The CyberPilot's License:
A Modest Proposal for Educational Curricula
by R.W. Burniske
When the present school year began (1997-98), I found myself, for the first time in my life, simultaneously a student, teacher and parent (of students). This forced me to think about learning and literacy in new ways, and to ponder choices our schools, and individuals within them, are presently making in the name of education.
It's easy to dismiss such concerns when you're not a student, teacher or parent, but they essentially prompted my return to the United States after a decade of teaching at international schools in South America and Asia. The past year, my first in the USA since Ronald Reagan was president, has offered several enlightening moments with respect to public education. One of the more poignant, however, came at the start of this academic year, when my elder son returned from the first day of classes at a public school here in Austin, Texas.
I was greeted that evening by a 13-year-old's request for a signature on his school's "Acceptable Use Policy for Technology." He handed me a five-page, single-spaced document and showed me where to sign.
I asked if he understood what it said.
"Yeah, I can't look at porn," he replied, "and if I do whatever the teacher says, then I won't get in trouble." This is what my son, a perceptive adolescent, learned at school on his first day. He didn't speak of a song he'd heard, a poem he'd read, or a funny story his teacher told. Instead, he came home talking about an "Acceptable Use Policy for Technology."
I asked what the consequences were if I didn't sign the form.
"Mom can sign it," he said.
"Oh, of course," I said. "And what if she refuses?"
"Then I can't use the Internet at school."
I wondered if that would be such a bad thing.
Then I went through the form with him, asking if he understood terms like "innocuous" and "objectionable" - or even "defamatory."
"Not really," he said.
I tried to explain.
Eventually, like many parents, I signed the form despite misgivings. I signed, hoping this would help my child, not hurt him. However, I didn't like signing a document that referred to him as a "user" instead of a "student." Nor did I appreciate the litigious prose threatening to "terminate access" for ill-defined transgressions that could force users to "indemnify" the school "for any losses, costs or damages, including reasonable attorneys' fees" incurred due to "any breach of this agreement." What sort of message did this document send to a 13-year-old? My son, who has seen twice as many countries as years, just shrugged in response to such questions. He didn't understand all the fuss, but it was equally apparent that he didn't understand this policy statement.
I wondered how other parents across the city, state and country reacted to a school's "Acceptable Use Policy for Technology." How many of them could decipher the language of such a document, let alone weigh its social and legal implications? Here I am, a graduate student at a research university, working in computer labs equipped with the latest network technology, and I was having a hard time with it. I didn't like supporting a policy that warned of "disciplinary action" against "users" who "solicit the performance of any activity which is prohibited by law," particularly when my son confessed he didn't know what it meant to "solicit" performances and that he'd failed to request an explanation before offering his signature. Was I making too much of this? Perhaps, but shouldn't one at least pause before endorsing documents that teach a child the following:
Although drawing and painting have legitimate academic use, those activities are prohibited when done for recreational purposes.
As student, teacher and parent I know why school officials included this statement in their "AUP." I've seen adolescents abuse privileges. I know how skilled they are at turning educational tools into recreational toys. Pause for a moment, though, and think about that sentence. Imagine reading it to a group of children. What does it imply? Try not to think about it in relation to computer technology; think of it as part of a school's curriculum. Think of it, finally, as an "educational" statement. Now then, care to endorse it? If so, please sign here...................................
Implicit and Null Curricula
I have heard the self-righteous defense of these dreadful documents. "How else can we protect children and establish our rules?" their defendants ask. This, however, exposes the flawed thinking, and disingenuous character, of an Acceptable Use Policy. A school that distributes such documents without an introductory course to accompany them is more concerned with legal issues than education. Surely we're not foolish enough to think an AUP is anything more than a band-aid on a chancre. Or have we forgotten what an education is supposed to do for a child?
Among other things, these AUPs reveal an unhealthy preoccupation with a school's published curriculum and neglect of what Elliot Eisner, a professor of education at Stanford University, has described as the implicit and null curriculum. The implicit curriculum consists of everything that the school teaches through the indirect media of assemblies, dress codes, detentions and more; the null curriculum refers to neglected subjects, such as auto-mechanics, woodworking and home economics. Often, what a school omits from its curriculum, or fails to consider as a contributor to its ethos, is just as important as what it self-consciously includes (Eisner, 1985).
It's worth thinking in such terms while examining the impact of the Internet gold rush upon our schools. To accommodate "computer literacy" in their K-12 curricula many schools are pushing electives such as music, art and physical education to the periphery. This raises two significant questions: As schools introduce computer technology to their classrooms, endorsing new expressions of the explicit and implicit curricula, how cognizant are they of their null curriculum's impact on students? While drafting an Acceptable Use Policy are schools pandering to vocal watchdogs of the explicit curricula at the expense of the implicit curricula?
