Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Dear Federal Dept of Education

Dear Department of Education,

I'm sure you've read some of the many blog posts and other articles (PLEASE tell me you have read some of them.) that have been written over the past couple of years that tell you what's wrong with NCLB, or Federal Regulations, or one law or another. To some extent, this is yet another such letter. However, I really think that this letter will point out an area that you can address pretty easily and quickly, and will go a VERY LONG WAY in making some real changes in our classrooms. That is, Please clarify the CIPA law.

Yes, I KNOW it's only there as a guideline to follow if you are getting erate funding, but schools are scared to death of it. The CIPA law is the single most cited reason to support the decision to filter the Internet to the point that it has become almost useless, in some districts. Now, I know that you think I've exaggerating the situation to make a point. I'm not. If anything, I've understated it.

Here's the part of the law that is the reason for all the fuss. "

(2) HARMFUL TO MINORS.--The term ``harmful to minors'' means any picture, image, graphic image file, or other visual depiction that--

(A) taken as a whole and with respect to minors, appeals to a prurient interest in nudity, sex, or excretion;

(B) depicts, describes, or represents, in a patently offensive way with respect to what is suitable for minors, an actual or simulated sexual act or sexual contact, actual or simulated normal or perverted sexual acts, or a lewd exhibition of the genitals; and

(C) taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value as to minors."

Now, this is SO broadly stated that it has many folks rushing out to block almost everything that isn't 100% void of even the potential to have something there that might be considered crude by someone's standards. For example, just yesterday I heard from teachers whose district still blocks ALL blogs, even Edublogs, Class Blogmeister, and epals blogs. Why? Well, someone might post something that someone else might find offensive. That's the same reason they use to block wikis. In spite of the many examples of outstanding wikis that have facilitated global collaborations, they choose to block them because someone might post an inappropriate picture or say something that's inappropriate. This school even blocks the Smithsonian Institutes's site, pointing to the images of the nudes. I'm NOT kidding.

You laugh,, but I'm being dead serious here. Shall I tell you about the districts that block Wikipedia, "because anyone can put anything on there", or those that block Google? YES they do! Google has a link for cached pages, and kids can use that to see 'dirty pictures.' Or the districts that block Google Docs because the kids can save images in a document and then share those documents with other unsuspecting kids. Never mind all the great educational benefits that can come from using that tool, these districts think up a worst case scenario and use it to justify blocking access. They block Diigo and Delicious because kids could bookmark inappropriate sites from home. Never mind that the filter would stop them from seeing those sites, the kids can still see the words. (Yes, they block for fear of words, too) And, never mind that these tools are desperately needed by students to be able to manage the resources that they find online. The Filter determines the goals of the curriculum and the methods used to achieve those goals.

That's an important point, The Filter determines the goals of the curriculum and the methods used to achieve those goals. Talk all you want about wanting "21st Century skills", but you won't see many of them as long as schools are handcuffed by the wording in that paragraph. Schools can't teach about the Creative Commons, because they block the sites where those images reside. Schools can't provide tools to manage information because those sites are blocked. Schools can't use a wiki to collaborate with other schools around the world for fear that one of the students will post an inappropriate image.

So, schools are creating a subset of the Internet and pretending that they're teaching kids how to use it safely and wisely. It's like taking Driver's Ed to prepare them to be safe drivers and never leaving the parking lot, isn't it?

It's CRAZINESS! And, it's paralyzing. And, this country CANNOT AFFORD this nonsense right now!

So please,, if you REALLY want to help us, bring some sanity and clarity to that law. The kids are seeing Vi*gra commercials on Prime Time TV, and soft p*rn on MTV and not-so-soft p*rn on HBO and REAL hardcore stuff on the Internet. Yet, schools are powerless to show kids how to use the Internet wisely - for personal learning.

Help us help them!


Joseph Thibault said...

Jim, this is a great post and I think you've summed up the prevailing argument against the current CIPA: it's too general and too open to interpretation that some districts leap to the worst possible scenario and prepare for it by blocking everything.

As an educational business employee I've seen how some "open systems" can be abused, but in my opinion every mistake made by a student or teacher is a teachable moment. Some students abuse their access (and a prompt, unambiguous reaction is called for), but the vast majority of students, with a little guidance will become responsible and considerate internet users (which all of us "adult" readers claim to be, though I can't remember receiving ANY web savvy instruction as a k-16 student).

There may occur scenarios we would never wish for, but without proper preparation and education ALL students will miss out.

Joseph Thibault said...

As an aside, this blog post got me even more riled up (as I will you too).

basically the Federal Department of Ed is suggesting to use youtube for their post president to student address video competition...oh the irony!

Lee Kolbert said...

Great post. How do we get your post in front of the right people???? Exhausting, isn't it?