Saturday, April 14, 2007

What Do You Mean It's Been Blocked?

The following was posted on Slashdot by Londovir:

"Recently, our school board made the decision to block Wikipedia from our school district's WAN system. This was a complete block — there aren't even provisions in place for teachers or administrators to input a password to bypass the restriction. The reason given was that Wikipedia (being user created and edited) did not represent a credible or reliable source of information for schools. Should we block sites such as Wikipedia because students may be exposed to misinformation, or should we encourage sites such as Wikipedia as an outlet for students to investigate and determine the validity of the information?"

In another case, the history department at Middlebury College in Vermont has banned students from using Wikipedia as a research tool. There are all sorts of other articles, news items, and Web sites full of stories of Wikipedia and other social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook and others being blocked or banned by K-12 school systems and post-secondary institutions.

In most case the rationale for banning these sites is that Wikipedia and other similar information sites are full of inaccuracies and errors because they are user created and edited. As for the social networking sites the reasons given are that they distract learners, are time wasters, and expose them to potential predators and other unsavoury individuals.

So, are these rational, informed decisions made to improve learning environments and protect learners, or is it the 21st century equivalent of book burning? While I think that the people who made the decisions to block sites believe that it is the former, I tend to see it as the latter - uninformed, unaware, scared people making quick, knee-jerk reaction decisions.

As for the inaccuracies and errors found in Wikipedia, several studies have shown that it is no less accurate than the printed version of the Encyclopedia Britannica, found in just about every school, college, and university library. When an inaccuracy is found in Wikipedia, it is fixed much faster than it would ever be in a printed version of any reference text or encyclopedia.

But for me the bigger issue is why block these sites at all? Isn't one of our responsibilities as educators to give our learners the skills to gather, analyze, and interpret the information they find. Wikipedia or a similar social networking reference site should never be the sole source for information, but it is a great place to start. Learners should develop the skills and knowledge to determine for themselves the accuracy of the information they find, regardless of its source, and as a source Wikipedia is better than many.

While blocking MySpace, Facebook, and other social networking sites may create an illusion of learners having more time in school to pay attention and be engaged in learning, it's just that - an illusion. They will be no more engaged in learning at all. What we (and parents) need to is educate learners on how to be socially and personally aware in an ever-increasingly social Web. Get learners to use social networking sites for positive, beneficial experiences - there are a lot of great things offered by these sites. I use Facebook for example to create and maintain alumni contacts with former learners - this informal social network has resulted in job and other opportunities for my current learners. Teach them the tools to be wise and safe when they are online. Blocking and banning sites will only make them more attractive and will result in uninformed and unsafe use.

So - no more knee-jerk blocking of sites OK? Take the time to understand the tools and technologies before you light up the bonfire. In the long run you will be doing everyone a great service...

(Photo - "fahrenheit burn" by mrtwism)

No comments: