Life is Risky

Silly me. I was mowing the lawn the other day and I stupidly managed to get my big toe caught in the mower blade while it was running at full speed.  The blades ripped right through my shoe and mangled the tip of my big toe.  Needless to say, it really hurt! I was home on my own, and had to figure out what to do next… there was blood going all over the place, I felt myself going into shock, as I tried to figure out how to get myself to a doctor.  It was not a lot of fun. The good news is that despite smashing my toenail off and slicing the end of my big toe, it could have been a hell of a lot worse.  Fortunately, the bone was not broken and I still have all my toes so apart from a bit of pain and inconvenience I think I’m pretty lucky.

It highlighted to me – in a very real way – that lawnmowers are bloody dangerous things! With their sharp, rapidly rotating blades, they are obviously capable of doing some real damage to the human body. Naturally, I never intended to get my toe in the way of the blades, but it happened regardless.

So I ask the question… are lawnmowers simply too damn dangerous? Does having an accident like this mean I should get rid of the mower and never mow the lawn again? Should I be campaigning for all mowers to be banned, as I am now clearly able to prove that they are dangerous things capable of causing serious injury.  Should my local council be stepping in and confiscating the lawnmowers of my neighbours in order to ensure that nobody else can ever have a similar accident?

The answer to the these questions is obviously no. While mowing your lawn can be a potentially dangerous activity, full of inherent risks and sharp rotating blades, it’s still something that needs to be done, and is done, by people all over the world every weekend.  Of course, mower manufacturers do what they can to limit the risks; the rotor is covered by a large protective guard so the blades are not directly exposed to fingers and toes. Within reason, lawnmowers are designed to be as safe as possible, but no design is 100% failsafe.  There are still significant risks, in fact over 60,000 people are injured by lawnmowers each year in the US alone, and many of these injuries result in amputation.  With such obvious dangers posed by lawnmowers, I can only assume that people must enjoy the value of having a nice looking lawn more than they are worried about the risks of using a mower to get one.

I’m pondering these ideas and thinking how they apply to the way most schools treat potential risks for their students.  While educators have a clear duty-of-care obligation to protect our students, we also have to balance that with the need to allow them to learn and to grow and to have opportunities.  Without being given a chance to fail and to make mistakes, they are missing valuable opportunities to learn from those mistakes. I think there has to be a balance between exposing them to risks and providing them with responsibilities.

Clearly, if the risk is a physical one that could cause genuine harm, injury or even death, then we need to err on the side of caution. If a student is likely to be injured or hurt then, yes, we probably need to place greater emphasis on protecting them from risk than providing a learning opportunity.  But if the risks are minimal, statistically unlikely, or have a relatively minor negative impact, then I think we should be encouraging our students to take a few risks and benefit from the possible opportunities.  You can’t live a life where you let the potential risks override the potential opportunities; if you do you’ll miss far too many wonderful opportunities.

I got thinking about this as I read through the comments on my previous post.  That post was about treating students with enough trust and respect to assume they will make good decisions for themselves if we provide them with enough opportunities to do so, and I finished that post by asking the question “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”  A couple of commenters pointed out that bad things certainly COULD happen if we don’t protect our students, and so we should continue protecting them by filtering, blocking and limiting access to web content that might be seen as “bad”.  As usual, the discussion revolved around the “what if we get sued for letting our children see/do/experience things that aren’t ‘safe’?” line of reasoning.  While I agree we need to keep kids safe, I think that this the wrong reason for wanting to do it.  Deciding what we will or won’t do based on whether we might get sued for it is simply an awful way to go through life.

You know what? We can try to protect ourselves from risk for the rest of our lives. We can avoid doing anything remotely dangerous, just in case we get hurt.  We can wrap ourselves in cotton wool, cloistering ourselves away from anything we might find bad, distasteful, dangerous, offensive or disagreeable. We can live a life where we reduce all potential risk by avoiding all potential dangers, but in the process we miss far too many potential opportunities and I’d question whether that’s really actually living.

Many years ago I read the following poem by Kent M Keith that very much struck a chord with me.  I think it nicely captures what I’ve been trying to say in this post…

  1. People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.  Love them anyway.
  2. If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.  Do good anyway.
  3. If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies.  Succeed anyway.
  4. The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.  Do good anyway.
  5. Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.  Be honest and frank anyway.
  6. The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.  Think big anyway.
  7. People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.  Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
  8. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.  Build anyway.
  9. People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.  Help people anyway.
  10. Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.  Give the world the best you have anyway.

