Putting them in a bubble

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I had a lively conversation the other day with some Ed Tech folks on what students should be able to do and access at school. This of course is one of my favorite topics with Middle School students…they are about the only age brave enough and stand up and say…”Your generation has it wrong.”

Crazy Kids…don’t they know we know best!

But when we talk about information and allowing access to it at our schools, can we truly raise our students in a bubble? Can we afford to spend our resources on trying to keep them in and keep the bad stuff out rather than on having open and honest talks about the information that is out there? I have had a number of talks on teenagers’ favorite subject…music. I love to debate them on the fact that downloading illegal music is illegal. I don’t care if it’s easy…it’s still illegal. Their point…it should be free..therefore I’m not paying for it. It should be free is the reason they download. They only know free music, it’s always been free whether it really has been or not and they don’t understand why I’d pay 99 cents to download a song.

And it’s not just music, we debate them on myspace, on facebook, on youtube. We try and protect them from this information that we do not understand, do not think is educationally appropriate. Large companies sue youtube to remove their content yet more is posted. We are fighting a loosing battle. They want information to be free and they want access to it. We lock them up for 8 hours 180 days a year in a bubble, where we pretend these sites don’t exist. Where we say these sites have no educational value. We bring them into our schools and put them in bubbles…so that they don’t hurt themselves or are hurt by others.

There is only one thing wrong with bubbles….they always pop!

…and then what? What happens when they graduate and go off into the world? Nothing actually because for the other 16 hours a day they live in that free information world. They’ve built it, use it, own it, and continue to create it….and keep shaking there heads at me saying, “You don’t get it.”

Do we get it? Does education understand that they are learning without us, that this new world in which our students live is teaching them more than what we can inside the bubble? Inside a textbook that does not hyperlink, does not move, and does not engage?

We can not teach our students inside a bubble, we can not pretend that these sites do not exist. By pretending they do not exist we make them more powerful. Students at our school can watch YouTube videos and they do quite often. Do we have an occasional problem? Yes! But would we still have the occasional problem if we kept them in that bubble? Absolutely! I’ve yet to work at a school that the students did not find a way to bypass a filter, whether to bring content in or send content out. But by acknowledging the content we can start conversations around it, students watch videos that are educational as well as entertaining…and they get ideas of how to create their own videos. Watching an inappropriate video is still watching an inappropriate video the punishment is the still the same whether we give them access to it or not.

Truthfully, I don’t think we give our students enough credit. We feel as though we can’t trust them with this free information. We’re afraid of what they might do, watch, or see that they couldn’t do at other times outside of school. Teachers have made the argument, “Well, they do what they want at home as long as they don’t do it as school.” And that’s exactly what’s we’re headed for….students who stay home and learn rather than climb inside the bubble and wait for 8 hours to get out.

Pop the bubble…start conversations….and engage in learning!

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I started blogging in 2005 and found it such a powerful way to reflect and share my thinking about technology, this generation, and how we prepare students for their future not our past.


  1. Schools use bubbles to protect themselves from all things they fear and dislike. When we find a way to get beyond the fear and appreciate the new information landscape, the bubble will pop. How can we do that?

  2. Hi Jeff,

    Lately, I feel like I am caught in between worlds. There are people in my district who look at me like I’m nuts when I talk about media literacy and student empowerment with 21st century tools. Then, I turn around and feel positively stodgy when I read posts like this. I don’t mean any disrespect, but I believe the balance between empowering students and creating a safe environment is legitimately difficult for schools. What’s more, I believe a balance can be found that would allow for safe learning with 21st century tools. I’m not talking about Wikipedia or YouTube; I’m talking about Adult Friend Finder and Meta Cafe (raunchy stuff on the ‘cafe.) There is content online that should be restricted and educators have every right to be cautious about it. When my daughter (now 1!) is able to use a mouse, I am going to filter her net access. I would expect my daughter’s school to do the same.

    I’m sure you’re not talking about Adult Friend Finder. But I don’t think MySpace is the place to teach online safety or web effectiveness either. It wasn’t designed to be. Don’t you think there are more powerful alternatives to suite a school’s purpose? ELGG, Moodle, and Drupal have administrative options for schools but still allow for student self-expression. Will kids feel the same ownership? Probably not, but if schools co-opted MySpace, it would cease to be. It would be renamed to “A Space” and the kids that covet it would go somewhere else. In many ways, teachers need to get out of the way and let kids learn. However, we must remember that our students are still children who are in our care as educators. This became much longer than intended…

  3. Thanks for the post, Jeff. I used this same analogy last year at my school to get additional access to sites in my computer lab (that were still blocked elsewhere in the school). I teach at a private high school and had to assure administration that I would supervise students on websites and only use them when they supported my curriculum. I almost laughed out loud … as if I wouldn’t be doing that all the time anyway.

