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EdTech Update




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Format bigotry

These kind of questions drive me bonkers:

  • Should we ban games from our library?
  • Should block social networking sites in our building?
  • Should kids be allowed to access to YouTube in our district?

These questions make about as much sense as asking:

  • Should we be ban books from our libraries?
  • Should we allow kids to have pencils and paper in our building?
  • Should kids be allowed to watch DVDs in our district?

Why, when thinking about what we give kids access to, do adults so often start with format as opposed to the content of that format?

The sense of banning a website based on the information's container (game, social networking site, wiki, blog, etc.) is as logical as saying, "Since Penthouse is published in a magazine format, we cannot allow students to bring magazines to school."

For some reason I've been asked a lot lately about gaming in school. I don't know that much about games and haven't been a big computer game player since Loderunner for the Apple IIe. But of course that doesn't mean I don't have an opinion (as with so many topics):

Let’s be clear that there are games and there are games -- just like there are movies and there are movies; there are books and there are books. Games vary widely in type -- from first person shoot em’ ups to skill attainment tutors with complex management programs. Games vary in taste, rating, maturity level, and even factual accuracy.

The question shouldn’t be “Do we permit students to play games?” but “Which games should we allow our students to play?" Game On! October 2007 Tech Proof column on the Education World website

Why are we as adults so willing to ban resources based on their format instead of their content? Quicker, I suppose. Decisive. New formats are always a little suspicious. The inability to distinguish between medium and message?

Forming an opinion of a website based on its format makes about as much sense as forming an opinion about a person based on his ethnicity. We've got to get beyond format bigotry.

Kids have.

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Reader Comments (18)

This is a really good point, and quite well put. Thanks, Doug!

(By the way, Lode Runner was one of my favorites, too.)

February 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterH. Howe

I like the concept of "format agnosticism" - students are, and today's school libraries, for the most part, are not. We have to rethink our selection policies and collection development plans to invite new formats in. They aren't simply "add ons" anymore. Graphic novels, games, and so on are integral to the information environment. And, these are the delivery methods of choice for many students. Ignoring these because of the containers they come in only lessens our relevance to the lives they lead. This is a critical part of the professional conversation that we need to be having, I think.

February 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBeth

Refreshing, sincere, and well stated. I too get tired of the argument that assigns validity or worthlessness to new technologies based on personal experience, perception, or use. Using you analogy... some people look only at format because they either 1) don't have a can opener or 2) don't know how to use a can opener.

February 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKurt Johnson

Bravo! This is an issue in other types of libraries, too. I think it makes all kinds of "literacies" more important than ever. Sometimes those who ban the format are the least literate about it.

February 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRuth Solie

Great point Doug I couldn't agree more...and I love the graphic.

February 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

I read your post agree completely. Go to next thing in my reader and find I'm thinking this is great for the map unit I am working on. Then realize a good part of the content is from you tube and must resist the urge to to bang my head against the brick wall - because my kids can't see it from here. You Tube is blocked.

February 24, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterkimberly

Your schools don't subscribe to Penthouse? :)

Seriously though, "Format Bigotry" is just another example of throwing out babies with bathwater.

God forbid, a middle schooler "might" see something!

February 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterG.S. Feet

@ Doug
Good point. As mentioned before our school is pretty liberal in the whole filtering, youtube, skype, facebook debate. A number of our teachers use youtube to start class discussions or start and cap various lessons. Too often in schools it is the central district who decides local policies immune from input of actual instructors. Times will change.

February 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCharlie A. Roy

Well said.

As for the reason we do it, I believe it's because of lack of knowledge of how to isolate the internet "Penthouses". The general adult population - educators included - don't know how to filter out the porn (for example) so their only answer is to block it all - which wouldn't be done with magazines (your example) because it's easier to isolate the content.

Having said all that, the reasons are not defensible. Let's end the format bigotry and instead focus on the food in the can.

February 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDennis Harter


Couldn't agree more. Love the phrase - format bigotry!

We've started some conversations between tech admin types and tech integration / teacher types to find some sort of compromise to the filtering issue. It's been interesting listening to the discussions, mainly because many of the admin guys seem to understand the need to filter less for educational reasons but filter anyway because of "bandwidth and malware concerns."