Oh, and I’d probably add number 11.  Mowers are dangerous. Mow the lawn anyway.

I think we owe it to ourselves – and our students – to create a life of true significance, where we decide to do things because they make our lives richer and more meaningful. It’s a very sad state of affairs when we start deciding what we will allow into our lives based on whether we might get hurt or offended or sued.

Yes, life is risky. Live it anyway.

Image Credit: Chris Betcher – CC BY-SA-NC

You are what you Tweet

Someone once said to me that if you do something once, it’s an accident. Do it twice and it’s a coincidence.  Do it three or more times and that’s just the way you’re living. The underlying message is that if you repeat something enough, then the patterns of use start to tell their own story. Your repeated activity starts to build up into a pattern of use and looking at those patterns can often give insights into the activity that are not apparent by looking at the individual instances of the activity.

This idea of allowing data to “rest where it lays” and deriving insights from it is essentially the idea behind tag clouds, whose patterns reflect repeated use of words, tags, keywords or ideas.  If you look at someone’s Delicious tag cloud and see the patterns emerging in the form of highlighted, emphasised words, then you see a clear indication of what interests that person.  The more they bookmark using tags, the more evident their interests.  The numbers don’t lie when there are enough of them.

if you aggregate enough tag clouds you start to get an insight into the “patterns of the patterns” – you see not just the interests of individuals emerging, but the interests of the group. This is the whole notion of a folksonomy, and it taps into the fascinating concept of the “wisdom of the crowds”.  Data, especially when you have enough of it to form reliable patterns, starts to become very interesting.

In the same spirit, I was a little intriugued by a twitter app I saw today, called TweetPsych.  TweetPsych looks at the contents of your last 1000 messages on Twitter, analyses the words you use and the way your sentences are constructed, and tries to draw conclusions about what you do, what interests you, and what sort of person you might be – psychologically speaking.  I’ve no idea how accurate it might be, but it’s an interesting idea. I’ll be honest and admit to you that I have absolutely no idea what they really mean, but here’s my results anyway…

Regardless of whether TweetPsych is accurate and up to scratch just yet or not, I think it signals an interesting development in what is sure to become a much bigger deal.  The notion that some level of machine intelligence can be derived from an analysis of massive amounts of our online footprints.  We are all leaving massive amounts of data behind us as we trawl around the Net, and somewhere in that trail of data there are machines piecing together an accurate picture of us… what we like, where we go on holidays, who we talk to, what our preferences are, and so on.  It’s not a new idea – Google’s entire advertising strategy is based on the concept of knowing more and more about you – but seeing TweetPsych’s attempt at psychoanalysing me from these 140 character snippets of my thoughts just threw it into a new light.

Let’s just hope that this data can be put to use in positive, creative ways that help enhance our lives.

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No Clean Feed!

I spent today, pretty much by accident, at a forum-style discussion of the issues surrounding the Australian government’s proposal to filter the Internet access of all Australian citizens.  I say “by accident” because the invitation to attend an “Internet Filtering and Censorship Forum” appeared in my email a couple of weeks ago, and without reading it too carefully, I thought it was going to be an educationally focused discussion about the filtering issues that schools face.  That would have been useful and interesting, but I didn’t realise that the discussion would actually be centred on the bigger issue of the Australian government’s proposed Internet filtering scheme.  I’m glad I went.
Look, there is no argument from me that we need to keep our children safe online.  We absolutely need to protect them from the things that are clearly inappropriate, obscene or undesirable.  I remember the first time I realised my son had seen things online that I didn’t think he should see, and it’s a horrible feeling.  But this proposal by Senator Stephen Conroy (the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy) is unrealistic, unworkable, naive and just plan stupid.

Let me put you in the picture.  In the leadup to the last Australian federal election, the Australian Labor Party (then in opposition) made a series of promises to try and get elected (as they do).  One of those promises revolved around a deal done with the powerful Christian Right, in which the Christian Right essentially said “we will give you our preference votes in exchange for you promising to put ISP-level Internet filtering in place”.  The Labor party, in a desperate attempt to get elected, said “yes of course we will do that!”.  Well, they went on to win the election and now they are in the unenviable position of having to meet an election promise that is just plain stupid.  The minister in charge of all things digital, Stephen Conroy, is either the most honorable politician at keeping his promises or the most ignorant, pigheaded, obstinate politician I’ve come across.  I suspect a bit of both.

