Filters more fuel for the Digital Divide

Overheard in the library last week: 

Student A couldn’t remember his password for the OCIS career database.

He had it in his home email, so he pulled out his iTouch to retrieve it:

Student A: Man, when did they start blocking Wifi? I can’t get to my email on my iTouch anymore.

Student B: Do you have email on your phone?

(After a brief pause)

Student A: OH… Duh!

DUH, indeed. To terribly mangle and paraphrase the famous line from Field of Dreams, “If we block it, some will still be able to access it.” And some will not. And therein lies the problem.

The Digital Divide, which used to be about who had a home computer and who did not, has taken on a new form. The tools that students (and teachers) use every day at home are mainly blocked at school – but those privileged enough to have smart phones with data plans can easily circumvent the blocks, leaving students who cannot afford smart phones locked out, not just at home, but in the one environment meant to be an equalizer- their school.

And schools have more responsibility than just providing an equal playing field, they have the responsibility of teaching students to ethically and productively use the tools that permeate the workplaces and college classroom that await our students upon graduation.

In August, our teachers and administrators agreed to throw out a school-wide ban on cell phones and other electronic devices. We discussed and embraced the potential benefits of using cell phones and iPods as instruments of learning. Teachers, for the most part, breathed a collective sigh of relief, and even requested professional development on best practices of incorporating the devices in the classroom.

The paradox?  Shortly after the revolutionary “dropping of the ban,” Wifi access in school was suddenly blocked. Teachers could ask that their personal iPads, iTouches, etc. be “authenticated,” but students were excluded. So much for embracing technology.

The very infrastructure of technology in our school serves to aggressively barricade access to tools which are intrinsic to the lives of both students and teachers. Everything about our “access” screams, “We Don’t Trust You.”

Shelly Blake-Plock elaborates on the message that filters send to students in this excellent post.  And many of his points are showcased the policies and practices in my school.

In the library, for example, students have access to 20 Thin Client units on which they can access the Internet and use Microsoft Office programs. The list of what they CANNOT access, however, is much longer.

  • They cannot access USB, CD, DVD or other storage devices. (Thus, they cannot begin a paper or project at school, save it, and take it with them to finish at home, or vice/versa)
  • They cannot download Anything. Not free music clips to include in presentations, not video clips. Nothing. (Thus, last week when I was sharing Freeplay, a site that provides free music and sound clips for podcasts and video projects, my enthusiasm was squelched when a student reminded me, “Um, we can’t download any of these clips at school, so how’s that supposed to help?”)
  • They cannot access YouTube, Twitter, Blogs, Facebook, Email, Streaming music or video- tools they use Every Day when they step outside the barricade of the school.

Ironically, (and amazingly) many students walk around with access to these tools through the devices they carry in their pockets.

But rather than stepping up to our responsibility to demonstrate ethical, innovative, practical ways to use these tools to enhance student lives, schools instead force these technologies underground. Students are left to their own devices to figure them out while holed up in their rooms at home.  And those are the lucky ones. The students who can’t afford to carry portable computers with data plans in their pockets are needlessly and tragically left in the dark.


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