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An eye-catching satirical cartoon, “7 Sins in the Digital World,” is now making the rounds on Twitter feeds and it packs quite a punch aimed squarely at today’s somewhat unhealthy social media habits. Seven digital platforms are identified with one of the “sins” or vices.  Facebook is associated with Envy, Instagram with Pride, LinkedIn with Greed, Tinder with Lust, Yelp with Gluttony, Netflix with Sloth, and, last but not least, Twitter with Wrath.

That trenchant cartoon might well have been produced by the Halifax-based Canadian Centre for Ethics in Public Affairs, the sponsors of Dr. Justin Tosi’s April 26 Public Talk on one of the biblical “Seven Deadly Sins,” Wrath. His actual theme, “Moral Grandstanding and Self-Righteous Anger,” also ties in nicely with one of its greatest contemporary sources – the Twitterverse. “Moral grandstanding is the use of moral talk for self-promotion,” Tosi told the CCEPA audience. “ It’s people using moral conversation, making moral claims, to present an impressive image of themselves to others.”

Moral grandstanding is getting easier to spot with so much of our lives spent online. Chest-thumping Facebook posts and pontificating Tweets fill today’s social media. Posts presented as personal observations or short political statements tend to be laden with a much different underlying message: “I’ve got something important to say, worth paying attention to, here on the Internet.”

Joining in on social media seems to feed our innate narcissism. Hours are consumed burnishing an image and seeking approval from our online “friends” or registering our “likes” and favourites, piling on with a certain “tribal abandon.” It’s become a substitute for real-time engagement in morally useful projects and community activities. The allure of social media is hard to resist and, if we are honest, almost everyone has fallen prey to using social media as a platform for moral grandstanding, often to express our moral outrage about one issue or another. Some of us, the real zealots, are more frequent offenders than others.

Moral grandstanding seems to be particularly rampant in the Twitter world of academia. One of North America’s most engaged philosophers, Brian Leiter of the University of Chicago Law School, hit a nerve when he quipped in a blog post that Twitter is revealing in that “otherwise intelligent people” tend to “stake out careers on preposterous-but-shocking arguments.”

Most troubling to Tosi is the way moral grandstanding is foreclosing on free, open and meaningful public discussion. Whether it’s the crisis in health care, the state of public education, or the threat of climate change, the critical issues cannot be reduced to GIFs or 140-character declarations.

Moral grandstanding may provide some outlet for moral outrage or a safety-valve, but it encourages people to stake out radical positions to impress their friends, instead of engaging in civil dialogue and a mutual sharing of ideas. Nuances tend to dissolve when factions are formed and people gravitate to echo chambers, likened to “bizarre partisan camps,” often divided along “progressive” or “neo-traditional” lines. Extreme partisanship, formerly the preserve of card-carrying political party activists, spreads to social action committees, teachers’ unions, and education twitter groups.

When normally intelligent people resort to posting very foolish things on Facebook and Twitter, it is often a prime example of a very real psychological phenomenon, group polarization. Before adding to the pile of “likes,” contributing to the blather, or retweeting an insulting comment, it might be advisable to think first, and decide whether it helps anyone trying to grasp an issue in all its complexity.

The threat to civil discourse posed by the Internet’s most diabolical sub-species, the troll, needs to be confronted. Partisan groups seem to breed trolls and serial re-tweeters (or parakeets) who spew mostly nonsense interspersed with insults or slurs directed against those targeted or marginalized by the faction.

Five common fallacious arguments employed by trolls were ‘outed’ in a recent British Channel 4 News “Fact Check” feature, How to Defeat the Troll (online).  All of them are regularly employed by moral grandstanders on social media  Keep your eye open for examples of these false arguments, aptly described as “rubbish”:

The Straw Man (Person) Attack – Exaggerating or twisting your opponent’s point to make it easier to knock down. Response: You are putting words in my mouth

The Ad Hominem Argument – Attacking the person rather than addressing the point they are making.  Response: That’s an insult, not a counter-argument.

Anecdotal Evidence – Assuming your personal experience trumps more reliable sources of information. Response: That’s one example, can you cite any more?

Whataboutery – Using someone else’s bad behaviour to deflect from your own.  Response: Two wrongs do not make a right.

