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 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

Vol 8|No 5|January|1999

Waste Not
Want Not

by Jamie McKenzie

(About the Author)


It makes no sense to spend the millions of dollars required to network a school district and then drastically curtail student use of the network to placate runaway adult fears.

In many places, the rush to network schools is a scandal waiting to be discovered and reported. The failure to provide adequate professional development as well as sufficient technical support results in what previous articles have called "The Screensaver Disease" as millions of computers sit unused or poorly used throughout major portions of the school day and night. This article explores a related failure of leadership and resolve which has worsened already disappointing levels of utilization.

Most Schools Have Internet,
But Few Teachers Prepared

The annual Technology in Education 1998 reportfrom Market Data Retrieval, a comprehensive look at technology use in the nation's K-12 public schools, reports that Internet access has increased dramatically while just seven percent of schools claim that the majority of their teachers are at an Advanced skill level (able to integrate technology use into the curriculum). (go to report)

Billions of dollars are being wasted by schools and districts that undermine the value of newly installed networks by adopting anxiety-driven policies that minimize student use of the networks. They install a daunting array of governors, training wheels, filters, brakes and other encumbrances which reduce the benefits of their already struggling programs to a dismal trickle.

Warning Signs
1. Students are denied access to e-mail privileges or are only allowed temporary privileges for special heavily supervised projects.
2. Students are denied access to information on topics such as "breast cancer" because "breast" is considered a "dirty word" and the schools have installed filters on networks which block legitimate information along with undesirable and controversial sources.
3. Students are denied access to electronic storage on the district network so they cannot collect and save the information and graphics they discover while researching. They cannot build up project files on the network or share such files with partners.

In the best of situations, networks serve at least two extraordinarily important educational purposes:

  • Global Communications - Robust networks connect students to a global community of learners, scholars and citizens through e-mail that supports communication - the exchange of ideas across state and national boundary lines. Progressive, democratic countries report the rapid growth of e-mail communication as a basic tool of citizenship while repressive countries like Iraq outlaw the ownership of modems and try to limit access to e-mail. Many corporations routinely expect employees to solve problems on geographically remote teams united only by e-mail and networks. If schools are meant to prepare students for citizenship and employment in an Age of Information, they must not withhold this basic communication tool.

  • Information Literacy - Robust networks connect students to a vast network of valuable data sources, some of which come free over the Internet and some of which must be purchased. Instead of limiting students to heavily filtered and condensed versions of the world such as textbooks, networks (along with good print libraries) allow students to develop their own views and independent problem-solving abilities. The value of such access depends heavily upon the provision of substantial training in the component skills associated with information literacy as outlined in the September issue of From Now On (go to the article).

Sadly, many school districts act swiftly to minimize the benefits of their networks. It is as if the mere connecting of classrooms to a global network is the end purpose of the project.

We are finally wired. We have a computer in each classroom tied to the Internet.

Display device? No.

Student e-mail? No.

Internet browser? No.

Professional development? Next year.

Technicians? One for our 1,000 computers.

Staff and student storage on network? No.

As U.S. Crime Rate Falls,
Fear of Internet Kidnapping Surges

Because there are no known reliable statistics defining the risk to children posed by e-mail, the sensationalist coverage of this issue by some members of the press has created unreasonable fears. These fears have led to severe restrictions on the use of e-mail by students in many school districts.

When From Now On polled five Washington school districts that installed networks and allowed student e-mail starting in 1995, all five reported that they still offer e-mail to students in 1999 and could report no kidnappings, attacks, stalkings or sexual abuse attributable to student use of e-mail. Instead of problems and disasters, these same districts claimed important educational benefits had resulted from their provision of student e-mail (see table).

Educational Benefits of E-Mail
Reported by Early Adopting Districts
1. Students contacted experts to obtain information.
2. Students exchanged information with students in other countries or worked on joint projects to develop some kind of product.
3. Students exchanged information with students in other states or worked on joint projects to develop some kind of product.
4. Students exchanged information with students in other schools within their state or town or worked on joint projects to develop some kind of product.
5. Students used e-mail with students in their own class to share findings and organize the work flow of a project.
6. Students used e-mail to communicate back and forth with classroom teachers about assignments and work flow for projects.
7. Students used e-mail and/or an internal listserv to explore and debate class associated topics.
8. Students used e-mail to communicate about important school issues being raised by the Student Council, the student newspaper and other student organizations.
9. Students used e-mail to explore with their friends various ideas, thoughts, fears and hopes typical of young people (college plans, career plans, difficulties at home, dating issues, fashion issues, good news, bad news, medical challenges, etc.)

Unfortunately, an occasional tragedy reported far and wide by the news services is often blown into a cause celebre. Overly cautious school administrators and board members sometimes translate these news stories into policies and procedures that restrict students to occasional glimpses of the electronic highway from the cyber-equivalent of overpasses and distant hilltops.

