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Saturday
Nov052005

Young bloggers - can we stop them? can we steer them?

 

Not only do my library friends at LM_Net have interesting discussions, so do my my tech buddies at WWWedu. A major topic this week has been on student blogging and the liability of schools for “bad” student blogging.

(The full text of this discussion can be found on the wwwedu archives or in yahoogroups, from about message 7550  to about message  7597. I have selectively snipped from the messages. I encourage you to read the entire discussion. It's worth your time.)

Friend and highly respected colleague (and national cyber-bullying expert), Nancy Willard (check out her website) offered the following caution:

My concern, focusing on cyberbullying, is that due to lack of effective professional and curriculum development, some teachers may think that letting students go to commercial blogging sites and post material is perfectly okay. …this raises significant liability concerns for schools (please note the JD after my name, something I rarely point out but in this case am).
OK, then I went a little ballistic:

I guess I am just feeling cantankerous today, but I am VERY distressed by Nancy's concern about the liability issues concerning blogging.

First, (while I have no JD), I do know parents can sue for just dang near anything they want to (and do). This does not prevent us from putting playgrounds, offering football as a sport, or letting kids ride bikes to school.

I also know that districts protect themselves from litigation by practicing due diligence. The question here is not whether we let kids go to commercial blogging sites (or have e-mail or use chat or even have Internet access period), but whether we can document whether we have taught kids the safe use of these resources and make responsible efforts to monitor their use.

Personally, I think this fear of lawsuits stuff has scared too many educators into over-blocking websites and denying kids use of technologies like e-mail, chat and blogging that kids SHOULD be learning to use effectively and appropriately.

Yes, kids are going to make mistakes. That's a part of learning. But isn't it better that kids are making mistakes at school under the supervision and guidance of knowledgeable adults than at home alone or with parents who know little or nothing of the risks? We should be thinking best interests of kids, not least trouble for schools.

There, I feel better.
And I threw in my “Proposal for Banning Pencils” for good measure. Hah, that’ll learn’m!

 

And did Nancy get mad? Nooooo. She wrote the wonderful reasoned response:

A couple of points: I do not think there is "potential misuse," I think there is a high probability that students are using Internet systems in schools to cyberbully each other. And some students who are being cyberbullied are committing suicide, as well as this is leading to school failure, school avoidance, and the like.

Further, based on what I know about the facts of the case -- which is admittedly limited -- I think there is a good possibility that the Red Lake shooter and other students were discussing the shooting in advance and, given they were teens it is probable these discussions were electronic, and given this was a reservation I suspect some of these discussions were through the district Internet system.

And I will tell you that this raises liability concerns for districts.
So here is a quick primer on negligence law.
There are four elements:
  • A legal duty. 
  • A breach of that legal duty.
  • Proximate cause—the breach of the duty was a substantial factor in bringing about an injury, damage, loss, or harm.
  • Actual injuries, loss, or damage. 
Schools have a duty to anticipate foreseeable dangers and to take necessary precautions against those dangers to protect students in their care. A breach of the duty occurs when a school official fails to exercise a reasonable standard of care. The issue of proximate cause asks whether the student’s injury something that could have been foreseen and prevented by a school official. Damages sustained as the result of bullying may include emotional harm and the costs of addressing that harm (e.g. the costs of counseling), losses to student due to the student’s avoidance of school (eg. lowered school performance, which will interfere with student’s future educational opportunities), and the like.

Clearly, schools have a duty to protect students when using the Internet. It is foreseeable that students could be using the district Internet system to bully each other or could post material online that provides indications of a threat.

So the key question is: "What is the reasonable standard of care?" And then for a school, it will be a question of fact regarding whether a particular school was exercising a reasonable standard of care. Schools can't guard against ALL harm, but if a harm is foreseeable, then they must take reasonable steps to guard against it.
And Nancy adds:
Banning computer use is clearly not the answer. Banning all blogging is also not the answer. But if we cannot establish practices that meet a "reasonable standard of care" then some administrators may think banning is the answer. So the last thing I want to do is tell administrators that they have a problem without telling them what they can do to address the problem and still encourage the effective use of technology for good educational purposes.
….
So, I am telling you that there is a high probability that students are misusing the Internet in schools to bully each other and this could cause significant harm to youth. You tell me what reasonable precautions need to be made in all schools to guard against this kind of harm.