The plan is to legislate for all Australian Internet Service Providers to supply mandatory content filtering for their customers, at the ISP level.  This would mean that every Australian ISP would have to maintain whitelists and blacklists of prohibited content, and then filter that content before it gets to their customers.  It means that every Australian internet user would have a filtered, censored, internet feed, removing any content that the government deems inappropriate.  Many comparisons have been made to the filtering that currently takes place in China, where the Chinese government controls what their people see.  I don’t think it’s quite that bad (yet), since the Australian proposal is only only really talking about blocking content that is actually illegal (child pornography, etc) but the fact is that filtering is a non-exact science, and there is little doubt that there will be many, many webpages that get either overfiltered of underfiltered.  Those of us in the education sector who have been dealing with filters for years, know exactly how frustrating this can be.

The forum today, which was held at the Sydney offices of web-savvy law firm Baker and Mackenzie, raised many important issues surrounding the filtering proposal.  There were many experts in the room from organisation such as the Electronic Frontiers Australia, the Internet Industry Association, the Law School of the University of NSW, the Brooklyn Law School, the Australian Classification Board, the Inspire Foundation, and many others.   Many of these organisations had a chance to make a short presentation about their perspective on the government’s proposal, and there was a chance for some discussion from the larger group.  It was a great discussion all round.

This is a big issue.  Much bigger than I realised.  I’d read a bit about it in the news, but hadn’t given it that much thought.  On the surface, a proposal to keep children safe and to block illegal content seems like a reasonable idea.  In practice, it is a legal, political and logistical nightmare.

Here are just a few of the contentious issues that the Conroy proposal raises…

What are we actually trying to achieve? What do we really want to block? Stopping kids getting to a few naughty titty pictures is quite a different proposition from preventing all Internet users from accessing pornographic content. Are we trying to just protect children, or are we trying to prevent adults from seeing things that they ought to be able to have the right to choose whether they see or not?  The approaches for achieving each of these goals are probably quite different.

Who will make the decisions about what is appropriate or not? There are many inconsistencies in the way the Classification Board rates content.  There have been numerous examples where something that is rated as obscene is later reviewed and found to be only moderately offensive.  Who decides?  Why should a government be allowed to make decisions about what people are allowed to see or not see.  In Australia, unlike the US, we do not have a constitution that guarantees a right to free speech, so we cannot even use the argument that our government has no right to control what we see.  They can, and they are trying to enforce it.

Won’t somebody think of the children! Sure, filters are designed to keep children safe.  We all want that.  But what if I’m a childless couple?  If I have no children in my household, why should I have to be filtered and restricted for content that is aimed at adults?  As an adult, I should be able to access whatever content I like, including the titty pictures if that’s what floats my boat.  As an adult, I don’t need the government telling me what I can and can’t access online, especially if it has nothing to do with children.

How do you filter non-http traffic? Traffic moves around the internet using all sorts of protocols… ftp, p2p, https, email, usenet, bit torrent, skype, etc.  I was told by a reliable source today that there are hundreds of different internet protocols, and many new ones are being created all the time.  Filters generally only look at regular http traffic (webpages) and will therefore have little chance of catching content that uses other protocols.  Usenet News Groups are a huge source of pornographic material, yet they will be unaffected by the proposed filters.  There is nothing to stop child pornographers exchanging content over peer-to-peer networks, bit torrent, skype or even as email attachments…  and these would all go undetected by the filters.

Do we bend the trust model until it breaks? Although the http protocol is pretty easy to inspect for its contents, the https protocol is not. The https protocol, otherwise known as Secure http, is the same one used by banks, online merchandisers and so on to facilitate secure online ecommerce transactions.  Sending traffic via https instead of regular old http is trivial to do, so one would expect that if the filters eventually happen, then the child pornographers will just start to transmit their stuff using https instead.  This will lead to one of two possible situations…  either the filters will continue to ignore http traffic (as they do now) and the pornographers carry on with business as usual making the whole filter thing pointless; or instead, the people who create the filters get smart enough to come up with a way to inspect https traffic as well.  As clever as this might be, the whole idea of https traffic is that it is encrypted to the point where the packet contents cannot be seen.  To design filters that were smart enough to inspect encrypted packets, would, if it happened, also break the entire trust model for online ecommerce.  If https packets could be inspected for their contents there would be a major breakdown in trust for other transactions such as Internet banking, ecommerce and so on.  Would you give your credit card details if you knew that https packets were being inspected by filters?