These overblown and exaggerated tales of e-mail danger do the present generation of children a great disservice. Even though children have faced risks walking to and from school for many decades, no one has seriously suggested that student walking be outlawed.

During most of this century, responsible school administrators and teachers have equipped elementary students with neighborhood survival skills. They learn how to avoid strangers. They do not accept candy or climb into strangers' cars even when these strangers offer convincing stories about an accident to one's mother or father. They learn safe telephone behavior when they are home alone. Schools have quite successfully taught children wise use of technologies long before the Internet.

Why the sudden big fuss about e-mail?

During the six years I was an elementary principal in New Jersey during the 1970s and early 1980s, not a single year passed without at least one scare related to strangers in cars bothering young children walking home from school. One year a child was murdered on the way to school. (The killer turned out to be the child's own distraught parent.)

In another district I went through the devastating process of removing a very popular teacher from a classroom as a result of allegations (later proven true) that this teacher was a sexual offender. These very real time threats to children predated the Internet but now continue to be far more prevalent risks to children living in most towns than those posed by e-mail, provided the school introduces e-mail in a responsible manner.

The easy path is to limit or prohibit student access to e-mail. Another associated strategy is to "wash one's hands" of responsibility and let students use one of the free e-mail programs currently available. But both of these approaches abdicate a fundamental responsibility to prepare students for citizenship in the next century. If schools leave e-mail education to non-educators, we miss an opportunity to teach ethical and responsible behavior. Even worse, we deepen the already severe gap between those with home computers and those without.

Elements of Responsible E-Mail Program
1. Students are given substantial training in Internet safety before gaining access to e-mail. Some use a Cyber Pilot's License strategy.
2. Students are taught about ethical and responsible use of e-mail before gaining access and they are acquainted with consequences for misuse of the privilege.
3. Parents are provided classes by the school to help them guide their children's use of e-mail and the Internet. These classes include a focus on ways to monitor safe use of the Internet.
4. Parents are asked to sign a permission form indicating that they will share responsibility for their children's ethical and responsible use of e-mail.
5. Students are asked to sign the same form making a commitment to ethical and responsible use of e-mail.
6. Administrators and teachers model appropriate use of e-mail as a tool for communicating about school and curriculum.
7. Administrators and teachers firmly enforce reasonable standards for e-mail behavior from the very beginning to establish a "no-nonsense" culture.
8. Monitoring of student e-mail is conducted within school district policy guidelines which parallel other disciplinary issues such as locker searches with due and proper respect for individual rights.
9. Teachers show students how to employ e-mail as a research tool in ways which respect Netiquette and the work pressures of potential correspondents.
10. Teachers assign investigations, research projects and classroom tasks using e-mail messages to class members. They also expect students to conduct work with other class members using e-mail. They ask that finished products be submitted as electronic attachments to e-mail.
11. Teachers encourage students to enhance the school community by utilizing e-mail to exchange ideas and proposals.

Examples of Excellent

Judi Harris has identified and collected at one site more than 300 valuable e-mail projects well suited for many of the curriculum goals teachers need to address.

Go to Judi's project list at

    Also . . . Annotated Lists of E-Mail Projects
    Tammy Payton of Loogootee Community Schools has compiled an excellent list of online projects your class may join.


Censorship is Censorship is Censorship

If it walks like a duck, squawks like a duck, swims like a duck, flies like a duck and lays eggs like a duck . . . chances are quite good that it is a duck.

Ancient Chinese Proverb

Currently masquerading under the pseudonyms "filtering" and "child protection" is an ominous movement to severely restrict the access of young people to all kinds of perfectly respectable and legitimate information. While the proponents of these software strategies sugar coat their restrictions by focussing most of their advertising on sexual dangers, Internet predators and pornography, the actual impact of their filtering may extend quite far beyond these content areas.

Filtering out Internet sites with artificial intelligence is censorship, plain and simple. Someone working in a corporate office or school office wipes out whole categories of information which might contain "objectionable" material. Words like "sex" and "breast" are often used as a basis for exclusion, thereby blocking students from important sources.

What makes this even worse is the failure of some products to do a decent job of excluding their alleged targets. I recently tested an industry leading product and found that 30 per cent of the pornography sites encountered when searching for Pamela Anderson went unblocked. I was astounded by the false security created by the company's false promises.

Reasonable Exclusion: While school libraries and curriculum committees have always (appropriately) exercised care to weed out offensive materials before they are purchased, especially for younger children, they have also tempered those choices with discretion, acting case-by-case and title-by-title with a profound respect from the broad tastes which must coexist within a community, recognizing that libraries must serve a range of family belief systems. Controversial materials are not banned automatically from schools just to keep the peace with a minority viewpoint. While Hitler's Mein Kampf is objectionable, we would expect young people to have access to it.