OK, I’ll admit that I slept through my school law class and Nancy paid attention all the way through real law school.

What is really cool is that Nancy solicited ideas from the other members of WWWEDU (who she tells me personally she can always count on for good ideas) about what would constitute “reasonable standard of care.”  From these messages she generated the following major points:

  • Having a focus on professional and curriculum development related to these technology issues.
  • Using technology for student blogging that gives the teacher a maximum amount of control and that blogs are focused on class work activity.
  • Having teachers  engage their students in blogging – but teach them about responsible blogging.
  • Having guidelines for student behavior that promote student learning.
  • Promoting collaboration between safe school folks (who tend not to know much about technology but a lot about behavior) and ed tech folks (who understand the technology, but may not know a lot about the issues related to safe schools).
  • Making sure that staff and students know about the policies.
  • Having guidelines for teacher behavior.
  • Considering policies regarding actions to taken when a student is the victim of a harmful communication
  • Educating students about
    • the folly and potential downsides of making online threats.
    • the importance of reporting such threats (even if they may not be real)
  • Having a confidential/anonymous reporting system that specifically refers to and provides the ability to report concerning online material -- including an online reporting mechanism.
  • Having a systematic situation review process to figure out who is the bully and who is the target in the overall situation and determine the legitimacy of any online threats.

And finally from Nancy:

However, the thread ended too soon and there is at least one other item that should be on this list — and that is doing a regular needs assessment. Don’t just accept my word that this is a problem. I’m telling you that I think there is a high probability of the problem here, but it is really important for schools and school districts to figure out to whether there is a problem, to what extent there is a problem, how the problem emerges, etc.  Then, based on this information, more specific appropriate strategies can be developed. The other items on the list are important basic approaches that I think should be implemented in all schools — and not only will help address the concern of cyberbullying, but also enhance the more effective use of Internet technologies for high quality educational purposes. But if a school finds that there are particular problems with student misuse of computers in the library during lunch time, then specific measures can be taken to address this concern.

Cindy Penchina, David Warlick, Art Wollinsky, John Thompson and others also contributed great insights into this issue. Go back and read the archives.

Fellow educators, let’s not delude ourselves. Student blogging happens whether we like it or not. (See the new Pew study on teen-age blogging.)

We can’t stop student bloggers – period. But can we steer them by giving them guided practice in our schools? Personally, I believe the responsible answer must be “yes.”

Two side thoughts…

  1. Is it ethical to repeat the conversations from a listserv in a blog without the express permission of the writer to the listserv? Is taking conversations out of context (for brevity sake) fair to the original writer? (Like it doesn’t happen in journalism!)
  2. Are listservs a better choice of technology than blogs to conduct this sort of “discussion?” My current experience both with this blog and the others I read is that they are more a public forum for the opinions of the blogger than a discussion forum, despite that not being the intent of the blogger him/herself.

Your thoughts on student blogging in schools?
 

Friday
Nov042005

Be nice to your Sims

Fire and Ice
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favour fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice. - Robert Frost

Last Sunday, I fussed that Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near was overly optimistic about technology’s impact on the future and I needed to re-read Bill Joy’s Wired article, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.” Once again, I suffer from premature articulation.

Kurzweil addresses Joy’s doomsday scenarios: genetically engineered disease spread (ala Atwood’s Oryx and Crake); nano-tech gone wild (ala Crichton’s Prey); and artificial intelligence that turns against us (ala Simmon’s Endymion).

As a bonus he adds some of his own dark futures, he labels existential risks. And “the simulation will shut down,” is pretty interesting. He writes:
“Another existential risk ,,, is that we’re actually living in a simulation and the simulation will be shut down. … The best way we could avoid being shut down would be to be interesting to the observers of the simulation. Assuming that someone is actually paying attention to the simulation, it’s a fair assumption that it’s less likely to be turned off when it’s compelling than otherwise.”
So please folks, do something interesting this weekend. Humanity may depend upon it!