Computers are not very good at being smart. There is no way that all Internet content can be inspected by human beings.  It’s just too big, and growing too fast.  There are about 5000 photos a minute being added to Flickr.  About 60,000 videos a day being added to YouTube.  There are thousands of new blogs being started every month.  Content is growing faster than Moore’s Law, and there is no way that content can be inspected and classified by humans at a rate fast enough to keep up with the growth.  So we turn to computers to do the analysis for us.  Using techniques like heuristic analysis, computers try to make intelligent decisions about what constitutes inappropriate content.  They scan text for inappropriate phrases.  They inspect images for a certain percentage of pixels that match skin tones.  They try to filter out pictures of nudity, but in the process they block you from seeing pictures of your own kids at the beach.  Computers are stupid.

The Internet is a moving target. The Internet is still growing much too fast to keep up with it.  There are new protocols being invented all the time.  Content is dynamic.  Things change.  If I have a website that is whitelisted as being “safe” and ok, what’s to stop me from replacing the content with images that are inappropriate?  If just the URL is being blocked (and not the content) then that makes the assumption that the content will not change after the URL is approved.  A website could easily have its content replaced after its URL is deemed to be safe.

The technical issues are enormous. The internet was designed originally to be a network without a single point of failure.  When the US military built the Internet back in the late 60s, its approach was to build a network that could route around any potential breakdowns or blockages.  Yet when the filtering proposal is mapped out, the Internet is seen as a nice linear diagram that flows nicely from left to right, with the Cloud on one side, the end user on the other and the ISP in the middle.  The assumption is that if you simply place a filter at the ISP then all network traffic will be filtered through it.  Wrong!  The network of even a modest sized ISP is extremely complex, with many nodes and pathways.  In a complex network, where do you put the filter?  If there is a pathway around the filter (as there almost certainly will be in a network designed to not have a single point of failure) then how many filters do you need to put in?  It could be hundreds!  The technical issues facing the filtering proposal are enormous, and probably insurmountable to do effectively.

Filters don’t work. The last time the government issued an “approved” filter (at the user end) it was cracked by a 13 year old kid in minutes.  We were told the inside story of this today and some say that this was an unfair claim since the kid was given instructions by someone online, but the point remains that the filter was easily cracked.  Over 90% of all home computers run in administrator mode by default, so cracking a local filter is just not that hard.  Schools that filter will tell you that students who really want to get around the filters do so.  They use offshore proxies and other techniques, but filters rarely stop someone who really wants to get past them.  All they do is hurt the honest people, not stop the bad ones.

Australia, wake up!  Conroy’s plan is a joke.  It’s an insult.  It’s nothing but political maneuvering to save face and look like the government is doing something to address a problem that can’t be effectively addressed.  Conroy is doing all this to keep the Christian right happy in exchange for votes. He won’t listen to reason, and he won’t engage in discussion about it. He is taking a black and white view of a situation that contains many shades of grey.  The problem of keeping our kids safe online is important and needs to be addressed, but not like this.  Please take the time to write to him and tell him what you think. Don’t use email, it counts for nothing (even if he is the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy!)  Write to him the old fashioned way… it’s the only format that politicians take any notice of.

The irony of the underlying politics and the involvement of the Christian Right is the disgraceful history of child abuse by the Church… Catholic, Anglican, you name it.  There is case after case after case of children being abused and taken advantage of by priests and other religious clergy.  If Senator Conroy is serious about “evidence based research” and wants to legislate against the most likely places that children get molested and abused, maybe he should be doing something about putting “filters” on the catholic church.  Or what about banning the contact of small children with older family members… because statistically that’s where most child molestation takes place.  Stupid idea?  Of course it is, but it makes more sense than trying to impose a mandatory “clean feed” of Internet access for all Australians.

It’s a complete joke and a bloody disgrace.

Gone Phishing

There is a Twitter phishing scam going around at the moment that I’m unhappy to say I fell right into.  This quick post is just a warning to anyone who reads it to hopefully help them not do the same thing.

