Last week a few of us had a very thoughtful discussion prompted by Diana Senechal’s article in American Educator “The Most Daring Education Reform of All.” Our disagreements with the author are primarily over the use of technology in schools. Feeling as we do somewhat passionate about the possibilities of technology, Carl Anderson and I had a lot to say to the author when she kindly stopped by. The conversation is still going on, if you want to jump in.
But I want to provide a bit of a reality check for us today. Hopefully it will go beyond the cliché and frankly jingoistic theme of “look at how good we have it in America.”
Nick Miroff had an excellent article last week on the website GlobalPost on a “Blogger Academy” in Cuba. The article “Teaching Twitter in Havana” profiles Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez. In addition to writing her own blog Generación Y (Generation Y), she teaches other Cubans how to use the technology of Web 2.0. Twitter; WordPress; the ethics of journalism. Sanchez has 30 or more students who come to her apartment to learn these skills.
And, as the author points out, “Given the Castro government’s record of infiltrating opposition groups, (it’s) also likely a few of the students (come) to take notes on their classmates.”
Restrictions on the use of the Internet in U.S. schools are nothing compared to Cuba. Most Cubans aren’t allowed to have Internet connections in their homes. They get online by going to cyber cafes and hotels — where their use of the net is automatically monitored for ‘subversive’ key words. It’s possible to earn a five-year trip to prison simply by “connecting to the Internet in an illegal manner.” Sanchez herself was roughed up last year by a group of presumably government agents.
And we’re going to complain about having Facebook blocked from our schools?
Why, yes I am.
Here’s why. What message does Internet filtering send our kids? In a country that has enshrined the rights of free expression and access to information in our constitution, what message does it send that we don’t allow our students to exercise them in our schools? More to the point, what message does the impersonal electronic blocking of sites send?
Overt censorship such as that practiced in Cuba and less obvious types of censorship such as filtering may be extremes on either end of the scale, but they’re in the same category. Both work to restrict the open exchange of ideas necessary for effective academic inquiry. This happens in U.S. schools as well as in totalitarian countries.
Of course, there’s a practical issue at work here. If we stop filtering the Internet in schools, how do we prevent students from a) misusing the network; b) accessing inappropriate information?
This is a reasonable question, and one that I’ll attempt to reasonably answer at some point. For the moment, I think we need to acknowledge that since students in schools can find ways around filtering, we must educate students on responsible internet use as part of the solution. And the message sent by the use of filtering software may be incompatible with that education.
In the end, Cubans and U.S. students alike will find ways to get around any online restrictions placed in their way. And what they do there will have important implications for the political health of both nations.
That’s the reality check.