Have others heard the same concerns? Is more bandwidth that expensive? Or malware prevention so difficult?

Have others

February 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Wiebe

Well said, Doug.

February 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDebra Giannone

I agree with your ideas and thoughts on "format bigotry" if educators or the powers that be could learn as fast as some of the nuts to do I think we could have more access to some sites that are not harmful. I teach photography and many of the sites are blocked because of nudes but not all photographers shoot nudes. But those in control just don't want to ask for help or do the research to allow some sites to be open. It is a shame because students are missing out on some important information that could enhance and for some entice them to think outside the box.

February 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDonna

Computers can't make sense of content the way humans can. Wasn't it Felix Frankfurter who said, "I can't define pornography but I know it when I see it?" That kind of "fuzzy logic" doesn't work when you're configuring a content filter to control student access to the internet. Computers want black-and-white rules: block this domain, block mp3's, etc. So I think the reason behind this "format bigotry" is at least partly our reliance on very limited filtering technology to solve the difficult problem of keeping students safe on the internet.

February 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMike

I like this way of looking at an issue that affects every school I know. Perhaps even more frustrating than format bigotry is the seemingly random blocks of resources. When collaborating with other schools, we always have to negotiate available tools (e.g. can't use wikispaces b/c it's blocked at x school, but x school CAN access pbwiki). I also like Glenns' question- raising the point of how we move beyond bemoaning the situation. We need to be having conversations with all the involved parties. If internet filters are a necessary evil (thanks to current federal legislation and funding), how to we establish easy-to-navigate work-arounds? An example: my school districts reconsideration process for access to websites is so cumbersome, no one has used it to unblock sites in the 3 years it has been in place. Our very skilled Tech Services staff has the only unfiltered access to the web, and the least amount, if any, education training. Teachers can apply for school access to Youtube (but not unfiltered access to the web), but the Request For Access language is so threatening my principal says, "better you than me." It often does seem to be more about control and power than bandwith and malware. As a tech director yourself, how do you see changing the discussion so it's about what our kids and teachers need?

February 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterShannon

Hi H,

Thanks. I still miss Loderunner. I need to see if there is a version for the iPod!


Hi Beth,

Format agnostic is a great term! Search the Blue Skunk for libraries for a post-literate generation. I think you would enjoy those posts.

All the best,


Thanks, Kurt.

Or there is something about the can opener that scares them?


Thanks, Brian. You gotta love Photoshop for helping one look like an artist.


Hey, Feet.

Like most middle-schoolers haven’t already seen more than I have.

It’s the one big room concept that Postman talks about:

Thanks for the comment,


Hi Charlie,

Not that many years ago, I was fighting for any Internet access for kids period. Yes, times will change.


Hi Dennis,

I so recognize that filters are not very sophisticated and that good management of them takes time. I’ve used the analogy that it is usually faster to cut off the branch than to pick off just the dead leaves.

Appreciate the comment and look forward to visiting your school in May. Poke those team members and get them on the wiki!

All the best,


Hi Glenn,

Bandwidth can be expensive, yes. One solution is a packetshaper to help prioritize traffic for maximum use of the bandwidth one does have.


Hi Mike,

Yes. I’ve always said never send in a computer to a man’s job. Computers don’t have the facility of judgment.

At least not yet.



Your situation is shared by many educators. What will it take to end this over-blocking stupidity?


Hi Kimberly,

Your frustration is shared by many teachers. You can download YouTube videos using (Hint, hint.)

Oh, I liked the Jordan video. I was just there last fall.

All the best,


February 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

Very good point. We discussed something similar to this in my Educational Media class. Computers use should be monitored, but often students are cut off from material they should have access to. Not all things on the Internet are evil, and a lot of computer programs and activities are very beneficial to the learning process.

March 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterEmily Adams

Doug, this post is brilliant -- "format bigotry" really says it all. I really wish I worked in your school district, because in mine these ridiculous attitudes prevail. Although I recently retired, I am going to advocate for change to filtering policies in my school district. I link to your post in my blog entry at
Thanks so much for the humor, common sense, and flashes of brilliance you bring to so many issues.

February 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCynthia

Thanks, Cynthia. You kind comments made my day!


February 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

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