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Taking Back the Net
Part 2 - Fear and Loathing of the Internet

By Gary S. Stager

Lots of hype surrounds the use of the Internet in education. I’ll begin by exploring at least four ways in which the net can serve the educational process and then discuss the imperatives for rational leadership.

1 Unlimited access to information

"Kids can now conduct all sorts of research via the Internet." You have undoubtedly heard this claim made over and over again throughout society. Understanding of this benefit must be made without our technocentric glasses. A rich array of primary source materials has always been available for student research and analyses. Take a look at your local library or bookstore where you can always find more breadth, depth and compelling information than in the traditional textbook. Even television offers a plethora of primary sources. If research is to mean a quest for information or search for truth, then it is indeed true that the Internet has a great deal to offer. Just don’t get too excited about kids being able to write trivial "reports" based on information found on the net or even more traditional media. Conservative educators tout the ability to conduct research because it doesn’t rock the boat. The Internet challenges us to rethink student projects and go beyond the three paragraphs with pretty cover that we’ve all become familiar with.

2 New Opportunities for Collaboration

The worldwide communications capabilities of the Internet offer unprecedented for collegial and student communication with peers and experts. However, one must remember that collaboration begins at home. Kids who lack school-based experience working constructively with others for sustained periods of time on personally meaningful projects will have a great deal of difficulty working on a teleproject with students in Belarus.

3 Democratize Publishing

This benefit excites me most. The Bills, Clinton and Gates, each have a web site and so do I. This personal printing press will revolutionize society and offer exciting vehicles for personal expression. Student work should just be published on the web as a matter of course. The hypertext nature of the web doesn’t even require the work to be placed on a specific server. The importance of having an audience for ones work is a critical aspect of the learning process. The net offers a remarkable audience for student work.

We may not like some of this work. There is a pattern repeating itself across the United States in which a twelve year-old puts a web page declaring that "Mr. Smith is a crummy teacher and needs a good haircut," on their own server while at home. The child’s school administrators quickly overreact and expel the kid from school. Several courts of Law have now affirmed that schools do not have jurisdiction over a child’s bedroom thereby creating what I call the $30K bug. The $30K bug comes about around the turn of the century when schools overreach and judges rule that they must apologize to the student, reinstate her and pay $30,000 in legal costs.

Remember that democracy is messy. In the short-term, schools are likely to act badly when confronted with the implications of unchecked student freedom. It would be wise to take a deep breath and remember the benefits of democracy and freedom before school computer labs become mini-Tianneman Squares.

4 Teachers Get to Participate in History

It is worth remembering that the World-Wide-Web didn’t exist when Bill Clinton became President of the United States. Dramatic change has occurred in a few short years. Learning new things in such a period of rapid change reacquaints teachers with the art of learning and offers powerful modeling for their students. The speed at which the net develops leaves lots numerous opportunities for every user to help shape not only its future, but the future of learning as well.

Wanted: Leadership

These turbulent times require calm, rational and informed educational leaders. It is no longer acceptable for school leaders to remain blissfully ignorant of all things requiring electricity. The costs, financial and educational, are too high to delegate decisions regarding, if, how, why, what and where Internet resources will be used in their schools to subordinates. This is especially true if critical decisions are being left to non-educators or self-proclaimed experts. It is imprudent at best for school leaders to absent themselves from such important technical decisions. Years of debt and educational disappointment may result from such a hands-off approach.

It is imprudent at best for school leaders to absent themselves from such important technical decisions.

A rudimentary understanding of the Internet derived from occasional web surfing and email correspondence can help school leaders avoid disaster or missed opportunities. One principal recently attacked me for minimizing the student risks associated with students using the net. This gentleman feared that if he used the web to publish a full video of girls performing a play, those girls would be in jeopardy. When I asked if he could explain a few of the steps involved in streaming an entire drama production over the web, he replied, "well, I don’t know any of that technical stuff."

Anyone who has spent eternity waiting for a .gif file to appear in their browser realizes how far we are from streaming theatrical productions on the web. It may be possible to do so, but it is quite improbable - at least for the time being. Basic familiarity with the technology could avert all sorts of hysteria.

Technological ignorance may lead to other stages of questionable decision-making: fear; prior-restraint; recklessness and irrelevance.


Ignorance and apathy can breed fear. Darkness is the absence of light. Educators without personal insight into the constructive power of the Internet may be inclined to act in ways ultimately harmful to their educational mission.

The same parents fearing that their child will be abducted by aliens if they use the web are quite happy to have their child’s photo placed in the local newspaper after a well-deserved netball victory.

My Mother recently emailed me with concerns that her three year-old PC is not prepared for Y2K. I assured her that there was little risk of her 166 MHz machine launching missiles towards Moscow or bringing down the nation’s financial infrastructure. Schools often act as if allowing a kid to save work on the hard drive will end life, as we know it.


