Classroom Technology | Q&A

It's Time To Trust Teachers with the Internet: A Conversation with Meg Ormiston

Meg Ormiston: "If you're doing nothing but blocking all day long, teachers are going to give up using technology."

For Meg Ormiston, it's a wonder sometimes that teachers don't just give up. Restrictive Internet policies in schools, coupled with unresponsive IT departments and beleaguered administrators, present teachers with a nearly impossible situation: They're being pressured to incorporate 21st century teaching and learning into their classrooms, but they're not being allowed to use the tools they need to do that. They're being hamstrung. And so are their students.

Ormiston has served as a curriculum coach, school board member, conference presenter, professional development specialist, and grant facilitator. Currently, she consults with schools on incorporating technology into the classroom to reach 21st century learners. And that requires her to continue speaking up for teachers who aren't yet trusted with Internet access in their classrooms.

In this interview, Ormiston told us that while there are legitimate barriers to using some Internet technologies in classrooms, the justifications in many cases are much flimsier. Bandwidth might be too limited for the widespread use of streaming video, granted, but in a lot of cases, the reasons for the restrictive policies aren't very clear. Schools seem simply not to trust teachers, the very individuals they've hired for their training and certification as professionals formally qualified to care for children in a classroom setting.

And, as she observed, if schools by this point can't trust teachers to decide whether a given Web site is appropriate for their students, how can they trust those teachers in the classroom at all?

Ormiston will be speaking at three sessions on these topics at the FETC 2011 conference, being held Jan. 31 through Feb. 3, 2011 in Florida: "Playing School or Preparing for Life?" and "Bringing the World to Your Classroom Using Web 2.0 Tools."

THE Journal: A lot of schools are blocking access to the Internet--especially to social networking sites and resources. Why is this happening?

Meg Ormiston: I'm a parent, and I think it's important for us to protect children. But we have to look at teaching and learning too. We want to keep kids safe, and I'm all good with locking pornography. But we have to remember to teach responsible computing. That includes social networking. We have to help students make good choices with networking resources and sites they visit and help them know right from wrong. We can't blanket-block everything because that's also blocking learning.

One of the examples I use is YouTube. Yes, there are inappropriate things on YouTube. But there are such rich wonderful learning opportunities too. As budgets continue to be slashed, YouTube offers a lot of learning opportunities. Should we filter and check them? Absolutely. Nobody should be trusted in the classroom with students if they can't also be trusted to use YouTube appropriately.

When I started teaching, we had to make sure to preview videos and filmstrips before we showed them. Teachers need to be the filters to make sure that what's on YouTube is appropriate. But that means they need to be given the opportunity to access YouTube for teaching and learning.

THE Journal: What's the hold-up on unblocking filters?

Ormiston: For some schools, it's a legitimate problem of bandwidth. There's just not enough network power coming into those buildings for kids to be streaming videos. In those situations I can see restricting it for certain times. Or in some buildings they limit it during their peak hours. I understand the bandwidth issues.

Another issue is that people who are not certified educators are making decisions about what is blocked. Or a lot of times, it's the piece of software that the district has purchased that makes the blanket decisions. Social networking on many tools will be blocked. That will cut out all opportunities to use images on Flickr, VoiceThread, Blogster.... A piece of software is running the Web filter and blocking full categories, which means we're blocking a lot of learning because of the label of "social networking." Most of the software has the ability to overwrite the filter. But some districts don't give anybody the opportunity to overwrite it.

But I know it can be done. On the flip side, I [work with] one high school where all that they're blocking is Facebook and the whole category of pornography. Everything else is up to the discretion of the educators.

THE Journal: What's the opportunity that's lost when schools are more restrictive?

Ormiston: If you're doing nothing but blocking all day long, teachers are going to give up using technology. If I were to keep hitting the wall again and again, I'd give up. I'd go back to the tools that I had before the computer was around. It's a turn-off for teachers. When I go into those districts, I hear, "You can't get it here." They give up. And so would I.

But the biggest part of the problem is that when students go home, it's the Wild West out there. There's no blocking in most cases. There's no filtering. There's usually not an adult to help them make good choices. And they haven't been instructed in the schools about what's appropriate and what's not. That's my biggest fear. We're letting kids wander around on the prairie with no guidance.

