Technology isn’t the problem. We might be.

I realize that title sounds harsh, but the experience I’m about to relay highlights the unintended (and kind of terrifying) lessons we might be teaching our students, not just about technology, but also about life.

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A week and a half ago, George Couros, author of The Innovator’s Mindset and The Principal of Change blog came to speak at Peoriapalooza, the Peoria County teacher’s institute. Somewhere in his speech, he mentioned a school where access to online resources was so locked-down that the teachers went to the students constantly to access useful content from which they were restricted. Everyone laughed because: #truth.

Except that when it happened to me this week, I wasn’t laughing at all.

This past Friday, my kids edited an uncapitalized, unpunctuated version of this Dear John” letter as an anticipatory set to help them see purpose in punctuation for meaning. They loved it, grappling especially when they finally figured out how to make it a love letter, and I explained that now, they’d need to make it a break up letter. Their wide eyes and dropped jaws let me know that they didn’t see how ONLY changing punctuation and capitalization could make this happen. “We can’t rearrange or delete words?!” They didn’t think it was possible, but they figured it out, and all agreed that punctuation could be a game-changer. Of course, I was on cloud nine: the hook had worked!

The next part of the lesson was a content primer, so I had shared Terisa Folaron’s “Comma Story” and three other videos about sentence structure for a project my students are beginning. In slow waves as they finished notes on the first three videos, students started coming up to my desk to tell me the fourth one was blocked. Without thinking much about it (because this happens all the time), I e-mailed the link to our system administrator asking for it to be unblocked. But a few minutes later when they had just moved on to the next step, I wondered why they hadn’t used their usual tricks to get the blocked content.

My next two classes came in, and the same situation occurred. I let it unfold much the same, but when they started coming to my desk in the second class, I asked them to solve the problem. “Have you asked for it to be unblocked?” some asked. I had, I explained, but sometimes the system doesn’t update right away. They walked away and moved on to the next step.

When I finally asked if they knew how to get blocked YouTube videos, they all hesitated, but said that yes, they did. So if they knew of a tool to get content the school felt they shouldn’t be able to access, why wouldn’t they use that same tool to get content they knew their teacher had approved and wanted them to have? Cue the crickets.

I spoke to several groups of kids after that, and I’ve concluded that some of them didn’t use the tool to unblock the video was because they were scared to use it when they knew I was watching. They wanted to protect their tool so that they could continue to use it to get what they valued more: their music. And I can completely understand that thinking.

In far more cases, though, it never occurred to them to use it for class-related content, which to me, is the concerning part. Are we demonstrating through our actions that only pre-approved tools have value in our classroom rather than signalling that all tools can have impact while focusing on positive use? Will our kids leave our classrooms truly better for having transformative tools, or are our practices holding students back from life- and world-changing applications?

Have we inadvertently taught our kids that breaking the rules is reserved for what is deemed “wrong” or questionable  rather than for doing good or even just learning? I know we certainly haven’t meant to, but the consequences are still the consequences — intentional or not.

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6 thoughts on “Technology isn’t the problem. We might be.

    • thesecondyearteacher says:

      Oh absolutely! I’m not necessarily suggesting that we open it up and give the kids free reign. We have YouTube open but with lots of restrictions within, so our system blocks a lot of good content in the meantime.

      My main issue isn’t with blocking content, though. It’s more about the tools and how we restrict or teach tools and their purpose.

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  1. thesecondyearteacher says:

    Though as I think about it, in one short year, some of our students will enter the workforce and only know a world that has been restricted. They’ll have unending freedom on the web and may never have had anyone teach them how to be responsible with that freedom. Isn’t that dangerous, too? Will we have prepared them? I don’t know the answer there.

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  2. Barry Dyck says:

    I’ve had the very same experience. I encouraged kids to use their judgment combined with their skills at accessing blocked sites. Sometimes they just pull out their phone and use cell data.

    At an AERO conference I remember a student asking Sugata Mitra if the Internet was blocked at the self organized learning sites he created. Nope. The large monitors could.be seen by all. They only encountered problems when adults used the space in the evening.

    Blocking may also block us from talking about the abundance of inappropriate material online that many students have open access to outside school or on their phones. We need to teach discernment in school.

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