Let Freedom Ring! (Guest Post from a teacher in China)

"They are afraid and so it is easier to block access to any area that might cause a problem than to investigate and fight for solutions that are workable. It is easier to hide behind the Great American Education Firewall."

Heather Davis, teacher in China

Guest Post by Teacher, Heather Davis

During the last week in February I was privileged to attend the Flat Classroom Conference at BISS in Beijing led by Vicki Davis and Julie Lindsay.  The fact that I live in Beijing made it doubly exciting as I was looking forward to people whom I respect and have influenced my thinking coming to see this incredible city and get a better understanding of China.
What no one could plan for were the challenges that were going to be faced due to the crack down by the government on areas that we as expats use to allow us to access information.  While I know it made producing the conference much more difficult it also provided the attendees with an opportunity to experience life behind the Great Firewall of China.
During the month of February and still ongoing, life has been getting more challenging as freedoms we have taken for granted such as the ability to work around the firewall when we purchase a VPN,  the easy use of most things Google and my regular banking practices have drastically changed.  I did not realize how much value these things had and how important they were in making my life easier and acceptable until I lost them. 
When I first arrived in China in 2004 I could easily access You Tube, Facebook, iTunes and any blog. Occasionally, they would be restricted for a few hours or at most a week but they would return. Then there was the 2008 uprising in Tibet and everything was blocked as the government realized it could not control the release of information with these tools and Twitter easily accessible. They were blocked and we now understand it is permanent.

I accept these restrictions to a certain extent because I am choosing to live in a foreign country that has a different worldview and ethical system from my home country of Canada. While I don’t like living behind the Great China Firewall I do intellectually understand why it is there and accept that as long as I choose to live here my freedom to access all available information on any subject will be limited by a government who controls the information their citizens can receive.

What I can’t understand though is how easily so many American educators are accepting the loss of freedom to access information within settings where providing the ability discover information and then make educated decisions and choices should be the driving force. 

I have just recently completed my Masters degree with an American university and I was astounded to realize how prevalent filtering or in reality blocking is in American schools.  What bothered me more was the total acceptance by the teachers that this was a positive and acceptable practice.  I vehemently argued against it and for the most part my comments were not well received at all, except by the professor and I think he may have wanted to encourage dialogue.  What right did a Canadian teacher who was teaching internationally in China have to disagree with standard operating procedure in the majority of US school districts?  How could I possibly understand the problems? 

I was also amazed at how much passion I felt on this subject until I began to compare what was happening in the school systems to the Firewall I daily live behind.  The educators did not seem to grasp the significance of the loss of freedom of choice and information.  It was difficult to deal with.

I know all the arguments – We must protect our students from the negative parts of the Internet because they are too young and impressionable to make these decisions. How have restrictions ever provided teaching moments? I have heard them over and over and yet it seems to me that the bottom line is not one of protection of the students’ minds but protection of school districts pocket books. They are afraid and don’t want to be sued and cause problems with the bottom line figures.  They are afraid and so it is easier to block access to any area that might cause a problem than to investigate and fight for solutions that are workable. It is easier to hide behind the Great American Education Firewall.

My questions are these - How can the citizens of the most powerful nation in the world take away freedom so easily from its young people and not see this is a problem?  How long will the brave teachers and administrators who encourage access continue to have the will to fight the fight?  How long will they be allowed to do so before they are also put behind the firewall?  All things considered I think I would rather deal with the firewall in China.

Heather Davis
Flat Classroom Certified Teacher Class of 2011-1
April 5, 2011

With permission, I am posting this blog post from an email that I received from teacher in China, Heather Davis. She has given me full permission to post this here and list her full name. Yes, that makes me nervous (China has been cracking down on many bloggers) but I will respect her desire to speak a message to the heart of all teachers - especially those here in America.  

This isn't about filtration. Keeping pornography out of school is required by our laws. This is about OVERFILTRATION and a lack of ability to request URLs to be unblocked. Is there a procedure that teachers can use to get sites unblocked efficiently that is approved by CURRICULUM. The sites we use should pretty much be driven by CURRICULUM  - not IT .

Do we care about the recent US study that actually showed that the two biggest obstacles to the integration of emerging technology are filtration and the ban on cell phones? I was discussing with my friend Stephen Windwalker (Kindle Nation Daily) and he said something that stuck with me - 

"Most kids will be making their living creating web content, not writing novels."
We've got work to do and need to roll up our sleeves and start using some plain old common sense to make up for the shortfall in our pocketbooks. We can't have everything but we can have something. And we can do many things with the free things we can use in our schools - it is just a matter of typing the URL into the whitelist feature of our firewall - and as someone who does this every day - it isn't such a big deal.

Here's to you, Heather - you are truly an inspiration to me and represent everything good in a teacher and leader. I have taken the liberty to put a few things I think are very important in red. Keep up the great work.

Vicki Davis

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