Shifting the Burden of Proof – Because no one can prove your claim is false… does not mean it’s automatically true. Response: Extraordinary claims need solid supporting evidence.

WrathCCEPATosiCivil dialogue and discourse is under threat in today’s mainstream politics, and especially so on social media. Grandstanding is a major factor and it takes many forms. In their quest to solidify their reputation or impress their in-group, grandstanders tend to trump up moral charges, attempt to silence or marginalize ‘outliers,’ and to pile on in cases of public shaming. Small mistakes or poor choices of words can attract swarms of partisans vilifying the supposed perpetrator. Swarming on social media can also have a chilling effect on others.

Most disturbing of all, grandstanders denounce people who hold contrary views, exaggerate emotional displays, and ramp up discussion until it degenerates into what Toshi calls “a moral arms race.” Today, everyone seems to have their own platform: It’s time to take a hard look in the mirror and to re-assess why and how we engage with one another over political and moral issues.

Whatever happened to civic discourse in the education world? How and why has EduTwitter become such a wild frontier? How prevalent is moral grandstanding?  Is there an alternative to  ‘Echo Chamber Happy Talk” or spectacles of “Twitter Warfare”?  Is there still hope for EduTwitter?

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The World Wide Web is an amazing human creation with unlimited potential to advance the education of children and youth. In its first phase, it was exciting and wide open, stimulating innovative thinking, sparking incredible creativity, and fomenting a little anarchy.  Out of this creative chaos emerged a master integrator known as Google. 

GAFEBoysWith its global mission—“To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible”—and its much-quoted mantra, “Don’t be evil,” Google won converts worldwide. More recently, Google Apps for Education (GAFE) has taken K-12 education by storm. School systems have adopted and embraced GAFE with remarkable zeal and surprisingly little critical analysis of its impact upon the way we think,  the personal privacy of students, or the implications for professional development. Google now competes with Microsoft and a few smaller players for a large share of the $8-9 billion market for software for elementary and secondary schools.

Google Apps for Education, first introduced in 2006, attracted some 30 million users (students, teachers and administrators) by 2013-14 before it hit a bump in the road. While Google kept GAFE advertisement-free, they did scan the contents of students g-mail accounts, gathering information that could be used to target ads to those students elsewhere online.

In 2013, students and g-mail users in California banded together to sue Google, claiming that e-mail scanning violated wiretap laws. During the litigation, Google conceded that they were scanning emails sent and received by students using GAFE.  Faced with a wave of popular opposition and media criticism, Google announced, in April 2014, that it would no longer mine student email accounts for ad-targeting purposes. That followed a decision made two weeks earlier that a competitor, InBloom, partly financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was shutting down its operations.

The Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DoEECD) is one of hundreds of school systems that have jumped on the latest 21st Century digital learning bandwagon. Three years ago, without much fanfare, provincial school authorities announced that they would be signing an agreement with Google to implement GAFE in the public schools.  After piloting the program in a number of schools in 2014-15, the DoEECD  decided to make GAFE available to every single child and teacher in the 400 schools across the province.

The Nova Scotia GAFE service, according to high school teacher Grant Frost, provides every student and teacher user with their own g-mail account, as well as several useful applications, including Google Docs, a leading edge word processing program, Google Sheets, which outperforms Excel, and Google Slides, which is a more integrated multi-platform version of PowerPoint. Users also have access to Google Classroom, where, with a click of mouse and a one time code entry, they can sign up for a class and receive notifications about upcoming events, class assignments and ask about homework questions with their teacher via his/her cell phone at all times of the week.

Twenty thousand out of Nova Scotia’s 118,000 students are now using free computer software from Google as part of their classroom activities. Provincial education officials expect Google Apps for Education to be nearly universal by the end of 2016-17.  The cloud-based suite of programs can be accessed on any electronic device with an internet connection and a web browser. It includes email, word processing and assignment management software. Some school boards have chosen to issue students $200 devices called Chromebooks to let them access Google products at school and at home.

Google Apps for Education is spreading quickly and teacher training summits have been held or are scheduled to be held in Ontario, Alberta, Quebec and BC as well as Nova Scotia.  In schools across the country, it is becoming increasingly essential for students to have access to the Internet in order to be successful. Homework, projects, even information and advice from teachers is now transmitted on-line, and more readily accessible if you have the electronic tools to access the information.

Google provides access to Apps for Education to schools for free, along with unlimited electronic storage on Google’s servers, with the expectation that students will be ‘inducted’ through education into the World of GoogleDr. Mike Smit, a computer scientist and associate professor at Dalhousie’s School of Information Management, told CBC News Nova Scotia  that the cost per student, per year of the free access is negligible for a company as large as Google. Besides, he said, Google has all the training modules and infrastructure in place to minimize its costs of implementation.

Many educators like Grant Frost express grave concern about the “digital divide” and the inequities in terms of student access to computers and digital devices. In schools across the country, it is becoming increasingly essential for students to have access to the Internet in order to be successful. Homework, projects, even information and advice from teachers is available on-line, if one only has the means to access it. Its hard to expect full student participation when,  according to a 2014 Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report, 1 out of every 5 children living in Nova Scotia in 2012 was living below the poverty line.

Canadian universities, like K-12 school systems, have embraced “cloud technologies,” turning either to Google or Microsoft as the favoured vendors for outsourcing of  their eCommunications services. Ontario’s Lakehead University was early out of the gate late in 2006 and became the legal test case for the legality of storing sensitive personal data outside the country.  After it was settled in a 2009 arbitration decision ruling in favour of outsourcing, most universities went that route. More recently, academics Heidi Bohaker and John M. Dirks, have raised serious questions about the impact of outsourcing on “digital archives” containing personal user accounts, organizational memory, external and internal online conversations.

Student privacy concerns have not gone away in the United States. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a complaint on December 1, 2015 with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against Google for collecting and data mining school children’s personal information, including their Internet searches. It also launched a “Spying on Students” campaign, which launched today. to raise awareness about the privacy risks of school-supplied electronic devices and software.

EFFSpyingonStudentsThe EFF examined Google’s Chromebook and Google Apps for Education (GAFE), and found holes in the protection of student privacy and evidence of unfair trade practices.  While Google does not use student data for targeted advertising within a subset of Google sites, EFF found that Google’s “Sync” feature for the Chrome browser is enabled by default on the inexpensive brand of Chromebooks sold to schools.

The California-based advocacy group claims that the “Sync” feature allows Google to track, store on its servers, and data mine for non-advertising purposes, records of every Internet site students visit, every search term they use, the results they click on, videos they look for and watch on YouTube, and their saved passwords.  Since some schools require students to use Chromebooks, many parents are left unaware of the scanning of student data and unable to prevent Google’s data collection.

Does the spread of Google Apps for Education raise unresolved student privacy issues and the spectre of major corporations mining metadata to shape their messaging? Is student and teacher data stored with “cloud technologies” safe, secure and free from domestic spying operations? What’s the impact on education when whole school systems outsource to one supplier whether it be Google or a competitor? Is it possible for Google to virtually subsume professional development through system-wide online training and the enlisting of Google certified teacher-trainers?

 

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“Don’t Stand By, Stand Up!,” is the popular rallying cry. “Don’t be part of the problem. Be part of the solution!”  Taken together, these two popular exhortations are also the main slogans of StopCyberbullying, the first prevention program in North America. Founded in the 1990s by Parry Aftab, an American lawyer from suburban Wyckoff, NJ, it spread from New Jersey throughout the United States and, since a recent rash of cyberbullying-related teen suicides in Nova Scotia, has popped up in the Maritimes, Alberta, and the Northwest Territories.

BullyParryAftabThe feisty New Jersey crusader, married to Canadian child advocate, Allan McCullough, is widely known as the “kids Internet lawyer,” especially after TV appearances on Dr. Phil and being honoured as the 2010 New Jersey recipient of the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award. Her charitable organization

StopCyberbullying aims to mobilize a so-called “cyber-army” of students and teachers to rid the schools of what Aftab calls the “pandemic” of cyberbullying. The program also promotes the adoption of prevention toolkits and resources developed by her online child safety operation, WiredSafety.com

While Parry Aftab’s campaign is gaining traction in the Maritimes, it has stalled in the United States like most of the anti-bullying initiatives south of the border. “I’ve been doing this for over the past 16 years and I’m losing this battle,” she confessed in April 2014. Ineffective or poorly worded laws, misunderstandings over the law’s intent, fear of legal reprisals from parents, and avoidance of negative publicity for the school or town are all key reasons why cyberbullying laws and regulations don’t seem to be working to deter perpetrators.

