Want to know something cool?

One point of view, taking note of sundry "cool" things that affect-- or could affect-- the education business.


Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Rhode Island ... the Ostrich State?

Picture our flightless feathered friends and their exposed posterior when they stick their heads in the gopher holes. Then picture the Ocean State, tucked serenely between Massachusetts and Connecticut, with its' posterior sticking out. This is Rhode Island, the state that has decided that more than 80% of its' schools should just institute an outright ban on MySpace.com. (Read the Reuters news item here.)

That's right ... 80% (eighty percent, not a typo) of schools in Rhode Island are currently blocking or planning to block access from school equipment to MySpace. This, in the interest of student safety, is the best plan they can come up with? What about other social sites? Do they block all of those, too? What about Blogger (your humble host here) or Yahoo or MSN? AOL? ICQ? Are these sites also to be blacklisted? And what about sites like del.icio.us? Or Flikr, or ... you get the point.

Let's be clear: Protecting students from online danger is very cool. But is site-blocking the best way to do it? Do the poor lambs have access from computers outside the school buildings? Do they know of sites that haven't made the blacklist yet? Are they smart enough to end-run the blocks entirely by coming at the urls sideways through a sub-window? In short, can we really build firewalls that can keep them out of danger?

(Click the link to read the rest of this post ...)

Mayhap the better approach is to embrace the fundamental characteristics that make MySpace so attractive to the 14-and-up crowd. Maybe-- hey, what a novel concept!!-- Rhode Island could approach MySpace or del.icio.us and say, "look, we know our kids want to be on your site. How about we build a secure subnet where only other students from the same school can see the kids' pages?" Maybe the school could even host an intranet solution that mimics the MySpace social network but keeps kids literally inside the firewalls? Plenty of districts, large and small, have implemented WAN and intranet and VPN. Why not give the little darlings a couple GB of space there and let them have at each other? If it's not safe to let them go to the park and play without an adult, don't lock the park gates ... let them play in the safety of a fenced backyard.

The other aspect of child saftey comes not from locking out the baddies, but from educating the students. Teach the kids how to do social networking safely. Teach them how to creat a secure password and to limit exposure to their MySpace with a narrow buddy list. Teach them about the sensitivity of personal information. Teach them that they shouldn't put anything on MySpace that they wouldn't want on a billboard next to the highway in a bad part of town. Teach them about stranger danger, about the hazards of irl hook-ups. About revealing too much and making themselves targets.

Not every kid will learn all of this well, and not every kid who does learn it will implement it. But by "cutting off" MySpace, Rhode Island has made it even cooler. The forbiddenness of it just adds to the allure for some kids. And by sticking their heads in the sand, school officials are ignoring the need to educate these kids about online safety, personal responsibility, and appropriate use of technology. And so when these kids DO get to MySpace, from the public library or their friend's computer or whatever, they're unprepared. Rhode Island is preaching abstinance and isn't teaching basic safety skills or the practical implications of online life. Doing so is irresponsible and dangerous. Their hearts are in the right place, but their approach is definitely not cool.


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