Intellectually Bankrupt Exclusion: In the past school libraries have never eliminated thousands of titles based upon simplistic and intellectually bankrupt strategies like those which block all sites containing the word "breast." Few reasonable people would ever support the elimination of all books from our collections which employ the word "sex" but some of these same people will allow a corporation far away in some distant city to do just that with the Internet. It is no mere slip that many of these filtering programs often rely upon crude "artificial intelligence" to guide their exclusionary efforts.

Surrender to Narrow, Aggressive, Highly Organized Groups: Careful selection is never quite enough to satisfy some folks, who still launch major challenges to various novels and books in our schools which they deem offensive.
In a democratic society, informational strong-arming is intolerable.

These book challenges often prove corrosive and divisive as interest groups line up on either side of a particular title. It is not enough for them to protect their own children from these experiences. They also hope to block all other children from reading this material regardless of their conflicting family values. This approach is the moral equivalent of "one size fits all" - as one group dictates what others will read and know.

In a democratic society, informational strong-arming is intolerable. This is why the American Library Association makes a strong case in its "Bill of Rights" that these decisions are family matters.

The Primacy of Family Values: The best way to protect young people from offensive media - whether it be on the Internet, the television, the coffee table or the grocery store checkout magazine display - is family values and guidance. Schools share responsibility for outlining responsible behavior on the Internet. They must enforce those expectations just as they act with regard to other disciplinary challenges. Just as we punish students for stealing lunch money or scrawling graffiti on the halls, we discipline them for displaying or printing offensive materials as outlined in our Internet policy. (see FNO, June, 1995 article, "Protecting Children from the Internet (and the World)."

Filtering Related Resources

BABEstory, A Lesson in the Ridiculous ... or Sublime?

ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom


Limiting Storage

There is far too much information today, and yet there is also little consideration about how to store it electronically. Storage on the network is essential if students are going to harvest and produce and publish.

Would you buy a car without a gas tank? Unlikely.

A chess set without a board? No way!

The wired classroom requires storage. Students spend hundreds of hours gathering and then synthesizing information - a process which demands an electronic playground for the mind. Printing out results on paper severely restricts and reduces the benefits of electronic research. Storage on the network is required to reap the benefits of the new technologies.

Think about research as a giant jigsaw puzzle with thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of pieces which are collected and then moved about on a table top. Imagine if they made us try such a puzzle without the table!

Providing storage for students and staff is not difficult given the network software currently available and the low cost of hard drive capacity. Why is it, then, that so few districts provide storage on the district or school network as a basic way of doing business?

Sometimes the answer is simple. If the folks who design the network do not see how storage influences the educational outcomes and learning experiences of the students, they might fail to buy enough storage space even if it is cheap. Then, when asked about storage, they will (rightly) say, "It can't be done. We don't have room on the file server."

Another leading explanation is a lack of experience with the creation of teacher and student storage areas using the automated system software program. Not knowing how easy it is to create student accounts and storage, the network people might say, "It can't be done. We don't have the clerical help to set up all those accounts."

A third explanation is the fear of student abuse. "What if they start storing pornography or huge games on the network? What if we catch a virus? We don't have time to keep an eye on all of those risks."

Once again, it turns out that much of this concern can be addressed by software programs which routinely browse through storage areas looking for certain types and sizes of files. The offending student rarely escapes such searches and is soon treated to an appropriate disciplinary consequence.

Most of the excuses made and the explanations given do not hold up to scrutiny. Failing to provide storage is a bit like forgetting to fill the tank with gas, forgetting to put air in the tires, or leaving tires off the car entirely.

Fighting Waste

Most school districts are still launching their initial networking efforts. They are looking at incredibly expensive commitments and investments which might conflict with other needs such as roofs (see January cartoon), art programs, library programs and other essentials.

Even though From Now On has argued that networked schools and new technologies might improve the reading, writing and reasoning performance of students as long as adequate investments are made in professional development and support, these improvements will be undercut and undermined if schools, administrators and districts act to choke off the benefits of their networks by restricting access in the ways outlined in this article. It would almost be better if they saved their money and installed no network at all. Networks should not be token gestures toward modernity. They are not decoration. They are meant to be used rigorously and openly.

Back to January Contents

Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie. Icons from Jay Boersma. Copyright Policy: Materials published in From Now On may be duplicated in hard copy format if unchanged in format and content for educational, nonprofit school district and university use only and may also be sent from person to person by e-mail. This copyright statement must be included. All other uses, transmissions and duplications are prohibited unless permission is granted expressly. Showing these pages remotely through frames is not permitted.
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