The case against banning and blocking digital access in schools

I wish I could remember who said, “Swimming pools are dangerous, but we don’t ban them, we teach kids to swim”. A great insight!

They were referring to the idea that we are very quick to express ‘moral outrage’ and rush proactively to protect children and young people in relation to some dangers, but simply ‘solve problems’ by blocking their access to other potentially risky experiences.

Across the Western world, we have rushed to block students’ (and in some cases everyone’s) access to websites and devices in the name of safety. I am presently working with 80+ enthusiastic 3rd year pre-service primary (elementary) teachers, in 4 groups, and the topic of safety in the digital world is at the forefront of our learning together.

These future teachers have just completed an extended teaching block and an alarming number of them are reporting classrooms where phones are locked away during the day, schools where internet access is severely limited and learning spaces with very little access to digital devices. When we know that technology is ubiquitous, that the world will be a very different place when these children leave school and everywhere there is a rallying call for 21st century learning — what is happening?

Banning and blocking! We teach children to swim, but it seems, often block or avoid digital technology issues. That seems easy and safe — right?

No! Wrong, I say!

I’ll outline 6 reasons why I think this is a problem..

1. Engagement

There are many studies showing that our current students generally have much greater access to the internet, devices and social media at home, than they do at school. Many of these studies also highlight student disengagement with traditional teaching approaches.

We have a problem. Most of our current students have had digital access all their lives, and expect instant responses, are highly connected, have Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and many other accounts and have little patience for the slower processing and uptake of the rest of us.

Colleagues, working in classrooms, tell me that this generation seem to have poorer attention spans, have a heavy dependence on technology and expect instant gratification. Will denying them access to technology at school inspire the love of learning, critical consideration of technology and the ability to lead our societies into the unknown future? I’d say not! I think we’re trying to swim against the tide, rather than working with it for better outcomes.

We certainly need to be wary of technological ‘bells and whistles’, but there are amazing opportunities to increase intellectual stretch, access new opportunities for collaboration and facilitate student voice when we use technology to expand our pedagogy.

2. Skills development

For a long time people like Alan November have been pushing for educators to actively engage in the digital sphere with students, to coach, support and work with them to address the challenges they face. I particularly love Alan’s Teaching Zach to Think blog post. He tells the story of a student innocently coming upon a Holocaust denial website and the skills Zach needed to determine the authenticity and legitimacy of the information. A great read if you haven’t seen it.

Zach and the millions of other students can stumble upon such sites (and worse) with their usual level of home access. Can we afford to let this naive and uneducated level of engagement with the internet, that is increasing tracking our movements, serving us content and anticipating our every need, be all our students have?

Teaching our students to be savvy and critical consumers of what the internet offers is an essential life skill. Can we do it with blocked access? Not as well as I think we need to.

Hop onto our mailing list at the bottom of this blog post for a free PDF of search skills for you and your students. There’s lots we need to teach our students about accessing the internet. Just like we teach swimming, we need to teach internet access skills.

3. Understanding risk

Cranmer, Selwyn and Potter published ‘Exploring primary pupils’ experiences and understandings of ‘e-safety’’ in 2009. This is a great read. They discovered that e-safety, in the minds of students studied, remains abstract and is poorly understood. They argue convincingly that ‘the apparent failure of primary pupils … to gain a reasoned and balance grasp of e-safety issues is certainly cause for concern’ (p139). They found that students only had concepts of risk related to their personal lives and from the perspective of their lived experience.

How does blocking internet access at school help? I don’t think it does. The practice offers little ‘lived experience’ to use as a teaching focus as we try to help students understand the risks they face online. The most powerful lessons we all learn are related to direct experience. Most of the students in our care are not ready for abstract notions of ‘risk’, they need to see and experience, make mistakes and correct them and develop a ‘critical eye’ in order to understand.

Who better to manage this than a teacher, in everyday classroom activities? We cannot do this with a ‘locked down’ internet. Classroom based water safety instruction is about as effective!

4. Critical literacy

The internet is largely driven by entities wanting to sell something — whether that be an idea or product — and users are consumers whether they are aware of it or not.

In their 2011 paper: ‘More than Chatting Online: Children, Marketing and the Use of Digital Media’, Snyder and Henderson explore the prevalence and increasing sophistication of marketing aimed at children. They call for an extension of critical literacy skills to include critical marketing literacy. With the booming growth in mobile technologies, profit making entities are becoming more and more creative about how they engage children in marketing for them. ‘Not only is marketing targeted at children, but it is increasingly customised to attract their attention as consumers and as accomplices in spreading brand messages through their social networks’ (p34).