BullySchoolSignAn entire industry, known as the “Bully Business,” has emerged to combat both bullying and cyberbullying.  Filmmakers, politicians, lobbyists, and corporations that sell in-school programs have joined pioneers like Aftab and Alberta teacher Bill Belsey in the ‘War on Bullying’ in schools and to hawk their latest anti-bullying classroom resources.

In Aftab’s home state, New Jersey, some $2 million was invested in 2012 in state-wide anti-bullying initiatives, including some $1 million to put an anti-bullying coordinator and teacher in every school.  School surveillance was increased and the numbers of reported incidents rose accordingly, but the results proved disappointing.

The New Jersey initiative may well have backfired on anti-bullying activists. As Richard Bozza, Ed.D., executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, observed in November 2011: “The anti-bullying law also may not be appropriate for our youngest students, such as kindergartners who are just learning how to socialize with their peers. Previously, name-calling or shoving on the playground could be handled on the spot as a teachable moment, with the teacher reinforcing the appropriate behavior. That’s no longer the case. Now it has to be documented, reviewed and resolved by everyone from the teacher to the anti-bullying specialist, principal, superintendent and local board of education.”

Whatever happened in New Jersey is passe for Aftab and her anti-cyberbullying supporters because Canada is now the new northern frontier. After the Nova Scotia Bullying and Cyberbullying report and the tragic death of Rehteah Parsons, Aftab focused her energies on “little Nova Scotia,” the world’s most important cyberbullying battleground with “more suicides per capita connected to cyber issues.” Flush from headlining the Nova Scotia Bullying and Cyberbullying Conference in May 3013, she took the campaign to Prince Edward Island, of all places, where she maintained a seasonal residence.

The International Stop Cyberbullying Youth Summit held in Charlottetown on Nov. 9, 2013 was quite an extravaganza.  A handpicked delegation of Prince Edward Island students formed the core of the 400 students in total from grades 4 to 12 and the 200 adults at the youth summit.  While the focus was on mobilizing students, Aftab rolled out the high profile heavy hitters. Industry leaders, including high-level representatives from Facebook, Microsoft and Google, attended the summit as well as the world renowned champion of anti-bullying, Barbara Coloroso, and the creator of Victims of Violence, Sharon Rosenfeld.

Anti-bullying activists like Aftab now have to contend with vocal critics, questioning the deterrent strategies and the effectiveness of school policies and laws. Former editor of Parenting magazine, Deborah Skolnik, raised hackles in March 2013 by speaking out about the “Bully Backlash” and arguing that “teasing, name-calling or taunting” were not necessarily acts of bullying but rather a natural, if unpleasant, part of growing up from childhood to adolescence.

More recently, New York writer Cevin Soling took to the pages of The Atlantic to address what he deemed the “elephant in the room” – the root cause of bullying. ” Children are confined in schools, often against their will, and deprived of the capacity to make choices that affect their lives, yet policymakers ignore these conditions,” he claimed. The most widespread catalyst for bullying, according to the author, was a school environment much like captivity “rendering children powerless” and from which there seemed to be “no escape.”

The somewhat  contradictory disciplinary philosophies underlying popular anti-bullying campaign are also coming under closer scrutiny. State and provincial legislators, including Nova Scotia, typically favor creating a no tolerance for bullying climate, pushing for formal incident reports and clamping down on any sign of  “hurt feelings” and even incidents resulting from “playful derogatory banter among friends.”  School administrators may revert to  a “snitch culture” in which everyone is encouraged to report incidents they witness.  Educational progressives gravitate to The Bully Project approach seeking to engage students in finding “peaceful solutions” and promoting a rather unnatural, warm-and-fuzzy climate where “nobody should be mean to others.”

School-based anti-bullying programs have not fared well when assessed for their effectiveness. One of the best known research reports, published in the Criminal Justice Review (December 2007) and based upon a meta-analysis, showed that anti-bullying programs produce “little discernible effect on youth participants.” A University of Texas researcher Seokjin Jeong analyzed data from 7,000 students in 50 states and found that such programs “plant” bullying ideas in young children that likely increase the incidence of schoolyard or online bullying.  Much of the research showing short-term positive impact may well be measuring the extent to which the visible symptoms are suppressed as opposed to remedying the underlying problems.