A Modest Proposal
Let's not kid ourselves: draconian threats never taught students how to drive cars or prevent unwanted pregnancies; thoughtful educators did. Certainly, we need to offer children guidance for telecomputing as well as other activities, but acceptable use policies, as presently conceived, are legalistic and threatening when they ought to be instructive. So here's a modest proposal: let's develop a "CyberPilot's License" program that addresses the concerns attending computer literacy, teaching what we mean by the responsible use of computer technology. AUPs would be a component, though not necessarily the centerpiece, of such a program.
There is precedent for this proposal; when adolescents misbehaved with automobiles half a century ago few people proposed banning cars from local streets or schools. Instead, they introduced a program to the school curriculum to teach students how to use automotive technology responsibly. In a master's thesis completed at the University of Texas in 1951, a graduate student named Thaddeus Betley examined various proposals for driver education, noting studies that had discovered "wrong attitudes, bad habits, lack of skill, and ignorance -- account for the majority of (automobile) accidents (Betley 1951)." What did he conclude from his research? "Certainly, education must play the major role in any program which aims to eradicate these causes." Unfortunately, it wasn't until the Highway Safety Act of 1966 that driver education became a requirement for highway safety programs (Burniske 1998). Instruction on the appropriate use of the Internet must depart from its predecessor in this regard, for we should not delay its implementation.
The analogy between automobiles and computer technology, manifested in the rhetoric of the "Information Highway" and "Infobahn," invites extension of this metaphor to help students learn how to rev up "search engines" without harming themselves, fellow drivers, or the society-at-large. What's more, such a program should address the fundamental anxieties that undermine this new mode of transportation and communication. There are serious issues to consider as schools help students merge with Internet traffic, but tossing litigious documents in the faces of middle schoolers without teaching them what they mean is irresponsible. The implementation of a CyberPilot's License program would encourage a more thoughtful integration of technology into existing curricula, enabling educators to play a proactive role rather than a reactive one.
The CyberPilot's License program should be designed, like driver's education, to address not only the skills necessary to operate this machinery, but the attitudes and behaviors that promote healthy practices. In Hot Rod , a mid-century book about automobiles in America, Henry Gregor Felsen offered insights that speak as forcefully to Internet drivers today as they did automobile drivers then:
Those young drivers have learned to drive. They can operate a car all right, and make it go as fast as anyone else, but they haven't learned the one most important factor in driving -- the proper attitude.
Critics of this proposal may consider it an unnecessary encroachment upon academic curricula. Others will quarrel over the appropriate place for it within the curriculum. Both forms of resistance, however, are myopic and evasive. We cannot dismiss "Netiquette" as irrelevant, banishing it to the null curriculum. Nor can we allow disputes over its proper place in that curriculum to stall its introduction. As currently designed, few computer science courses give "web ethics" more than a peripheral glance. Meanwhile, humanities teachers complain they already have too much to do, too little expertise with telecomputing, to accept such responsibilities. However, emerging technologies blur the distinctions between disciplines, compelling simultaneous instruction of skills and the responsibility inherent in their exercise. "Computer ethics" must, therefore, be an integral part of any class that uses computers and a prerequisite for computer literacy.
The CyberPilot's License is no more panacea for the abuse of computer privileges than driver's education has been for the abuse of an automobile license. However, such a program will help schools create an Acceptable Use Policy that makes a meaningful contribution to their curriculum. The program should provide in-service opportunities for faculty and elective courses for students, introducing the terms and technology, ethical issues attending them, and the rights and responsibilities of cyberpilots. Upon completion of this course, not before, students would acquire signed letters of consent from legal guardians, assuming responsibility for their on-line actions. This would address the legal and parental concerns that defendants of current AUPs cite, yet employ an acceptable use policy as an instructional tool rather than a vague threat.
It's difficult to speak to these issues without sounding hysterical or self-righteous. However, I've been turning them over in my mind as a graduate student, teacher of undergraduates, and parent of middle school and elementary students for some time now. The convergence of those viewpoints motivates this proposal as a progressive measure, not a reactionary one. To succeed, it must bring human concerns to the foreground of computer literacy, encouraging a thoughtful approach to technological narratives without neglecting human narratives. That basic tenet is our best hope for ensuring that computer technology serves humanity, rather than humanity serving technology. Hysteria? Perhaps, but I'd rather be charged with that, and preserve a humanist curriculum, than be guilty of an indifference that renders humanism null - and void.
Betley, Thaddeus. 1951. "Analysis of Accidents of Teen-Age Drivers in Texas."
M.A. Thesis. University of Texas at Austin.
Burniske, R.W. 20 May 1998. "The CyberPilot's License." Available online: http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~burniske/cpl.
Eisner, Elliot. 1985. The Educational Imagination. New York: MacMillan.
Felsen, Henry Gregor. 1950. Hot Rod. New York: E.P. Dutton.
Kealing Junior High School. 1996. " Kealing Junior High School Acceptable Use Policy for Technology." Austin: KJHS.
R.W. Burniske, an instructor in the Computer Writing and Research Lab at the University of Texas, invites readers to visit an online prototype for the Cyberpilot's License, under development on the World Wide Web at <http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~burniske/cpl>
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