The dogs woke me up way before sunrise this morning. They’ve both settled back down and are sound asleep but my alarm will be going off shortly so there’s no sense in trying to catch a few more winks.
I awoke to Libby’s insistent paw with the phrase “Free the Wikis” going around in my head. I wish I was only dreaming but everything I am going to write is true and happens in schools all over the country, not just in my quiet corner of the world.
I work in a Regional Educational Service Center as a Staff Development Specialist and spend much of my time out in the field working as a Literacy and Technology Coach in school districts in our service area. I’ve been using Wikispaces for the last few years and have gotten addicted to them as online collaborative learning environments that support teaching and learning. After creating online courses using such content management systems as WebCT and Blackboard, I confess that I’ve gotten addicted to how user-friendly Wikispaces are for both the space organizer and the members.
Last week while working in one of our schools I tried to post some resources on a Wiki that I’ve created to support teachers as they integrate technology across the curriculum. Much to my shock and dismay, I discovered that Wikispaces had been blocked by the Internet filter in the district. This was a battle that I thought we had won two years ago when we had to submit a rationale to the IT Director about why Wikispaces are so valuable for education. At that point in time, the decision was made to unblock Wikispaces from the district’s Internet filter. I’ve spent those two years teaching the teachers how to create their own Wikis to use with their students and a groundswell of enthusiasm and excitement has been building ever since.
I quickly filled out a Tech Work Order and faxed it to the IT Director. It had to be handwritten because the district does not have an online tech ticketing system nor do they have the Tech Work Order form available in electronic format so it can’t be typed and e-mailed. I explained that we had been using Wikispaces for the past two years and that several teachers and I have created Wikis to use for teaching and learning. I requested that the IT Director unblock *.Wikispaces.com immediately.
At around 10:30 AM yesterday morning, five days later, one of the teachers called me in a panic saying that she was trying to access her Wikispace with her students and it was blocked. Another teacher later in the day told me he was preparing to show his Wikispace to parents during Open House last night and it was still blocked. I started a series of phone calls and e-mails attempting to get the attention of the IT Director so that Wikispaces would be reopened.
This district, like most others in the country, is short staffed. During these very tight fiscal times, it’s difficult to provide enough staff to support technology integration efforts. The IT Director is the only one in the district who can block and unblock Web sites. If the IT Director gets hit by a truck on the way home from work, no one else in the district even has the password to the Internet filtering system. The IT Director also makes instructional decisions about which Web sites should be blocked though this person’s only background in education is that he was a student earlier in his life. Though I understand that the IT Director is a very busy person, my feeling is that if you have time to block Web sites, you’ve got to make time to unblock them.
Ten years ago, I worked with my friend, Dick Barnhart, from an Educational Service District in Olympia, Washington presenting a weeklong Get Wired in Connecticut summer institute. During this weeklong event, participants (a combination of teachers, students and even an interested Board of Education member) designed and built a working computer network and discussed the human and technology resources that are required to have an effective and efficient network.
During that training, Dick introduced the participants to the concept of a network triangle. Dick and his staff used this analogy whenever they interviewed IT staff. They maintain that a network can be likened to a triangle. A network’s three sides are: 1) access, 2) communication and 3) control. Dick would ask during interviews: “What shape is your network triangle?” If the design looked like an equilateral triangle, the network would be a balance of access, communication and control. However many IT Directors design a distorted network triangle with such a long hypotenuse that the control leg becomes a “flat line”, virtually eliminating access and communication over the network. Though this makes it easier for the IT Director because he or she can lock everything down tight, it is not in the best interest of students and teachers.
About a year ago, Kathy Schrock presented at our Tech Council about using Web 2.0 tools and one of my favorite parts of her presentation was when she said, “The best Internet filter is a diligent teacher”. Kathy told our group that she is “the IT guy” in her district and that the only thing she blocks are My Space and Facebook. The only reason she blocks them it because the kids would spend all day updating their pages. She added that as soon as she sees an educational value to those two social networking sites she’ll unblock them as well.
I firmly believe in Internet safety. I’m very aware that there are unsavory elements in our world who have Web sites that promote hate, violence and pornography. However, I believe in teaching students responsible Internet use. Just setting up blocks that prevent them from access prevents them from doing authentic research. How can students research background and history of the Ku Klux Klan while reading To Kill a Mockingbird if all hate sites are blocked? How can a student whose mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer write a research report if “breast” is blocked as pornography? How can students learn responsible Internet use if they can’t access Web sites? How can students participate in collborative online learning environments if Wikis are blocked?
Let’s not be “penny wise and pound foolish”. Wikis are free and they deserve to be available to all educators and students. Free the Wikis and the other Web 2.0 tools! They are the best value you can find in education today.