The Trust Gap

It’s been quite a week in the educational blogosphere…

A lot of the chatter (or rather, twitter) has been focussed on the sudden forced closure of Al Upton’s classroom blog by his Year 3 students.  The closure was requested by DECS, the South Australian Department of Education and Children’s Services in response to a parent who was concerned about their kid being exposed to the dangers of the Internet.  Al’s kids, well known on the web as the “miniLegends”, have been blogging successfully for the last few years, and were just starting a new project where their blogging was being mentored by other teachers around the world. In theory, it sounds like a great idea… kids with a passion for writing being connected with other educators all over the world willing to help these kids with their writing, offering critique, advice, suggestions, support and generally acting as a volunteer tutoring service at no charge.

Their blogging came to a screeching halt last Friday however, when Al received a cease and desist notice from the Department, who clearly have their heads in a very dark place.  It’s a bit of a long story, as evidenced by the fact that I’ve been part of several very late Skype chats this week with a number of high profile Australian teacher-bloggers who were close to the real story and keen to talk about the situation and what it means for education. Al is being quietly philosophical about the whole thing, but is also quietly annoyed.

The story of why the blog was shut down is well documented elsewhere, so I won’t delve into it in depth here.  Just suffice to say that the South Australian education department has not done a great job of handling the public relations fallout as a result of this.

Here we have a situation of a world class educator willing to lead his students in an authentic, real-world writing task, developing their passion for learning and writing, along the way observing every required protocol for getting the appropriate permissions and authorities from parents, and then finding that the whole shebang can be shut down by one paranoid complaint from someone who clearly doesn’t get it…   Either way, the kids were punished for no good reason, Al was made to endure scrutiny that he ought not have had to, and a great project has been marred.  To get a feel for how the world responded, have a browse through the nearly 200 comments on what currently remains of the MiniLegends blog…

Apparently the big problem was that the miniLegends were going to be in contact with (over the Internet) other adult educators.  The paranoia that surrounds this idea that kids should not have contact with adults like this is, quite frankly, insulting to the adults. It insinuates that adults cannot be trusted, that danger is everywhere, that children should trust nobody.  The psychological mistrust and fear such an attitude engenders far outweighs the real risk.

It’s especially ridiculous because while all this was happening here in Australia, the TED conference was taking place in Monterey, California, where one of the speakers was Dave Eggers.  Eggers presented a talk about an amazing project where he has been connecting school kids with professional writers who volunteer their services for free to help kids with tutoring.  The project, called Once Upon a School, is absolutely awe inspiring and has spread to a number of other states now wanting to develop similar grassroots programs.

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What I find so paradoxical, is that while Al Upton is getting shut down here in Australia for wanting to connect his students to willing adults eager to help the kids write better, Dave Eggers is on the other side of the world getting a standing ovation, winning a TED prize, and starting a grassroots movement to help kids by doing more or less the same thing.

It’s a funny old world.

In Real Life

One of the really cool things about being a globally connected teacher is the opportunities to develop relationships with other like-minded educators. As I’ve said once or twice before, learning is a conversation and as we start to engage in that conversation it continues to feed our need for ongoing learning. Web 2.0 tools like Twitter and the blogosphere, as well as some still-useful “old skool” technologies like Skype, email and mobile phones means that we can be incredibly connected to each other if we choose to be.

I started hanging around online communities a long time ago; in fact, as a teenager I was a geeky kid with a Citizens Band radio and used to sit in my room late at night having conversations with lots of people from all over Sydney and beyond that I mostly never met. (I say “mostly”, because I did actually meet a few of my CB buddies and became quite good long-term friends with some of them) When I got into computers I remember the excitement of logging onto the old fashioned BBSes (bulletin boards systems) and posting disembodied text threads back and forward with other users… the technology was the exciting part and it was easy to overlook the fact that these invisible “users” were real people just like me. Ah, good times.