I’d been off the grid for a few days so I hadn’t heard the news about this scam, but it’s been floating through the Interwebs for 2 days apparently.  It did strike me as odd when i clicked on it that I had to relog in to Twitter, but I’d been playing with different browsers so the fact that it was asking me for a password didn’t seem all that unusual.  Of course, I should have taken more notice of the URL that was in the address bar, but I was too late.

I got a direct tweet from John Pearce that said…
“fixed it.. hehe here is that blog i wanted to show you” 

I know John. I trust John. So I clicked it.  It asked for a password, which as I mentioned, was not unusual considering I was trying a new browser (so the password wouldn’t have been already saved in it)  I realised what I’d done almost immediately but by that stage it was already too late.  Bugger!

Since then I’ve had a steady stream of people informing me that my Twitter has been compromised and I’ve now updated the password.  Thanks for the heads up folks.  It’s all fixed now.  And judging by the talk on twitter, I’m not the only one to fall for this scam.

What I found interesting is how easily we can be tricked when there is an element of trust involved.  I’m normally pretty vigilant about suspicious files and links, but I didn’t really question the offending tweet, since I trust John Pearce.  It goes to show the sort of damage that can be inflicted when the troublemakers are able to bring phishing down to a really personal level.

Getting Kids to Blog

I recently worked with our Year 4 teachers to get their kids blogging for the first time. I’d suggested blogging as a good activity for these students as a way to get them writing and reading more, as well as being for a potentially more authentic audience.  The teachers involved were a little apprehensive at first but quickly warmed to the idea and were quite keen to give it a go, especially as I said I  would work closely with them to get our blogging project off the ground… this was the first time we had tried to use blogs with the students so I was very keen to see it succeed of course.

As you may have read in a previous post, we managed to be hit with numerous technical hurdles as Edublogs recovered from a series of password resets, something the kids found annoying and tedious but also that they took very well.  The teachers of the students were a little confused that blogging was so complicated (“why do we need to reset our passwords every time we try to use the blogs?”) but again, they managed to take it all in their stride and just carry on with it.  I tried to explain that this was just a freak glitch, that blogging really was very straightforward, and to their credit they coped quite well, although I’m doubtful whether they will be willing to try it again in a hurry unless I’m there to support them with it.  The technical hassles really damage the perception of the process.

All that aside however, the kids really got into it.  They loved working on their blogs, and figured out how to add photos and videos, make categories, add widgets and change themes.  It was great to see the way they encouraged each other, helped each other work out the issues and kept adding to their own blogs both in and out of school.

I thought I’d just share a couple of tips that we picked up along the way and relate a few ideas for how we worked through the project.

The kids were each given their own blogs, set up using the multiple blog registration tool in Edublogs.  I set up the kids’ blogs 15 at a time, and made each of the teachers co-administrators.  This meant that the teacher could log in and make changes to any inappropriate content if required, although thankfully it was never required.

I also created an OPML file of each classes blogs, and used that file to import the kids’ blogs into the teachers’ feedreader.  Our school uses Outlook 2007, which has a reasonable RSS reader built in, so it was straightforward to import the OPML file into each teacher’s Outlook client, thereby giving them a feed for all their kids’ blogposts.  This made it much easier to keep on top of the many posts that were being written.  I also imported the OPML file into my Google Reader and kept an eye on the posts there as well.  To date there have been 49 posts written by one class and 71 posts by the other… not a bad effort for a first time blogging project plagued by technical troubles.

We also made sure we spent enough time discussing with the kids some of the issues about staying safe online… things like not revealing any personal information, not using your last name, not mentioning your school or where you will be at any particular time. We talked about how to handle comments and how to be a responsible online citizen. They took all this very seriously and stuck to the rules the whole time.

Of course, the real point of a blog is to write, so I worked with the teachers to come up with some way to encourage the students to write more, and especially to relate it to the topic they were doing last term which was “Australia, You’re Standing In It”.

