Category Archives: Internet

Beyond eSafety

While exploring yesterday, I discovered a blog entry about what is generally termed eSafety, a subject I’ve been meaning to blog about. The editorial slant was not victim-oriented, but rather led with the potentially undesirable consequences of using the Internet in terms of privacy. In particular, it referenced MMS sexting by minors and the potential longevity of the personal consequences. The phrase that caught my attention was “permanent and public”. That is, everything and anything that one puts out into the aether (mobile or Net) may be, or become, permanent and public. For me, the key challenge is – if you’ll excuse the semantics – not so much eSafety as eSense; that is, an understanding of how to use technology in such a way as to avoid undesirable consequences, most of which have little to do with safety in the traditionally understood sense of the word.This is a subject that interests me because I believe that technology has a central role to play in facilitating learning and that means introducing young people to technology in an authentic but responsible manner. For simplicity, we can talk about three broad stages: primary (to age 11), secondary (11 to 18) and tertiary (18+). These stages broadly align with the same categories in the UK school system. I think there’s justifiable clarity about a zero tolerance approach to inappropriate content and contact in the primary stage. Equally, I think it’s clear that individuals over the age of eighteen take full responsibility for their actions.

The challenging category is the secondary stage as it represents the transition from child to adult with the associated dynamic boundaries and, inevitably, conflicting views. It is the stage during which schools are, at least in part, responsible for ensuring there’s a managed transition from complete technology regulation to free choice. At least it should be, but actually I think in many cases schools abrogate their responsibility by adopting a default position of full regulation, usually by blocking access to personal devices and undesirable Internet sites. A common refrain from frustrated students is that their technology experience outside of school is far richer than in school. This is a deplorable position but one which schools may justify using three broad categories of argumentation:

1. Legal – regulation justified by schools’ legal obligations
2. Protection – regulation justified by concern for general well-being
3. Education – regulation of technology justified by distraction

In my opinion, full regulation during this transitional period is unjustifiable, both in a purist educational sense, and in terms of schools’ more general social responsibilities. With regard to the former, schools must prepare young people for a digital world through engagement with the full Internet experience and all that it brings. This means a 21st Century digital curriculum that embraces technology and the experiences it facilitates across all subjects and stages. With regard to the latter, young people must be allowed to learn how to self-regulate their behaviour in the digital world as they would in any other environment.

There are two fundamental reasons I believe schools have, in the main, adopted an undifferentiated approach to the regulation of technology. One is that they do not understand the risks and fear the worst, for example a parent backlash, potential legal implications and/or adverse publicity. The second is that they do not think they can manage the undesirable behaviours such as texting while the teacher is speaking. It is simply easier to impose a blanket ban on mobile phones and all undesirable Internet sites and avoid a whole range of undesirable behaviours altogether. Of course, in so doing they also vastly diminish the educational experience of technology and the opportunities for learned self-regulation. My antidote to this approach begins by redefining the challenge as follows:

1. eLegality: ensuring the school organisation operates within the law
2. eSafety: ensuring young people understand how they might be harmed
3. eSense: ensuring young people learn how to use technology positively

The reason for the obsessive semantics is that this differentiation demands a strategic differentiation rather than a homogeneous approach. The protocol that describes a school’s response to eLegality issues such as data protection, freedom of speech, privacy, plagiarism and copyright is unambiguous. A breach of these protocols by any member of a school, staff and students alike, would carry appropriate consequences.

The eSafety protocol would reflect the more generally understood meaning of the word as intended by such organisations as the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre. It is focused on preventing young people from placing themselves in potentially harmful situations or indeed causing harm to others through their actions, for example by cyber-bullying. The key word in this context is “harm”. There is a process of education involved in recognising potentially harmful situations but it is quite clear-cut and well suited to being addressed through a protocol or code and delivered as a discrete eSafety module.

This leaves eSense as the purer educational strand of the three. I define eSense as learning how to make good judgements about the use of technology, fully cognisant of the consequences of one’s actions. In other words, the pursuit of self-regulation. It’s a set of skills that takes time to learn and although may be summarised in a protocol, is actually the substance of a 21st Century digital curriculum that is threaded through all subjects and stages. It also embraces a more values-oriented element in terms of acceptable behaviour. For example, young people generally know it’s not OK to text while the teacher is talking but the broader principle is: we demonstrate respect for educators by giving them our full attention when they request it. It doesn’t matter whether the distraction was a mobile phone or a magazine, it was a breach of a core organisational value.

An important consequence of a more granular and differentiated approach is that risks and consequences are more clearly defined and placed in perspective. There is risk in every action and it is the responsibility of leaders to put in place protection proportionate to the risk. I take the safety of young people very seriously, especially as a parent of a 14 year old daughter. However, I also know that the statistical risk of her coming to harm as a result of her behaviour online is a fraction of the risk I allow her to take when she rides her bicycle on the road. As a parent I must balance the risk with the rewards. This is the very same judgement education leaders must make and, in my view, a lack of understanding is leading to a significant over-reaction to the potential risk, the consequence of which diminishes the educational experience.

In developing differentiated, granular and clear protocols, schools support learned self-regulation, thereby managing the transition through the secondary stage in a constructive and progressive manner. Understanding the nature of the digital environment through feedback of this sort is also more likely to lead to the generalisation of appropriate behaviour beyond the school gates in partnership with parents. For example, part of eSense is the recognition that the fingerprint we create in the digital world through our behaviour is very persistent. Ask Eric Schmidt about his Google fingerprint! Even he couldn’t get Google to erase his tracks. “Public and permanent”.