Passing cyberbullying laws may not be the answer. In the United States, all but one state, Montana, has a cyberbullying law in place. Despite that remarkably extensive thicket of cyber-harrassment laws, an investigative report by Associated Press concluded that the laws in place are simply not effective.

In Nova Scotia, the first Canadian province to pass a Cyber Safety Act, the legislation remains contentious.  Halifax’s leading internet and privacy lawyer David Fraser has judged the provincial law to be “half-baked” because of its “broad definition” cyberbullying which infringes on the right to free expression and holds parents responsible for their children’s actions.  He also predicts that that the law will be ruled unconstitutional.   That explains, Fraser says, why other Canadian provinces have taken different approaches.  In a 2013 research report, “Cyberbullying and the Law,” Fraser and his research team asked “Are We Doing Enough?” and proposed taking a closer look at treating internet bullying as a form of “harassment.”

Whatever happened to the flurry of Anti-Bullying initiatives launched in the wake of the 2010 to 2013 spate of teen suicides? Who are the leaders in the “Bully Business” and to what extent are they addressing the symptoms as opposed to the real underlying problems? Why have American cyberbullying laws failed to make much of a difference in the lives of students?  What will come of the Canadian Cyberbullying Youth Summits in the next few years?

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The Rehteah Parsons Case has drawn global attention to the twin horrors of teen sexual assault and re-victimization in cyberspace.  Since the 17-year-old Dartmouth teen’s death by suicide on Sunday April 7, 2013, a torrent of outrage and widespread public anger has dominated the media and left Nova Scotian and federal policy-makers scrambling for explanations and policy fixes  It is indeed a cruel irony that Rehteah was a Nova Scotian, born and raised in the Canadian province that has blazed the trail in the recent  counter-offensive against cyberbullying.

RehteahParsonsProtestThe depth of public outrage left Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter and his Education Minister Ramona Jennex  completely reeling.  It was bad enough that the Cole Harbour High School teen had been sexually-assaulted by four boys , 17 months before , at age 15, without charges being laid.  The fact that photos of her alleged rape were posted online and widely circulated were shocking.  Hearing that the Cole Harbour HS administration knew of the rape allegation and left it all to the police compounded the problem. To make matters even worse, no one representing the school claimed to have seen or heard anything about the photo posted all over the Internet.

Over the first few days, the Nova Scotia Government expressed its heart-felt sorrow, but then attempted to contain the issue using its standard methods. The Justice Minister Ross Landry, at first, hesitated before calling for a fuller investigation of the whole matter.  Education Minister Jennex was caught so much off-guard that she had to summon the Halifax Regional School Board Chair Gin Yee and Superintendent Judy White in for a briefing on what had actually happened.  None of the lame explanations offered would survive the maelstrom of intense public scrutiny exerted by glare of the North American media and the pesky Halifax Chronicle Herald newspaper.

The Canadian public demanded action and Nova Scotian authorities reacted with uncharacteristic haste.  Spurred by Prime Minister Stephen Harper ‘s public reaction, the threats of Anonymous to go public with the names of the boys, and signs of vigilanteism, the RCMP re-opened the case, investigations were launched, and new laws materialized almost over the weekend.

The provincial response, when it came, was head-spinning.  The Education Minister appointed two Ontario consultants, Penny Milton, and Debra Pepler, to conduct an independent review of the HRSB and its response to the case. Premier Dexter accompanied Rehteah Parson’s parents on a pilgrimage to Ottawa seeking changes to the Criminal Code to better combat cyberbullying.  After dragging its feet for a year, the N.S. Government introduced a proposed Cyber-Safety Act creating a new police investigation unit and toughening rules, including seizing devices and holding parents responsible for the online conduct of their children.

What does all of this reactive decision-making amount to?  A Halifax Chronicle Herald Editorial put it this way: The demand for change is overwhelming. “Whether that change comes from tweaking laws, procedures, responsibilities or other areas — or some combination of the above — what’s important to the public is that whatever measures are taken, they must be effective in helping to prevent such tragedies from occurring again.”