As online communities started springing up all over the place in the mid 90s, I joined lots of them. Forums, discussion boards, IRC chat and IM… what these tools have always facilitated is conversation, which is critical to feeling connected and engaging with ideas. Occasionally, I have had the opportunity to connect with people from these lists IRL (in real life). I remember the first time I ever met someone IRL from the OzTeachers list… I was going to Canberra on a business trip and since I had engaged in many interesting exchanges with a Canberra based teacher-librarian called Barbara Braxton, I emailed her offlist to suggest that I drop in and have a look around her school. It’s a really nice experience to meet someone IRL whom you have only ever known virtually, and Barbara spent a good hour or so giving me a grand tour around her school.

Not long after that I had to go to Perth to run some workshops so I contacted another OzTeacher from Fremantle, Bryn Jones. I met Bryn at his place and then he and I went for a few beers down on the Freo docks and shared a few stories and ideas about education and life in general. Since then, I’ve met a number of other people from the OzTeachers list, including Adrian Greig, Fiona Banjer, Kerry Smith, Mal Lee, John Pearce and others. While being a member of an online community is a great thing, being able to put a face to the name and get to know someone in real life adds a wonderful extra dimension.

A few days ago I noticed on Twitter that Barbara Dieu from Brasil was visiting Sydney. I tweeted a quick G’day and said that maybe we should get together. Barbara thought it a good idea, so I tried to round up a few other Sydney bloggers to join us. In the end, it just ended up being the infamous Judy O’Connell from the heyjude blog, so the other night Judy, Barbara and I met up for dinner at a little café in Newtown. (The same café where Judy, Westley Fields and others had dinner with Alan Levine on his recent trip to Sydney)  It was really neat to meet IRL like this… I’d met Judy briefly at a conference a few months prior, and Barbara and I had exchanged a few emails when we almost presented a session together with Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach at the Learning 2.0 conference in Shanghai last year, but to actually get together for a drink, dinner and some great stories just adds a very special dimension to the online relationships that Web 2.0 enables.  (Even as I wrote that last sentence, it really hit me just how amazing these connections are and how much connectivity comes out of what seem to be fairly tenuous links… I guess that’s the strength of weak ties.)

As we sat chatting we marveled at the ease with which tools like Twitter and Skype enabled us to make connections and then organise and coordinate an event like this, but the real lesson that I took from the experience was to remind myself that these networks we create are NOT about computers and technology, they are about PEOPLE. Especially for those others who just look on at what we do, who see us spending lots of time in front of a computer, it very easy to overlook the fact that we are not spending all this time just tapping on a keyboard and interacting with bits and bytes, chips and circuits… we are interacting with real, flesh-and-blood, honest-to-goodness people.

Of course, if any of you are ever in Sydney then we should meet up.  I know this great little café in Newtown…

See you in Texas?

There are two ICT trade show events that I’d love to attend – NECC in the US and BETT in the UK. I’ve probably left it a bit late to attend BETT (it starts in a week or so), but I’m seriously considering attending the 2008 National Educational Computing Conference in San Antonio Texas. After hearing all about it for the last few years I’ve been curious and interested to attend a NECC event, and the 2008 event just happens to fall conveniently in the midyear Australian school holidays (where I potentially have a full three weeks off!)

One of the motivators for attending this year is thanks to the amazing connections I’ve made with so many educators throughout the US and Canada via tools like Twitter and Skype. I feel like 2007 has been the year of expanding my own personal learning network and I’m keen to get to an event like NECC to meet up with people in real life that I feel I’ve come to know through these virtual spaces. Besides, last years Bloggers Café sounded like a really fun thing to be part of and I like being part of fun things!

I noticed that there is a study tour being organised here in Australia that takes a detour via New Zealand and Silicon Valley to get to San Antonio and it’s looking like it might be a good use of some pre-tax dollars. I need to have a chat with my new school to see how this might fit in with their professional development plans, but regardless I think I’d like to head over to Texas and be part of it anyway.

The study tour details can be found at, and here is a part of the blurb…

Spend time with colleagues in New Zealand, visit Apple in San Fanscisco, Dell in San Antonio, have small group time with key international educators, enjoy the celebration of ICT with 15,000 like-minded educators, receiving briefings from ISTEs key people, COSNs leaders, ISTEs international representative, meet and work with other international IT educators and enjoy two weeks immersed in technology in education.

So, fellow Aussies, whaddya reckon? Who else is thinking about going? And what about my American friends… twist our arms a little! It wouldn’t take much!

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