To that end, we designed a grid of writing prompts.  It was arranged into four threads – Built Environment, Natural Environment, Flora and Fauna, and States and Territories.  We gave the students three options for each thread, one from the lower end of Blooms Taxonomy, one from the middle and one from the upper end, making 12 possible writing topics in all.  The easier topics were rated at 10 points, the middle ones at 15 points and the harder ones at 20 points and each student was asked to accumulate 60 points, with a special prize given to any student that accumulated 100 points or more. The idea was to create a range of choices that each student could make for what they wrote about, from the easier research and recall type tasks, all the way up to harder tasks that requires greater creativity and synthesis of ideas.  A student could opt for the easier tasks if they wanted to, but obviously they would need to do more of them.  Alternatively, they could do fewer but harder tasks if they chose.  The actual tasks they chose did not matter, as long as they collected at least 60 points worth.  Despite the issues with Edublogs and the large chunks of wasted class time, many students managed to get to the 60 point mark, and some collected as many as 120 points.

Cut and pasted from our Moodle page, it looked like this…

Year 4 Blogging Topics

Choose from the following list of blog topics. You need to collect at least 60 points, and anyone who gets 100 points will get a special prize.

Write each as a separate blog post. Give each a good title and a put them into a suitable category.

10 points 15 points 20 points
The Built Environment Choose a built environment and describe it in words. Add a couple of pictures as well. Write a poem about the built environment. It needs at least 2 verses. Pick two Australian built environments and compare and contrast them. (Describe their similarities and their differences) Include pictures to support your views.
The Natural Environment List 5 natural sites in NSW and include a short description of each one. Include a photo of each if possible. Should tourists be allowed to climb Uluru?
Give 5 good reasons to support your argument. Include a photo or two.
Choose an Australian natural environment and explain how and why it needs to be protected. Give as much detail as you can.
States and Territories Find the weather in 5 other states right now. Include a link to the page where you find this information. In the form of a travel log, describe a holiday you’ve taken in NSW or interstate. Include a few pictures. Which is the best Australian state? Why? Give at least 5 reasons that would convince an overseas visitor to go there.
Flora and Fauna Choose an area of Australia and list at least 3 plants or animals you would find there. Include pictures. Find 3 pictures of Australian flora and/or fauna, and write descriptions about them for someone who was blind. Choose one endangered Australian plant or animal and explain what you might do to help save them from extinction.

What struck me as I watched the students work on this project was just how many other skills they used along the way.  From technical skill trying to figure out how to include photos or YouTube videos, to information literacy skills in choosing the rights sites to gather information from, to improving their general knowledge as they learned things they didn’t know before they started.  I thought it was a successful project on a number of levels, and I do see how blogging can be a very powerful tool for learning.

Anyway, I’m certainly not claiming it was perfect or ideal, and I’d certainly appreciate any comments you might like to make on ways to improve our attempt at blogging.  What can we do to improve it?

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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.

Data lives Forever

It’s sometimes difficult getting kids to understand the full implications of something as seemingly harmless as putting their photo online. They often don’t realise that, just like The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, once something goes online it is near impossible to remove it. This video makes a pretty good point of showing the effect of this behaviour…

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It’s something that both children and adults need to understand well. This is a post-Google world we live in. It’s no longer unusual that an employer Googles the name of a potential hire to check their reputation and see what they have done (or equally, not done). When you go out with a new person, it’s likely that your date has Googled you, MySpaced you or FaceBooked you to get a little bit of “background” on the sort of person you are. In a digital world you leave a trail behind you, often whether you mean to or not. Forum posts, blog posts, (and the comments you make to them), online projects you’ve taken part in, occasions your name has been mentioned in various online and printed publications, photos… if it ends up online, it’s probably there and it’s probably searchable. And you’d be amazed at how you can take lots of little pieces of data to form a fairly thorough picture of someone’s activities and reputation.

This can work in your favour too of course. As I was applying for jobs recently, I was actually hoping that potential employers would Google me as there is, fortunately for me, lots of positive stuff online – lots of technology projects and events I’ve taken part in which I imagine would have been relevant and supportive to the positions I was applying for. But the point is that had there been lots of negative stuff, there would have been virtually nothing I could have done about it. Try it with your own name and see what you get… wrap your name in quote marks to get Google to search it as a single entity, and of course it helps if your name is a little bit unusual as you will probably get more relevant results.

Get your kids to try this too. I recently encouraged my students to do a vanity search on their own name and while for many it turned up nothing, others were shocked at just how easy it was for their past to be dug up. There is probably not much you can do about ending up in the Google database (or any database for that matter), and in lots of cases it could even be a positive thing, but the lesson is to be aware and be careful of what you put online about yourself.

Do this exercise with your students. It’s a lesson worth learning early because if they learn it later it may be too late.