I had a brief but interesting Twitter conversation last night with Steven Anderson (@web20classroom) about the layers of responsibility involved when students use tools like Twitter in the classroom. The discussion was prompted by this blog post by Jim Gates, who says, essentially, that allowing students to use Twitter in the classroom is a waste because they wouldn’t use it for anything productive. A number of ideas came up in my conversation with Mr. Anderson which I will explore here over the next few days.
Like Mr. Gates’s post, many of the reactions I hear about using tools like Twitter, blogs, or wikis in the classroom are initially about fear: primarily fear that students will abuse them. Are these fears legitimate? Certainly. There is a long history of students misbehaving in school, and that won’t be any different with new methods and tools.
What we must recognize is that these new technologies are just that: tools. They don’t have an inherent value–they only have a function. The value comes from how the tool is used. A pen was used by Shakespeare to write sonnets…and by Hitler to write Mein Kampf. A hammer was used by carpenters to build the bell tower on Independence Hall…and by Roman soldiers to crucify Christ. We must judge not the implement but the intention.
Some may think that bringing these tools into the classroom is like handing students a loaded gun, and thus the response is either to ban the guns from the school altogether, or to allow strictly controlled access with close supervision and multiple layers of security. The flaw in this reasoning of course is that the function of the gun is explicitly to cause harm to another person—it is not a tool, but a weapon.
Others argue that it is the students who are inherently prone to choosing wrong. I often hear this from teachers in my school, either directly or by implication. This may be, but limiting their access to the tools won’t eliminate this propensity. Instead, we need to educate. Teach students about the possibilities and the pitfalls. Give them freedom within boundaries, and let them know both the rewards that come from responsible use, and the consequences (natural and imposed) that can come from poor choices. I believe, though, that students aren’t by nature bad, simply unwise. And the wisdom they will need as adults to handle the ubiquitous technology they will encounter cannot come by sheltering them from that technology as students.
Wisdom only comes through experience. Peter Parker learned about this when he declined to use his power to stop a burglar: he felt it wasn’t his problem. That burglar later killed his own uncle, and Peter realized he had a choice to make—use his gifts to help others, or be selfish and allow lives to be destroyed. The tools available to students today are far more powerful than pencil and paper, both to build and to destroy. A note degrading someone else might be seen by a few people and can be destroyed before it spreads too far. A blog post degrading someone else might potentially be seen by millions, and can never be completely eliminated.
The thing is, we can do nothing to prevent our students from learning about and having access to these tools. All things considered, isn’t it better that they learn about them in the safe, structured environment of the classroom?
Students may or may not learn responsibility on their own. As educators we also have a responsibility, however, and it is this responsibility I will explore more tomorrow.