Winning over a skeptical public will not be an easy task.   After a spate of  recent teen suicides, including the Californian 15-year old Audrie Pott, precipitated by persistent, horrific cyberbullying, the public will wait to judge those efforts by what actually gets accomplished.  Closing loopholes in the  laws may help, but what about enforcing the laws and discipline codes?

The independent reviews will be judged by what actually gets fixed as a result of them.  If Rehtaeh’s case was mishandled  by the Halifax police, that needs to be identified and fixed.  School officials do have to be held to account for their actions — or rather, lack of action — while one of their own students was allegedly being ceaselessly tormented by her peers. Parents in Nova Scotia and elsewhere affected by such incidents are simply tired of excuses for why cyberbullying is so difficult to stop and do expect tangible results.

One concrete action would be to implement all 85 recommendations of the Nova Scotia Bullying and Cyberbullying task force that reported a year ago.  Chair Wayne MacKay has made no secret of his disappointment with the lack of action, until now, on a number of effective, immediate measures, including tougher enforcement, more guidance counsellors, and teaching digital citizenship in schools.  Mental health services must also have the resources they need to effectively help teens cope with personal crises and the stresses of life.

Combating the posting of sexually explicit photos and cyberbullying will require the schools to step up to the challenge and get involved rather than shying away from anything with a hint of controversy. Parents also have a responsibility to teach their children right from wrong.  Everyone has a personal responsibility to call out bullying and to take a moral stand when the situation warrants a response.

Will the flurry of new Cyber-Safety laws and school regulations succeed where previous measures have failed?   With teen culture saturated with sex, can civility and propriety be restored by laws, rules, and curriculum alone?  Why do school officials, in particular, come up so short in stamping out outrageous student conduct and insidious cyberbullying in, around, and after school?  Are we simply expecting too much when it’s an ingrained societal problem?  

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Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, is a genuine big thinker.  Since tutoring a young cousin in Mathematics in 2004, communicating by phone and an interactive notepad, he has gone on to establish Khan Academy.com in 2006  and has now produced an earth-shaking book, The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined (October 2012).  His mission is, and has been, deceptively simple:  to “provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.” (p. 5)

OneWorldSchoolhouseCoverThe Khan Academy is an amazing 21st century success story.   It began in a single room in his home in 2006 with a PC, $20 of screen capture software, and an $80 pen tablet all employed to write equations and draw graphs, usually shakily, using a free program called Microsoft Paint.  Besides the videos, Sal only had “quizzing software ” running on his $50-a-month web host. The faculty, engineering team, support staff, and administration was shockingly small — consisting of only him. He spent his early days simply talking into a computer monitor and dreaming up plans for expansion.

Today Khan Academy, like a 21st century McDonald’s, claims to have provided 227,776,564 lessons to students of any and all ages.  His individual, self-paced online tutorials number more than 3,000 little instructional videos on the You Tube channel covering a dizzying array of lessons from basic arithmetic to advanced science, economics, and United States history. It’s far and away the most used library of educational videos on the web attracting over 4.2 million unique students per month.  He freely admits that You Tube has made him a celebrity star all over the United States and far beyond.  He has been profiled in Time Magazine and his TED Talk has been hailed as one of the most influential, rivaling that of Sir Ken Robinson.

Most established North American educators find Sal Khan and the Khan Academy absolutely frightening. After Sal Khan was embraced by Bill Gates as America’s master teacher, critics emerged in an attempt to discredit Khan and his whole methodology. Most of the academic snipers were quick to point out that Khan was “a former hedge fund analyst”  with passing reference to his degrees from MIT and Harvard University.  The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss joined in, providing a platform on The Answer Sheet for critics determined to separate “the hype from the reality.”

When asked why millions of students use his instructional videos but  so many traditional teachers shun Khan Academy, Sal was brutally frank: “It’d piss me off ,too, if I had been teaching for 30 years and suddenly this ex-hedge-fund guy is hailed as the world’s teacher.”  But that’s only half the reason. After viewing a few of his You Tube tutorials, it becomes abundantly clear that Sal Khan is a master at didactic instruction and a real threat to the status quo as represented by student-centred, soft-on content pedagogues.  He sets out in each video to actually “teach” something rather than to “facilitate” interaction with others. In that sense, he is a huge threat to the apostles of John Dewey and Jean Piaget still ensconced in most North American education schools and provincial school bureaucracies.