 

And be extra nice to your Sims. 

Thursday
Nov032005

Librarians have an image problem?

flibrarian.jpg
Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library via American Memories Collection

Once again a great storm of discussion has blown into the LM_Net list over the image of the librarian in popular culture. Despite the made-for-TV movie, The Librarian, that featured an Indiana Jones-type hero, the drunken heroine Carnahan’s proud assertion, “I AM a librarian!” in The Mummy, and a very hot Shirley Jones as that "sadder but wiser" librarian in The Music Man, it seems the great unwashed public still see us as bun-lovin’, shushing, frumps.

Well, I say get over it. This was my contribution to the conversation (slightly edited):

_________________________________

I can't think of any profession that doesn't suffer from some negative stereotypes. Lawyers, dentists, cab drivers, teachers, Enron executives, county road workers, prison guards, priests - name an occupation that doesn't have some popular negative stereotype. (Well, tech directors don't, I suppose.)

I think we can all get Mary Kay makeovers (but I'd have some 'splaining to do to the wife), dress better, write letters about the unfairness of the world to the paper, and debate this ad nauseum among ourselves, but the plain fact is that only our positive interactions with individuals are what really matter.

If image is that important, well, become a car mechanic or actor or politician or accountant... Well, bad examples.

And I added:

PS. Male librarians don't have an image problem.

(To which someone responded: I always thought that male librarians either had long hair and were of the “very clean, knowledgeable hippie” variety or they were of the “uptight, anal, and gay always wearing a sweater vest” variety.)

_________________________________

Lynn Butler, Lamar Elementary Library, San Angelo, Texas, said it more eloquently (reprinted her with her kind permission):

I found the remark about Mary Kay makeovers somewhat out of line. Who doesn't love a makeover?  <SMILE> Seriously, if the librarian image that prevails in our society is one of a frumpy woman wearing sensible shoes, and hair in a bun who goes around saying, "Shh!"  then we might ask ourselves how that image came to be?  Only we can change our image and reinvent ourselves personally as well as professionally. The question was asked, "So how DO we go about changing our image?"  Personally, that is up to each individual person.  Manner of dress and hairstyle is a personal as well as a professional choice.  Ask yourself, "Am I comfortable with how I dress?  Do I look like a professional who knows her stuff or do I look like some ancient creature who wouldn't know a good book from a dark hole?"  "Do I have a pleasant expression on my face and seem approachable to students or do I have an, 'I'm busy. Don't bother me.' look?"
Unwarranted interruption: If I remember, Lillian Gerhardt once explained in School Library Journal column that the buns, drab dresses, and sensible shoes are a direct reflection on the economic realities of being a low-paid professional.
To change our collective image from the stereotype involves not only knowing how to teach but how to reach.  To reach our students we must stay on top of the latest research skills as well as the latest fads. We need to know who's who in American history as well as who's who in pop culture.   Librarians need to know who the hot characters are in children's literature as well as the hot stars in movies.  I just returned from a professional librarians' delegation to Russia and one of the places we visited was the University of Art and Culture in St. Petersburg.  Librarians who train there go through an intensive six-year program of not only library, technology, and information skills classes but literature, drama, art, music, and dance.  In Russia, librarians are the repository of all art and cultural knowledge.  They are respected and admired and particularly in smaller towns, are viewed as the fountain of all wisdom.

As librarians of the new century we must reshape our images as we rework our job descriptions.  In my humble opinion, the old stereotype has no place in our world and until we work diligently to change that, it is going to remain with us.  As we redefine the job, we will redefine ourselves and bury those stereotypes for good.

Should we change our image? Can we change our image? Wouldn't most people rather work with a knowledgable, effective, pleasant frump than a glamourous airhead? Do male librarians (or tech directors) really have an image problem?

 mlibrarian.jpg
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USF35-1326]