THE Journal: So how can an educator make a successful case for opening up access to the Internet?

Ormiston: Unfortunately, this is the worst part. You have to send your teachers home to learn because they can't learn Web 2.0 tools or any of these social networking tools at school--because they're all blocked. Once your teacher goes home to learn, then they have to come back and say, "I'd really like to use this for this purpose. This aligns with my curriculum. This is age appropriate..."

But here's the hard part. Even if those teachers go home and find VoiceThread, what then? Many teachers don't even have anybody in their building to go [to]. They might be able to fill out a form for a service desk or ask the principal, who's already overwhelmed, but a lot of them don't have a point person to say, "This is really useful, and I'd like to use it with my class." They don't have any options. If I were them, I would give up.

Another thing:. These tools are constantly changing. We need to be able to get to the locking and unlocking at the moment you need it for teaching and learning. [In] one of my districts it takes two and a half weeks to get an answer about whether the site will be open or not. Most people just give up the site because they know the answer is going to come back from some central office, and the answer is going to be no. So we give up. Then somebody comes with questions: "Why aren't we using more technologies in the schools? Why isn't it making difference?"

What's crazy is that I can walk into a high school and have a student show me how to get around any filter put up. So the students know the work-arounds, and the teachers' hands are tied.

THE Journal: What needs to be in place for a school to open up access?

Ormiston: A lot of really focused professional development. It's not enough to say, "Woo-hoo! We're open today!" We've locked teachers down for so long, they need to know what's appropriate, what's not, what to preview, what the best sites are for getting started if they're new to this. And we need professional development not only for our teachers but also for our administrators.

THE Journal: Why the administrators?

Ormiston: The leader has to have the vision to make change. Many leaders don't have deep technical backgrounds. So when the expert in the IT department says, "No, no, no," it's hard for the school administrator to say, "Yes, yes, yes," if [he or she] hasn't been exposed to social networking sites or to the possible teaching and learning opportunities. The easy answer is to block everything. Then we'll be safe. But we're really not.

THE Journal: Say the filtering is lifted. Suddenly, the riches of the kingdom are available to educators. What should they do next?

Ormiston: A tiered approach is great. Most of the filtering software is tiered. Let's start off by opening access for teachers, and let them explore and begin to figure out how to use YouTube appropriately in the classroom. Let's see what happens. Everything is going to be fine. Then let's start changing permissions for students.

When I'm working with a blocked and filtered school, and they're starting to think about coming out of it, I often recommend opening one site a month or one site a week, if they can handle it: "This week we're going to try Wordle and make tag clouds.... We're all going to try VoiceThread...."

THE Journal: Do you think you'll ever be able to stop talking about this stuff?

Ormiston: Sometimes I just say, can't we talk about something else? I feel like it's so old. When are we going to snap out of it? When are we going to realize that you can block and filter until you're blue. But [then kids] open up their smart phones, and there's not a block or filter, and they're sitting in your schools.

Education is the key. Leadership is absolutely the key. The leader has to understand why this is important, then advocate to others [on behalf of] the faculty and students that this is about teaching and learning today.

People say to me, you don't understand the network, and I keep saying, no, I don't. I focus on teaching and learning. I'll say to IT people, you'd be happiest if nobody ever came to school, because then there'd be nobody to block, filter, cause problems, hack.... They'd have nothing to worry about.

But this is about a living, breathing, and ever-changing community. Every time we get one of these new tools, we have an opportunity to engage students. That's what it's about. It's not about locking things behind the gate. It's about appropriate engagement. We have to find the tools that we can embed into curriculum that students will really enjoy. They do not enjoy another packet of papers. They want multimedia. They crave the opportunity to work with other people--and other people outside of our schools. With a lot of these tools, we have that opportunity--of course, with supervision.

We lose so many opportunities when a network person says, "No Skyping in our school district...."

Ormiston will be speaking at the FETC 2011 conference in January and February 2011 in Orlando, FL. Further information can be found on the FETC's site here.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.