Net losses

31st August 2012 at 01:00
Today TESS publishes a survey of all 32 local authorities' stances on the use of YouTube, mobile devices, social media, wi-fi and file-sharing websites

Pupils across Scotland are being taught in an "educational apartheid" when it comes to classroom access to the technology they have at their fingertips outside the school gates.

TESS's exclusive survey of all 32 councils' policies on classroom access to YouTube, social media, mobile devices, wi-fi and file-sharing websites reveals a widely disparate landscape, with some authorities being driven by a fear of litigation and the spectre of cyberbullying.

Our enquiries also reveal anger and frustration on the part of teachers - and a warning that by denying young people access to the kind of ICT to which they have easy access at home, schools are limiting the research skills and capacity of their pupils.

Councils insist they are redesigning ICT and trying to resolve the problems around bandwidth, data protection and other barriers to open access.

Karen Prophet, senior education manager for quality and curriculum in Edinburgh, is among those who have assured TESS that the stumbling blocks are practical, not ideological.

Yet there are clear signs that, in many parts of Scotland, fear is trumping the prospect of exploring new educational vistas.

The tone of replies to the survey was often resolute: an emphatic "no" to use of Facebook or file-sharing websites, and a determination to confine schools to using Glow, the national schools' intranet.

At a June ICT in education conference, convened by Google in Glasgow, Perth and Kinross English teacher Neil Winton told a workshop that YouTube was the default search engine among young people, because "they want to see, they don't want to read".

Yet our survey shows that, where schools do have access to YouTube, teachers are expected to exert tight control. West Dunbartonshire says it can be used in classrooms - but on each occasion a risk assessment has to be carried out - while Fife will allow whole classes to use YouTube, but not individual pupils.

The irony is that blocking or heavily restricting such websites is, for many, the antithesis of Curriculum for Excellence.

Ewan McIntosh, a digital learning expert who works throughout the world but started his career teaching in East Lothian, says that denying access to such tools "not only limits the research skill and capacity of young people . but also denies them what is proven to be a richer learning experience than the teacher-led classroom".

Filtering, in any case, is being made "ever more irrelevant" by smartphones, which themselves are routinely banned. "If they haven't got them on the table, they've got them underneath the table," as Mr McIntosh puts it.

When TESS asked via Twitter what annoyed teachers most about ICT policies, replies teemed out. The most effusive response came from Fife technology teacher Gareth Surgey.

He described the national picture as akin to "educational apartheid", which risks putting some school-leavers at a disadvantage if not educated in "a more enlightened region" less afraid of litigation and cyberbullying. He understands that fear to a degree, but insists it is "over-hyped".

"What appears to be the case in some authorities is that policymakers and those policing it have little or no understanding of 21st-century tech, its benefits or what skills employers need and pupils require," he says.

But he recognises, too, that many teachers do not want open access, as "they fear that they will not be able to police it and they will carry the can for pupil misdemeanours".

East Lothian is untypical. David Gilmour, a learning technology specialist for the authority, explains that local schools were very active online, even before Glow was commissioned, making imaginative use of eduBuzz blogs. People from outside East Lothian can be "a bit puzzled" that schools use tools such as Google Apps, "within which learners are easily able to publish documents and sites on the web".

This surprise, he believes, is a legacy of the tone set by the initial design of Glow, leading some authorities to believe they "needed to avoid the web, and to keep their staff and students within the `safe and secure' private Glow world".

Yet in East Lothian, "levels of inappropriate (internet) use have been extremely small". Mr Gilmour highlights the work of biology teacher Fearghal Kelly with Google Chromebook personal computers connected via an unfiltered network at Preston Lodge High in Prestonpans.

"Fearghal has taken the line that visiting unsuitable sites in class time is like swearing: it's possible, but that doesn't mean it should be done," says Mr Gilmour.

"There is a sense of a more adult environment where control is based on trust, not enforced by technological means."

Now Mr Gilmour wants to open up Facebook, which is currently blocked to staff and pupils: "I would like to stop it being a `behind the bike sheds' space, inaccessible to staff, which provides a relatively safe haven for bullying."

Former education directors David Cameron and Bruce Robertson have been among the most vocal decriers of councils' restrictive policies.

Mr Robertson knows of teachers denied access to BBC iPlayer, BBC education sites, National Geographic, and even some Scottish Qualifications Authority sites. Standardised corporate firewalls and explanations that sites such as YouTube are overly demanding on bandwidth are "not acceptable", he says.

"Education wants openness and maximal access; corporate IT wants security," says Mr Cameron. "Sometimes education sees only opportunity and IT sees only risk."

Ollie Bray, former national adviser for emerging technologies in learning at Education Scotland and now depute head of Grantown Grammar in Highland, believes that safety and security are largely a red herring for filtering policies so stringent that Glow Blogs has been blocked in some parts of Scotland. The real issue, he explains, is bandwidth: "Local authorities know that by unblocking sites such as YouTube their systems would grind to a halt or there would need to be a massive investment in ICT infrastructure."

Some local authorities have invested heavily in schools' broadband, adds Mr Bray, with Aberdeenshire leading the way. And national investment through the Pathfinder project, some years ago, ensured that some of Scotland's smallest rural schools have among the fastest internet connections - but some of the largest city schools continue to lag behind.

"This is one of the reasons why computers in schools grind to a halt, why 1:1 computing (a computer for every student) is more of a dream than a reality in Scotland at the moment," Mr Bray says.

