One of my throw-away lines in workshops is that GoogleDocs can be accessed from anywhere in the world – except in Communist China and in some Australian schools. Often when presenting workshops in a school I come across the same problem; many, sometimes nearly all, of the websites I want to access in my presentation are blocked. YouTube, Google-Docs, Google Image search, Twitter, Facebook, some Virtual Classroom technologies, even Wikipedia! – I have found all of these blocked from time to time. This is frustrating for me both professionally and personally, and I do not always have the time or the opportunity to put into practice the standard way of getting around such problems (namely finding a helpful year 9 who knows the ‘fix’). I always bring my own wireless modem so that I can have unrestricted (and usually faster) access to the internet, but that does not help participants in my workshops, or people who may want to use the tools and techniques I demonstrate in their own schools.
I have been reflecting on this for some time, and doing some anecdotal research. I have come to the conclusion that we are living in a transitional period which will not last more than another 18 – 24 months. By that time, the majority of teachers and students will be bringing their own internet access to school, and will be bypassing school networks as a matter of course. In this transitional period, where schools are struggling to provide internet access, and also to control and censor it, much time, effort and money is being wasted setting up systems which, if I am right, will become obsolete before the end of the 2013 school year.
Of course, this proposal is anathema to those who are wasting large amounts of time and nervous energy trying to control and limit internet access in schools, but I am sure that in the end the desire of students and teachers to access the full potential of the internet will triumph. BYO internet is becoming incredibly cheap and convenient, and will continue to be more so. It can be accessed through a small plugin wireless modem, or by using a smartphone as a wireless hotspot. The cost differential between iPads and similar devices which are 3G enabled compared to those which are limited to wifi access is very small, and shrinking. Already some schools are providing 3G enabled devices to senior students through the DER funding. This will only increase, and there is already no way for schools to prevent students from accessing the internet independently if they provide their own laptops or devices.
The young people who are currently students in our schools will spend their lives living and working with the internet. Most already have unrestricted access to the internet at home and through phones and other portable devices. Surely it makes most sense for schools to recognise this, and to work with students to develop their skills in using online resources appropriately. That includes learning to discern for themselves which sites, and which resources within sites like YouTube and Wikipedia, are useful and appropriate, and which are not. If teachers in schools are not teaching students how to use the internet safely and appropriately, who is?
There is also an equity issue here. I recently spoke with a teacher who was bemoaning the fact that her school did not have sufficient funding to provide computers and internet access to all students in the classroom. I asked if the students had smartphones, and she said ‘yes, almost all of them’. My suggestion was that the students already have internet access, and the school needs only find the funding to provide it for the small number of students who are unable or unwilling to provide their own. Unfortunately at that particular school students are not permitted to use their phones at all during lessons. What a tragedy that on the one hand the school is struggling to provide 21st century educational tools to the students, whilst on the other hand most students already have access, but school rules forbid them from using it.
The era of controlled information is coming to an end. Schools should be about teaching students how to safely and effectively live and work in the modern world. They should not be about trying to block, limit and control their access to sources of information which are otherwise freely available. The ubiquity of BYO internet will bring about a complete change in the way schools use the internet. Smart teachers, school leaders and school systems are already preparing for this. What will happen in the others?