On Tuesday, April 3, I conducted an informal, after-school inservice at Fulton High School in Knox County. The topic was Webliographer, which is essentially a web-based social bookmarking application for teachers. This presentation helps fulfill part of my semester-long project for IT 521. The inservice was not well-attended, probably because of the bad timing within the school year. (Can you say, “Testing, one, two, three, testing”?) Those in attendance included one English teacher (my friend), two librarians (also friends), a special ed teacher, a special ed teaching assistant, and me. I prepared a brief FAQ on Webliographer as well as some detailed step-by-step instructions on how to register an account, create a topic and subtopics, and enter URLs/bookmarks. Because of the small number in attendance, we were able to sit together at one table with the Fulton Webliographer homepage on display on a smartboard behind us. I thought we would discuss the merits of the program quickly and spend the majority of our time registering the teachers in attendance and perhaps even getting their subtopics set up with a few URLs posted. I was wrong.
We did do some of those things, but our conversation about Webliographer centered for some time on shared concerns within the group that the program was too vulnerable to students hijacking it and somehow degrading its contents. What, after all, is to stop a resourceful, and perhaps hateful, student from registering an account, joining the Fulton Webliographer community, and deleting a teacher’s entries or adding a bunch of inappropriate entries?
I had anticipated these concerns but, admittedly, had not completely thought them through beforehand. On the spot, I said something like this: “If Webliographer grows into a vital community of users who are adding and sharing bookmarks daily, we will catch this sort of thing and be able to intercede before much damage is done.” It was a weak response. Webliographer, which I had been portraying as a handy little timesaver to facilitate instruction was actually going to require monitoring and vigilance on the part of the teacher? (Much later that evening, it occurred to me that as the default administrator of the website, I receive an email notification each time someone registers at the Fulton Webliographer. I instantly know the person’s name, email address, and any URLs he or she has added. Had I thought of this sooner, I would have brought it up to the inservice group. That may have been all they needed to hear to allay concerns about Webliographer’s vulnerability.)
Bottom line: I am still learning about Webliographer and other social networking software, and I don’t know how to prevent students from pirating these applications. And truth be told, I’m not that worried about it.
This small episode strikes at the heart of a huge issue affecting the integration of technology into instruction: the problem of gatekeeping. As an English teacher this has always been on my radar, for reasons I’ll make clear in a moment. In the last several months, however, it has transformed from a mere blip in my subconscious to a fairly sizable asteroid crashing in on my thoughts almost daily (in keeping with the whole radar metaphor). It is a topic discussed widely across the educational blogosphere by folks who have some pretty interesting things to say: Andy Carvin, Will Richardson, Christian Long. (Why all the men? I have yet to find a consistent female voice on the edtech blogs; I conclude this is because all the women are busy teaching.)
My most recent and favorite comment touching on the subject of gatekeeping comes from Chris Lehman, founding principal of Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia who was recently quoted in a great Edutopia article. In a Q&A on social networking software in the classroom and how to prevent abuse of it, he said:
The idea that we are the stories we tell has never been more important. Schools have always taught kids how to present themselves – that’s why we did oral presentations in the classroom. Now we need to teach them to present themselves electronically. That’s why it’s so scary to lock these technologies out.
Let’s talk about scary for a moment. It’s intimidating when I consider how I might alter my classroom practice to accommodate more user-generated content, such as found on Wikipedia. It is even scarier to imagine what might result if I encourage students to participate in the construction of the knowledge base through wikis, blogs, and, yes, social bookmarking programs. It is scary, and it is exhilarating. But, come on, it’s not really a new concept. I felt the same way when I plunged headlong into cooperative learning groups several years ago. I felt the same way every time I called on volunteers to read their freewriting exercises aloud in front of the class. And don’t even get me started on poetry and journals. Any time I ask students to write, reflect, or discuss, I risk them writing something or saying something I wish was left unwritten or unsaid. But what’s the alternative?
My husband, Ron, helped me frame my thinking on this. He directs a website for a home improvement cable channel. His group is about to launch a completely user-generated section on the site. (Think “home improvement wiki.”) And he also has had to address concerns emanating from middle and upper management: “What if someone puts up something inappropriate? What if a person uses it as an opportunity to slander us or one of our sponsors? It could embarrass the company.” Ron anticipates isolated instances of this sort of thing, but nothing that can’t be managed by a thoughtful and passionate group of home improvement enthusiasts supported by site administrators, who have the technical know-how to quickly delete specious or downright harmful material. In large part, he is counting on users to police the web page. If someone flags something as inappropriate, a site administrator will remove it, and everyone will move on.
Which brings me back around to the issue of gatekeeping. To quote Ron, “Computers will never replace due diligence.” He said it in relation to his own work as a site director, but clearly it applies to anyone who works in an atmosphere where the rapid advance of technology stirs up questions and anxieties. Certainly it applies to the educational arena and the role of the teacher in it. Diligence is a work ethic, and I don’t know a single teacher who doesn’t want to develop that trait in students, regardless of his or her content area or academic discipline. Bringing a tool such as Webliographer into the mix, simply gives us an additional opportunity (the cliché “teachable moment”) to impart this important value.