One secondary teacher, who wishes to remain anonymous, complains about the naivety of those enforcing restrictions, of being told that he cannot use tools such as Twitter, Evernote and Dropbox as they could spread viruses - while staff bring in USB drives without any checks for viruses. Even a site set up by one of the authority's quality improvement officers had been banned.

"The frustration is not so much with websites being blocked, but with not being given adequate or educational reasons why," he says.

But not everyone is raging against the intransigence of corporate ICT regulators. Education secretary Michael Russell took some flak on the TESS website when we reported his comments earlier this year, that it was "absolutely extraordinary to encourage use of ICT in schools but discourage the way individuals might access it elsewhere".

One online reader, Robert Sim, said: "The sound bites don't always get beyond criticising authorities for blocking social media sites and don't make enough of a case on learning and teaching grounds. Can't the same things be done in other ways, without the risks inherent in the approach being advocated? We have to move cautiously here."

That view holds little water with Jaye Richards-Hill, a teacher member of the national ICT excellence group, convened by the Scottish government's chief scientific adviser, Professor Muffy Calder. She would ideally like to see filtering removed altogether, but failing that a national policy on filtering established and emphasis placed on teaching responsible use of the internet.

An initial fan of Glow who later became one of its biggest critics, she believes it will struggle as long as it is a "garden surrounded by great big walls that we're struggling to knock down".

Glow may yet thrive: Microsoft has become involved, promising to make it less cumbersome, while the "Glew" project of Aberdeen computing teacher Charlie Love aims to work in tandem with Glow to "more accurately reflect the world that our learners live in".

Neil Winton, also a member of the ICT excellence group, recognises that some form of internet filtering is sensible.

But things have become so unwieldy - with senior planning managers subject to the same rules as P1s - and so patchy that policies differ not just between authorities, but within them. This could mean, for example, that a pupil moving from a school using WordPress blogs for ePortfolios may find it impossible to access that work in a new school.

"The process of having a particular site or resource unblocked is generally terrible - I have discussed this with colleagues from several different authorities," Mr Winton adds, stressing that he is directing his comments at the national situation. "You can apply for a site, like WordPress or Wikispaces, to be unblocked, but it can take weeks - then be turned down with no explanation."

Meanwhile, pupils are blithely wandering into Facebook and Twitter, with expert teachers "powerless to show them how to use these powerful tools properly". And teachers using these tools for professional dialogue are almost always doing so at home because they are "forced to pretend it doesn't exist in schools".

The bottom line, says Mr Winton, is that filtering is making educational use of ICT "mostly irrelevant". For him, a successful future boils down to three things: trusting teachers; viewing ICT as a means to support learning; and pedagogy dictating ICT - not ICT officers dictating pedagogy.

He may take hope from John Stodter, general secretary of education directors' body ADES, who says: "It is difficult to imagine how you would find out something new or learn a new skill these days without access to the systems and technologies that are often restricted to learners.

"I think cultures are slowly beginning to change because the risk has to be balanced with the reality that young people need to be prepared for the life they will lead - with all its threats and dangers - not the one we led."

The ICT excellence group met for the first time earlier this month; by December it will make recommendations to the education secretary. The initial noises from the chair, Professor Calder, appear good for teachers who want to embrace some of the world's most popular websites.

After the meeting, in reference to Wikipedia, Facebook and YouTube, she said: "We need to imagine a future service - GlowPlus - that makes the most of these developments and many others, offering a wide and open range of tools and applications with a seamless user experience and connectivity."

Read the full TESS survey results on net policy here

A pupil's view

By Amy McShane, S6 pupil at Crieff High

It would make more sense if internet restrictions were controlled by qualified educators so appropriate websites and tools were available. This would make for more efficient learning. In my experience, teachers and pupils are hindered by the blanket of filters. Every department uses different areas of the internet and more concentrated filters would accommodate different subjects' needs.

Many topics within subjects are controversial, so access to appropriate internet sites is limited. I have just begun an Advanced Higher course in modern studies which focuses on criminology. Much of the content we need to access is blocked by filters. Forums that provide useful information and opinions are blocked, under "chatrooms".

Many shopping and services websites are blocked, which limits marketing research in art, product design and so on. I found it difficult to make progress in the research stages of Higher art and design. Much had to be carried out at home. I strongly believe the course would have been far easier if this filter did not exist.

As for music, the internet is pretty much useless in this subject: YouTube is banned (YouTube offers something for every single subject that textbooks do not) and tutorials and music can't be accessed. Spotify was a gift to my school's music department as we could access every genre of music and study in great detail the different styles, periods and instruments used. However, at some point during the Higher course it was banned and we ended up being given long lists of tunes to listen to at home. This hindered our progress significantly.

Money is spent on proprietary software when there are many free educational tools available: Dropbox is very effective for sharing learning materials, presentations and notes, but is banned in many schools; Google Docs is as good as Office and is free and accessible with greater internet access.

In recent years, huge advances have been made with technology and it now touches every aspect of our lives. Education should surely be the area most involved with technology, yet often it is out of date.

The generation in education now has grown up with a wide knowledge of how to navigate the internet, but they need to know how to be safe on it and how to treat offensive or misleading information. This will not happen if they are not exposed to such things, and the best place to give them access is in a safe, supervised environment: school.

Original headline: Net losses as councils fight shy of technology know-how


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