In order to be successful, the learned self-regulation approach needs two key ingredients:

1. A system to monitor behaviour
2. Consistent consequences for inappropriate behaviour

N.B. The positive reinforcement is unregulated access to a rich digital experience

Well, seeing as we’re talking about technology, you won’t be surprised to learn that there’re a variety of audit systems available which can record both Internet and local network activity down to individual users and devices. These systems often integrate a rules-based alerting system that will ensure there is timely feedback of inappropriate behaviour. Most young people quickly learn to modify their behaviour through consistent and rational feedback. As with most systems of this type, there is an initial investment of time to re-set expectations, but the reward is well worth the investment.

So rather than ban the technology, why not embrace it using learned self-regulation as the core approach?Take the opportunity to thread an eSense strand through your existing curriculum, focusing on using technology to enrich and extend the entire learning experience. Use this as the basis for creating a 21st Century digital curriculum.

Do I have a choice?

Christmas is fast approaching. An unfeasibly large tree now inhabits half the front room and is bedecked with crimbo-bling. My fourteen year old daughter has started talking to me. And last night we went to see a pantomime (Peter Pan at the Bristol Hippodrome) starring – wait for it – David Hasselhoff. Oh yes. Christmas is fast approaching.Now I’m not a bah humbug kind of a guy. Far from it in fact. I love Christmas and I revel with the best of the, uh, revellers. Nevertheless, it’s difficult not to become slightly frayed at the edges as the commercial machine cranks up and launches a multi-mode assault on our senses designed to engage us in bumper consumption. Perhaps the new TV advert from John Lewis does represent a minor backlash this year, triggered by that pesky global economic recession. So I think perhaps I’m allowed a little cathartic moan around mid-December to purge myself of negativity before gorging myself on Christmas spirit…

My theme this year is the paradox of choice. You may be wondering whether this theme will eventually meander anywhere near the intersection of technology and education but please bear with me. It’ll happen – eventually. So, choice. Go and watch this video from 2006. It’s Barry Schwartz talking about this very subject at TED and promoting his book ‘The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less’. If you haven’t the time, then here it is in brief. In essence, it posits the following:

  1. Freedom is good!
  2. We must therefore maximise freedom.
  3. The way to maximise freedom is to maximise choice.
  4. But more choice means higher expectations.
  5. Higher expectations mean more disappointment.
  6. Ergo, more choice leads to less happiness.

In other words, life was simple when there was only one type of TV. We bought a cathode ray TV and that was it. Now we have a choice between plasma, LCD and LED! OK, so we plump for plasma because of its faster image response time (so say better for watching sport). But ringing in our ears is the counter argument: but the picture isn’t as bright… Perhaps I should have bought an LED TV? And having seen the LED TV in the store, when I get home and I’m not watching sport? Well, the image just isn’t as bright is it? I’m disappointed. The choice that was supposed to fulfil my every consumer need has in fact left me disappointed because of what I didn’t choose! And that’s if I didn’t fall into consumer paralysis through the sheer overwhelming breadth of choice.

Now, here’s where it gets relevant. If there’s one tool that could have exacerbated this problem beyond all recognition in the last two decades, surely it’s the Internet? The proliferation of shared ‘stuff’ is simply staggering. No infographic is really going to help me here. It reminds me of a quote from Douglas Adams: “Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the drug store, but that’s just peanuts to space.” Substitute ‘Internet’ for ‘space’ and you’ll get where we’re coming from. If more choice leads to less happiness then the Internet must be the single greatest cause of depression in all history. Is that how it feels?

OK, so I don’t feel like that although I’m open to the possibility. There’s no doubt that the amount of information available on the Internet is vast. And the more creative we all become, the more there is to consume. No doubt the quality bar is continually raised and we become more and more discerning in order to filter down the volume to a manageable level. And surely if our discernment is high, then our capacity and tolerance for ‘sub-standard’ is diminished? If our tolerance for sub-standard is diminished then surely we’re going to be disappointed more often and live miserable lives? Here’s where I think the theorem breaks down for the modern Internet age. Why? Two reasons:

  1. Because as the number of choices we have to make increases, the relative investment we attribute to each micro-choice decreases. If we’re not attributing high value to choices because of their sheer volume, then we’re less likely to suffer as a consequence of them.
  2. Because the crowd power of the Internet further dilutes the potential negative impact of wide choice by reassuring us that somebody else has and will always make the same choice. We’re not alone.

It’s the second of these two points that I think really holds the key and represents important value for the education community to grasp. The way in which human beings cope with complexity is through reliance on social structures, not by developing highly tuned skills in the field if information filtering and critical analysis. There’s no harm in teaching young people these skills but they depend on a single point of failure – the individual. But the power of a best friend’s interpretation? Or 50 friends? Or 50,000 acquaintances? The power of a crowd dialogue? As unfathomably vast as the Internet (or possibly the universe).The point I’m trying to make is that the emerging social structures in the Internet are an extension of our essence as learning beings. We intuitively grasp that our social structures extend and enhance our senses, the capacity of our brains, more effectively than any individually learnt skill or fact. The Internet is a tool that offers us a vast expansion of our social capacity and therefore enormous opportunities for relevant and engaging learning (personalised if you must), both informal and formal. Of course it can be frivolous too. Nothing wrong with a little bit of ‘frivolous’ from time to time. But it can also be serious and formal if those words offer some comfort. The challenge to educators and education systems is to embrace social learning and collaboration through the Internet, not eschew it.