches and say goodbye to iChat. But Lehmann took another tack, a much messier yet potentially effective one: start a conversation, and let the school community work toward a collaborative solution.

Lehmann is not alone in facing these types of issues, brought on in large part by the way recent technologies have facilitated the creation and publication of content and online communication. But in this Web 2.0 world where districts are grappling with everything from Wikipedia to MySpace to YouTube, to about a million other sites where unedited, user-generated content is popping up, what is the best solution?

When students leave our buildings at the end of the day, they simply turn on what we have turned off.

A number of factors are muddying the waters, not the least of which is the extent to which many students have made tools and Web sites like these a part of their daily practice outside of school. A recent Pew Internet and American Life study showed that 87 percent of students ages 12-17 use the Internet, and over half go online on a daily basis. Three-quarters use instant messaging programs like iChat, and an estimated 50 million teens have MySpace accounts. In other words, these tools have become a part of their culture, an expected and effective way for them to communicate and learn.

Ubiquitous Connections

In addition, the nature of these fast-evolving Web technologies is decidedly social and collaborative. Wikipedia is just one example, now boasting over 1.5 million entries in its English version, each of which has been written and revised by anyone with an Internet connection and an inclination to contribute. Being literate, as Wikipedia shows, now means being able to edit as well as read.

And as we enter a more and more deeply linked world through cell phones, laptops and other online devices, it's only going to become more and more difficult to shut off what our students are coming to expect as a way of life: ubiquitous connections. What we risk is "a creeping sense of irrelevance" in their eyes. The reality is that in growing numbers, when our students leave our buildings at the end of the day, they will simply turn on what we have turned off. Who will have taught them to make good decisions and act appropriately in those moments?

Choosing Wisely

As with most other aspects of life, succeeding in the Web 2.0 world is largely about choosing wisely. Yes, there is plenty of risk, and we have to protect our students. But there is also plenty of potential reward by teaching our students responsible use about the content they not only consume but create and share with each other.

The students and faculty at the Science Leadership Academy are working through these issues together, with the iChat switch still on. It is not an easy choice, but the students will be better off.

Will Richardson is a contributing editor of District Administration and The Pulse: Education's Place for Debate,