From NO! to YES!: The Slow Implementation of Interactive Web Applications

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Via Weblogg-ed News: A high school Principal in Vermont has blogging sites banned from school computers, because blogging is not an educational use of computers. Not only is he banning the use of the software in the schools; he’s encouraging parents to check browser histories and caches to make sure kids aren’t blogging from home, either.

There are, of course, lots of words I could write in outrage about an educator declaring extracurricular writing, reading, and HTML coding not educational, particularly when those activities are being undertaken by those in that difficult-to-motivate 14-18 year old range, but most of those words are self-evident. For the moment, what interests me more is the trend this ban on blogs illustrates.

One of the librarians I worked with last summer gave me a snippet of insight into the history of technology and its integration while we were sitting behind the reference desk, surveying the 200+ computer terminals splayed out in front of us.

“When we first brought these in,” he said, “we debated about whether or not to allow students to access email from them.”

No access to email from the library computers! Can you imagine? What this conversation helped me see was that this is the path of all interactive web media. Initially email was not really understood as an aid to education; it was just that fancy thing students had been using to gossip with each other. The distinction between things that are fun and things that are useful was almost so complete that email nearly got squeezed out that library. If there’s a possibility of using an application for something other than a strictly sober purpose, off with its head!

Of course now I don’t think anyone would question the validity of email-checking to the academic enterprise. Email is a student’s connection to classmates, instructors, TAs, and very often to the university administration as well. It is a collaborative communication tool that has become essential. Email is a portal to listservs and search results; it’s the destination for requested PDF files and OPAC-generated information. But its becoming clear to me that when new technologies and web applications get into the public consciousness, the first reaction of authority is to write them off as frivolous nonsense that will only taking away from good behaviour, good learning, and good values rather than representing a possible new direction.

At the moment the battle about to be fought is the case for instant messaging. I’ve seen many university terminals with big warning signs above them that say “If you download MSN or AIM to this terminal, you are a vandal and we will lop off your hands.” Or something to that effect, I may be paraphrasing slightly. There is always the fear of viruses on a network, after all. But the underlying message is often that instant messaging is for giggly preteens, it’s general use is for idle chatter in l33t (netspeak), and that sort of silliness will simply not be tolerated in an academic setting. It’s not educational. Regardless of the fact that instant messaging is one of the best collaborative tools around. Regardless of the fact that virtual reference is merely a web version of an MSN or AIM client (but one that costs the library a yearly sum). My suspicion is that at some point in the near future we will see regular school-sanctioned IM clients installed on all university terminals, and an IM handle issued to every student, faculty, and staff member. There will be a time (soon) when these things are simply taken for granted, like email.

I once worked summers for a woman who told me that her first reaction to any new idea was to say no. And it was a definitive no, with a full argument defending it and even an angry undertone to top the whole thing off. I discovered this the hard way when she confronted me about mistakes I had made. I told her some of the problems with the job I had, why those of us in that position felt isolated and abandoned, why our default reaction was to try blunder through by ourselves instead of reaching out and getting help. It came out of a place of panic, embarrassment about my own mistakes; feeling all was lost anyway, I even detailed what relatively simple organizational changes could be introduced to make my job better and us all less likely to make the sorts of mistakes I made. I was sixteen years old at the time. My boss got angier and angier as I spoke, and finally said, “that’s never going to happen.” I thought my summer job was lost. But the next summer she not only hired me back; she implemented all my ideas. “I had to think about it for a while,” she told me. “But you were right.” That was her management style: explosive no, followed by contrite implementation. I worked there for seven more years.

I feel like this is what keeps happening with collaborative technologies. The first blush response of many people in positions of authority is to see them as silly or frivolous and to say no to them. They put up barriers and try to write them off, describe them in derogative terms, frame them as potentially dangerous or distracting.

Banning blogging at this point in time looks more ridiculous than threatening, however. Blogging is not secretive, is it is not quiet banging away on a keyboard and compromising yourself in some scary way. Blogging is generally public, visible to all including teachers and parents. Blogging writing, reading, paying attention. It is communicating with friends and with the world. Perhaps the vehement “NO” is just a prelude to the joyful “YES” we can anticipate from the educational world. With some strong, visionary leadership, we can hope for it.

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