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  5. Legal issues can be a major roadblock to access. I would love to see some concrete examples of how district’s are writing policies and procedures that both give education the free access that it needs and protects the district and teachers from legal action. I’ve started a section on http://www.eduwiki.us to ask others to contribute examples of these policies and procedures. We need to make the bubble burst, but I need the language that will allow the district to reduce fears of lawsuits.

    Great post and we need to make this happen! MB

  6. Well said Jeff. I think you’re absolutely right. I get excited about the possible educational uses of MySpace, YouTube, Flickr, etc. But these sites do contain content that is not appropriate for children. Most school administrations cover themselves by banning all of these sites, by putting their students in bubbles and protecting them from the outside world. But in the 21st century we live in an interconnected world. It is our responsibility as educators to teach our students about the good, the bad and the ugly on the Internet and to instill a sense of ethics for their online activities. Rather than ignoring these influential sites (that are a regular part of their lives outside of school), we need to confront them head-on and form strategies for preparing our students for interacting in an online world. That will mean that they will occasionally encounter some less-than-desireable material. But if we prepare them for this, won’t they be better off than those who discover it with no guidance or preparation?

  7. Jeff, thank you for this post!

    Andrew, I thought you raised such a great question.

    How do we incorporate social software into the classroom in a manner that simultaneously protects young students from inappropriate content and avoids creating a bubble that prevents us from teaching important lessons about web responsibility?

    I am enthused about the prospect of using of social software in the classroom. I’m also very interested in the question of “exactly how do we go about integrating social networking into our teaching in a way that improves the learning experience?”

    My background is in Communication Studies, college level instruction, and e-learning instructional design. Lately, I’ve been helping out a small company in Chicago called EctoLearning.com.

    Basically, what EctoLearning has done is to create a social networking environment that is especially designed for classroom use. There are various control features that teachers/group admin’s can use to manage the students’ use of the network and the sign up process is designed so that teachers can easily bring the students on-board and assemble them into a class/group. Also it enables teachers to bring web content into the laptop classroom (for instance, an RSS feed or a YouTube movie) without the kids having to actually navigate outside of the safer Ecto environment to access that content.

    Because on the surface it looks and feels a lot like MySpace or Facebook, students seem to take to it instantly. Also one of the pilot school found that it became a model environment for teaching about web responsibility. Student and teachers create digital identities/profiles but in a safer, educational-oriented context.

    In a nutshell. EctoLearning couples the social networking features with a full set of hosted LMS tools, the ability to upload and create learning items, the ability to easily connect with other classrooms around the world (it just launched and it’s already being used in 15 countries), and an open library where teachers share their own learning items, lesson plans, etc.

    I’m sorry this post is so long, Jeff! EctoLearning is tremendously multifaceted and they are actively trying to address the vision and questions that many of us around here have. I look forward to being a part of the ongoing discussion. Thanks so much.

    • chris bergeron Reply

      Mr Becker,
      Are you by any chance the Stephen Becker who wrote the novel, “The Blue Eyed Shan,” which I greatly admire.
      If so, I was briefly in touch with you when I was a reporter in the British Virgin Islands and learned you had lived there.
      I write because I just returned from Beijing for the Olympics and visited Zhoukoudian which obviously has connctions to your novel. Since I worked in China from 1980-87, I am a great fan of all your novels.
      Regards, chris bergeron
      MetroWest Daily News
      (previously BVI Beacon)

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  10. Is it the students who are being protected by the bubble? or the schools?

    Seems to me that kids with unlimited access would bring with them parent’s with complaints or lawsuits. Considering the number of books removed from school libraries as a result of parent challenges, I would suspect that not filtering internet content on school computers, or giving parents the option to filter internet content, would bring a lot of grief to the community.

    I don’t agree that the content should be filtered, I believe parents and teachers should be talking to the kids about the content, but I also know I’m in a small minority.

    One thing that seems to work well here at our public library is different levels of access/ filtering. Parents, when signing for a child’s interent access card, must choose between 4 levels of filtering. I suppose it cuts down on complaints.

    It sounds like EctoLearning has a useful tool… kids like communicating with their peers, and the idea that it can be done in a reasonably safe format related to their schools and/or education would be an appealing option for kids who want to connect online to their pals in school, and a great alternative to faking birthdays to get on other social networking sites where they are more likely to make inappropriate connections.

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