Curricular Management of the Internet: Beyond the Blocking Solution
Establishingthe safety and welfare of students is a prime responsibility for alleducational leaders. If a building is not secure, if the classrooms are notfree of verbal, physical, or emotional harassment, if fire hazards and safetycode violations exist, then there is a serious problem in a school. Parentscertainly would have difficulties entrusting their children to such anenvironment. However, child safety is not the only charge given to educators.If the only success a principal can point to at the end of his or her tenure isthat the children were protected, would that principal be considered a success?Safety is a prime concern, but certainly far from the educator’s only concern.In fact, all of our curricular goals and objectives presuppose the propercustodial care of children as merely a springboard towards educationalexcellence.
The same must hold true for the current argument of how toprotect children from the “evils of the Internet.” Great debates have arisenall over the country, especially in public schools and libraries where taxdollars are being spent. Any and all attempts to restrict student access to“inappropriate Internet sites” are frequently met with the cry of censorship.However, is it possible to consider the question of Internet restriction onanother set of terms rather than those of censorship and student safety?Perhaps the debate over student access to the Internet should be discussed inthe language and discipline of our trade — as a curricular and instructionalchallenge.
The most popular blockingsoftware titles in use in homes, libraries, and schools do just that — blocksites. Generally a software company generates a master list of subjects, words,or images that are deemed inappropriate for children. These key words are fedinto a program that d'es not allow children to view Web pages that contain thestated objectionable material. More sophisticated programs actually let theproper authority (parent, library director or principal) select the level ofrestriction. These programs generally allow the software to be turned off bythe use of a password. Users can then readily add or delete sites from themaster list.
As a first amendment issue, this debate will certainlycontinue for years. Yet, beyond the issue of censorship, a nagging questionremains: just because the blocking programs help create a safe environment, dothese programs help us work towards educational excellence or simply towardsour bare responsibility of the proper custodial care of children?
Managing Students’ Time
One of the most dangerous obstacles to learning is “time offtask.” In sixth grade I got in trouble for reading what I considered a moreinteresting story at the back of the textbook while the teacher wanted me toanalyze what I considered to be a more boring story in the front of thetextbook. While my capricious imagination called me to read one thing, therigor and discipline of learning demanded that I pay heed to the task at hand.There always needs to be time for students to read what they want and motivatethemselves, but there must also be a time when students must struggle with whatis in front of them.
The Internet holds much greater distractions than my sixthgrade reading textbook. My choices were limited to the selections a textbookpublisher gave me. Our current students literally have a world of informationto choose from, even if they only have access to the items deemed appropriate.Any hobby or passing interest that a student has is just two mouse clicks awaywhen she or he travels the Internet.
A teacher may plan the most exciting learning adventurepossible. She or he may create a task that demands that the studentssynthesize, analyze, and do everything else Bloom would like us to do. Studentmotivation may be a given because the text for analysis is a Web page withinteractive media on it. However, once the student decides Sports Illustrated is better, or that dinosaurs are moreinteresting, then time off task has begun and the learning at hand is lost.Even if Sports Illustrated is thematter for analysis, students may still decide to go somewhere else because nowtheir hobby has become schoolwork and has lost some of its “fun.” SurelyInternet resources can and should make learning fun, but not at the expense ofthe rigors of a learning task that may require higher order skills. The goodteacher will monitor student use of the sources, but the landscape of acomputer screen changes more quickly than teachers can walk (or run). Time offtask is almost inevitable once multiple students or student groups use Internetresources.
While there is no tool in the world that can insure time ontask, managed Internet solutions can help. Managed Internet use starts with theexact opposite position from blocking software. It starts with an empty arenato which teachers add curriculum-related sites. With this method, when a teacherwants students to analyze and compare three Internet sources, only thesethree sources are available to students. Similarly, the sites that areavailable for the primary wing may be completely distinct from those found inthe upper grades. Managed Internet allows teachers to make curricular choicesfor students instead of simply allowing a software company’s master list toprohibit student use of unsafe sites. Managed Internet looks more like a schoolthat is focused on curricular demands within a secure environment rather thanone focused solely on student safety.
The World Wide Library
The World Wide Web is not the only part of the Internet. Frequently, when we use the book orencyclopedia analogy to teach people about this new information medium,we miss the power of what the Internet really is — a computer network. While the World Wide Web may be like a hugeencyclopedia (which is able to talk and break into full motion video), theInternet is the library where this encyclopedia is housed. Many wonderfulthings happen at the library besides reading. Book clubs meet in the rooms inthe basement, politics is debated on the front steps and teaching and learningoccur in all areas of its physical structure. Besides being a medium where factand fiction can be looked up and viewed, the Internet also provides endlesscommunications opportunities. Chat rooms, discussion groups, and e-mail arejust some of the ways people exchange ideas in this medium.
However, it is in this communications side of the Internetwhere some real dangers lie. It is here where sexual predators and personswishing harm on children find sometimes-easy prey. Children unwittingly arrangemeetings or give out personal information. While many schools are launchingprograms to teach students about the dangers that lurk on their home computers,very few schools venture into the communications portions of the Internet forcurricular reasons because of the obvious danger there.
The curricular advantages of chat, discussion groups ande-mail are evident. Any time students can relate to other students or expertsoutside of the classroom, learning can happen. However, the dark side of themedium should give educators pause before they put students in peril byallowing them to interface, literally, with the whole world. Once more, managedInternet can help.
The Diocese of Rockville Centre is about 100 miles long and30 miles wide. Our students can grow up in areas as diverse as the heart ofsuburbia or in rural wine country on our East End. Through our managed Internetenvironment, students can communicate and collaborate on curricular projects atgreat distances. The managed Internet solution allows only those people weexplicitly permit into our private chat rooms and discussion groups. Ourteachers can choose the e-mail addresses they wish students to receive mailfrom and prohibit its reception from other sources. In this atmosphere, ourstudents can use the latest in Internet communications tools for curricularpurposes without the danger of exposure to predators.
There is no absolute electronic cure-all for any ofeducation’s new challenges. Real teaching and learning happen person to person(teacher to student and student to student). Technology is simply a tool usedby people to accomplish human tasks, and education is the ultimate human task.Perhaps a managed Internet solution is one way educators can proactively directthe new medium towards curricular goals rather than reactively be mastered byit.
Paul J. Lynch is theDirector of Technology for the Diocese of Rockville Centre on Long Island, NewYork.
This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.