As children become wary of direct marketing, campaigns go underground; creating communities around products, expanding peer-to peer spread of marketing messages, ‘stealth marketing’, and collecting and on-selling consumer information and preferences.
Can we alert our students to these pervasive practices if they are not accessing the internet and social media in the classroom?

Some would say, it’s okay, we have an alternative. Synder and Henderson’s unpacking of ‘safe’ sites like Superclubs Plus and the implications of our non-critical embrace of such spaces, even though they are essentially market places for many products, really had my brain cells rolling! That they include online safety tutorials and have effectively marketed their ‘safety’ suggests that we all have a lot to learn about this challenge as educators, and again I would suggest that ‘locking it down’ is ineffective. If we are passively endorsing ‘safe’ social media services how will students learn to critically assess the broader social media context?

5. Cyber-bullying

Educators are hearing more and more about cyber-bullying and its prevalence. Increasing online violence, the danger of anonymity, the ease of by-standing behaviour and the emergence of litigation by parents of cyber-bullied victims are worrying trends. What are we doing about it?

I think the first thing we should consider is that banning devices and access will do little to stop this tide. Our students will be caught up in these trends whether we let them use technology in the classroom or not. Our classrooms, students and the relationships between students will be caught up in online bullying out of school, and it will become our problem in school. I’d propose getting on the front foot and being proactive.

Addressing cyber-bullying should match processes for managing harassment and bullying in general. Creating an artificial differentiation between aggression online and off line, does not help students to understand that they are responsible for their behaviour and relationships with others in ALL contexts.

As demonstrated in point 3, misunderstanding of abstract concepts of e-safety are rife, and students need practical examples to anchor their understanding. I am not advocating allowing cyber-bullying to occur; but rather that we should treat cyber-bullying as we do face-to-face bullying; as a learning experience. We need to help students understand the impact of ALL bullying behaviour, their roles, the effect of by-standing, their legal responsibilities and steps they can take to report and address issues.

The approach to cyber-bullying then, would be part of the overall school culture/behaviour strategy, not separate. I write about building culture in my blog post: Winning with Behaviour Management. There needs to be one set of understandings, agreements, processes and actions for problems online and off line.

We have a new Building classroom and school culture course in #LearnWithUs that you will find helpful too.

6. Getting help

Another thing to consider is who our students have access to with cyber-bullying, stalking, marketing and the gamut of new challenges they experience if the platforms, and/or devices, that the experience occurs on are banned at school.

A child too young to have a Facebook account and not allowed to use social media at school, has few options in terms of seeking advice and help with situations that make them feel unsafe, scared or intimidated. Parents may be uninformed about options or not aware that their child is as connected as he/she is, and the child may not feel that help will be available there. If their school experience is one of ‘let’s work this out together’, let’s keep each other safe’ etc, there is a better chance that help and intervention will be sought early in the classroom, and perhaps addressed, and learned from, before too much harm is done.

How then might we approach this in our classrooms?

I think three important keys are:

  • Normalising digital technology in our classrooms and school. Removing the barriers and blocks, so that the learning opportunities that arise can be addressed in the same way any other problem is addressed. Our students lived experience of technology is seamless, let’s continue that at school, and use our skills to help them develop the capacity to make the most of the millions of teachers in their pockets, improve their critical skills, ensure they have strategies for identifying and addressing risk to keep themselves safe and are active participants in creating safe online and off-line environments. We’ll stand a better chance seeing responsible digital citizens this way.
  • Engaging a students-as-researchers approach to the challenges and issues that arise. We don’t have to have all the answers, in fact we probably never will! Our students will learn far more about the challenges they face if they are part of finding solutions, process and strategies for them as they arise. Integrated into curriculum opportunities or specifically designed as interventions; engaging students-as-researchers will ensure ownership, responsibility and life-long learning experiences. In my recent blog post about students-as-researchers I challenged teachers to include the voices all students in not only management of the classroom environment, but learning and teaching too. Our students are the ones facing the issues, they need to be part of the solutions too.
  • Working in partnership with parents — together we can do more. This will be the topic for a future blog post.

Let’s not hide our faces, we can learn from swimming teaching and teach digital citizenship in a much more open and inclusive way — WITH our students!