The Road Less Travelled

On one of the several mailing lists I subscribe to, I saw a question from a network manager in another school asking for advice in dealing with some mistreatment of computer equipment by students. His proposed solution was to install webcams in the computer rooms and to stream their output to a server where it could be recorder and monitored. This person was asking for suggestions or advice from anyone else who had gone down this path.

It’s not a path I particularly like…

I don’t mean for this reply to become a lengthy diatribe (or worse yet, a cranky rant), but I think this approach is totally going down the wrong path and it’s something I feel strongly about. I see many in school IT management who seem to be taking the path of constant surveillance and security over the harder-to-do but better-in-the-long-run approach of teaching students appropriate behaviour with technology in the first place. I see it happening with the way school lockdown their computers with complex security procedures, with the way some schools turn up their web filtering and proxy control to the point where it renders the simple act of foraging for information on the web a completely futile exercise. In the same vein of idealistic optimism, the idea of installing surveillance cameras into classrooms just doesn’t make sense to me.

Personally, I think if students are mishandling equipment there are two possible reasons for it… they either don’t know any better, or they just don’t care. The former is solvable through simple education – set up a plan that will teach the kids the appropriate ways to handle the gear and will encourage them to have respect for it. Maybe they are mishandling things because they just don’t know it’s supposed to be done any differently. So teach them what to do.

The second reason – that they are damaging equipment because they just don’t care – is a little more confronting, a little harder to solve, but I think it’s important that we do solve it. I think as educators we need to find out why they don’t care, and why they have so little regard for the equipment. I know this more pastoral approach is rather more difficult and time-consuming to implement and at times almost nebulous to be able to actually make happen, but in the long run is the only approach that makes sense. Locking equipment down or monitoring it with security cameras fails in the longer term and for many reasons … it only works while vigilance is kept high; it is rarely foolproof and often turns into a war between students and admins somewhat akin to a whack-a-mole game; and most importantly of all, it fails to treat the great majority of students with the respect they deserve. The underlying message is one of mistrust and ultimately does nothing to teach students to make good decisions for themselves.

In my experience, creating a low-trust environment with students rarely succeeds in the long term and only makes for a less-pleasant learning environment for everyone, even if you save a few dollars on damaged hardware in the short term. You can only win with intimidation for so long, and in the end everyone loses.

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