Fear often translates into decisions designed to protect kids and teachers from themselves, whether they need it or not. Too much time, money and human capital is being dedicated to establishing policies intended to prevent students from hacking servers, looking at inappropriate web pages or expressing themselves in mischievous ways even if no such threat exists and no infraction has been committed.

One American school superintendent proudly proclaimed to the Los Angeles Times that his web filtering software not only keeps kids from dangerous and pornographic sites, bit also stops them from looking at sites containing the words, finance, entertainment or sport. That’s right, no discussion of the Asian financial crisis, reports from the Olympics or information on university scholarships. He went on to say, "the students are here to be taught, not entertained." This lunacy reminds me of Dan Kinamman’s saying, "we taught ‘em, but they didn’t stay taught."

I can not comprehend why a school would go through the expense of wiring for the Internet and then cripple its potential in such a staggering fashion.

One gentleman on an Internet listserv just screamed that there are sociopaths in schools and they will try to wreck anything. Therefore, we need draconian acceptable use policies designed to punish all users. Why should we design educational experiences for the worst case and not the best?

In the first part of this series I described the educational and administrative costs of over-regulating the school network. It requires unnecessary personnel and establishes obstacles to learning and self-expression. "Secure" networks are harder to use, buggier and typically make the job of teachers more difficult. This must be remembered when we consider the existing hurdles to teachers using computers in constructive ways.


Schools frequently overreact to the technical threats caused by Internet access. Rational reflection of the real risks and benefits afforded by this exciting technology will lead to better decision-making. If a child is prohibited from bringing a dirty magazine to school in their bookbag, then they should receive the same punishment for bringing a dirty picture to the school’s computer. Threatening a classmate on the schoolyard should incur the same wrath as for threatening someone online.

One of the reasons that we have adults in schools is to monitor the actions of kids - on or off the computer.

In my experience, the best way to keep kids from being destructive is to engage them in constructive, personally rich experiences. Good citizenship is always a more suitable alternative to electronic tyranny. Student ownership of the learning process and the objects in the learning environment prevents a multitude of sins. Alfie Kohn has written volumes about the ineffectiveness of external punishments and rewards.

Youthful indiscretions, curiosity and even tinkering with the network should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. In many cases, these crimes against the network may just be part of the learning process. Schools in which kids install, operate and police the network have a much lower incidence of inappropriate behavior because the students are trusted and the computers are treated more casually as commonplace objects capable of being backed-up, rebooted or repaired.

They’re just computers! Back them up regularly and don’t worry so much. Computers crash for all sorts of reasons. Basic maintenace and common sense helps avert disaster. The more precious we treat the computers, the more students who will feel the need to break the rules out of boredom, curiosity or malice. It is just plain stupid to have sensitive data on the same server as kids’ work.

Many schools are enacting reckless policies that respond to inappropriate behavior by confiscating laptops and denying future network access. These schools argue that the kids are jeopardizing the education of others and should pay the price for their actions. If a child commits a crime, they should be criminally sanctioned. The school should refrain from being cop, judge and jury and that matter referred to the proper authorities. If the kid is just naughty, they should be punished. However, that punishment may not include a denial of computer or Internet privileges.

It is miseducative, immoral and in most U.S. states, illegal to deny students equal educational opportunity. Common sense dictates that if a computer and Internet access is an integral part of learning (some of your schools require kids to purchase laptops for this very reason), then you may not deprive a student of such access. Doing so retards their ability to receive a thorough and effective education.

Sure, punish kids who misbehave. Just don’t prevent them from learning and avoid self-fulfilling prophecies. Focusing undue attention on avoiding isolated acts of misbehavior distracts us from enjoying the enormous potential offered my modern computation and communications technology.


My critics respond to this line of reasoning by saying that the computer and Internet access are privileges that a school dispenses like passes to the restroom. As long as we continue to discuss computer access as a privilege, it will continue to be looked upon as a gimmick. If the computer is truly important to the learning of children, then we should do everything possible to increase access and spread powerful ideas.

Access to computers and the Internet are not a privilege, teaching is.

The critics are quick to point out that kids have plenty of access to "this stuff" (the Internet and conputers) outside of school. Therefore, confiscating a student’s computer or denial of network access will not have a deleterious effect on their education. Such a statement must be interpreted as an admission that what transpires within a school is at best redundant. They often clarify their remarks by pointing out that the kid can go back to the "old-fashioned" way of using books and other materials after they lose computing privileges. This line of thinking about what computers contribute to the learning process demonstrates that the they view school computing as Stephen Marcus says, "just another way to burn a witch."

I fear that network managers I’ve described have quite different goals from the pioneers of personal computing - Seymour Papert, David Loader and even Newt Gingrich - who embraced laptops as a way of liberating kids from a failing bureaucracy. My sense is that all sorts of new IT bureaucracies have emerged to reinforce the traditional coercive nature of schooling. The third an final installment of this series will address the consequences of students having better access outside of schools and explore how your school can provide higher quality Internet services at a much lower price.


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