Sal Khan’s first book is full of little surprises.  He is definitely out to fix what ails North American public education systems. Like his little videos, the book also attempts to explain what needs to change to instill the joy of learning, the thrill of discovery, and the beauty of math and science in today’s students. “What I didn’t want, ” he writes, “was the dreary process that sometimes went on in classrooms — rote memorization and plug-in formulas — aimed at nothing more lasting than a good grade on the next exam.” That is precisely why he recommends using his videos as preparation for more in-depth classroom inquiry, discussion, and problem-solving activities.

Khan’s proposal for the “Flipped Classroom” will always be his greatest contribution to North American education reform.  Once high school students discover the Khan Academy, Sal Khan becomes their virtual teacher and simply cannot be dismissed or ignored by sensible regular classroom teachers.  It would be foolish to turn a blind eye to his teaching, so it becomes common sense to integrate his lessons into the program. Letting Sal Khan deliver the subject content as homework simply opens the door to more meaningful, deeper learning in class.

His other proposals for reform are more problematic.  He’s an advocate of Mastery Learning which is fine for individual students but creates problems when applied across-the-board in classrooms in a deadening “lock-step” fashion.  Allowing mixed age classes would be revolutionary because it would spell the end of the Jean Piaget-driven “age-appropriate curriculum” philosophy and ideology. It can and does work when it involves moving students forward to challenge them more academically, so that’s worth pursuing further.

His class size reform assigning three teachers to every 75 to 100 students would be exciting because it would open the door to new kinds of teaching and grouping combinations.  Eliminating letter grades in elementary school strikes this commentator as a non-starter without a suitable alternative system of measuring student progress.  He also advocates Year Round schooling.  School should not “recess” for the whole Summer because of the “unlearning” that takes place over that two month period each year. Recognizing this reality and changing the system are two completely different things.

Will Salman Khan’s The One World Schoolhouse be the force that blasts the North American school system out of its comfort zone?  How successful is the book in attempting to prove that The Khan Academy model is scalable?  How long can schools of education and established educators hold out in resisting Sal Khan and online initiatives like Khan Academy? What’s stopping today’s schools from implementing the innovative “Flipped Classroom” model? And, what’s so threatening about challenging today’s high school students to prepare for class by viewing online instructional videos and to up-their-game in the classroom?

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Being “anti-this” and “anti-that” is the political fashion in the 21st century world of social reform, educational politics, and state policy-making.  Since the tragic suicide of British Columbia teen and bullying victim Amanda Todd in the fall of 2012, provincial premiers, education and health ministers, school boards, and even federal politicians have been falling over each other calling for a nation-wide crackdown and championing tougher “anti-cyberbullying” laws aimed at curbing bullying, cyber harassment, and criminalizing  repeated acts of cyberbullying.

AmandaToddProvincial and state policies, new laws, and incident reporting regulations are growing like mushrooms from Nova Scotia to BC and beginning to resemble crusades in “anti-bullying” states like North Carolina.  Most of this frenzied state intervention activity aimed specifically at combating cyberbullying and its horrible cousins, homophobia and racism, flies in the face of educational research and accumulating evidence that state policy and regulations attack the branches rather than the roots of the problem –teenage anger, pent-up frustration, and the breakdown in family relations.

Bullying and cyberbullying in and around schools has prompted quite a range of new laws, regulations and guidelines. Canada’s first province to declare “war on cyberbullying,” Nova Scotia, has now moved to require school staff and bus drivers to report all incidents of bullying and cyberbullying, as recommended in Wayne MacKay’s ground-breaking early 2012 report, Bullying and Cyberbullying: There’s No App for That.   In the fall of 2012, the Alberta Government amended its Education Act to hold students accountable for not reporting online incidents of bullying.  Down in Raleigh, the North Carolina state legislature expanded its 2009 cyberbullying law to outlaw cyber-harassment of teachers and other school employees.

Will any of these prohibitive and deterrent laws and regulations actually work to reduce the incidence of bullying and cyberbullying?  Most importantly, are laws targeting cyberbullying attacking the right end of the problem?

WearPinkDayThe first wave of the anti-bullying campaign , “Wear Pink” School Days, and so-called community “flash mobs,” did little more than raise awareness. A year ago at an Edmonton mall “flash mob” dance performance, Alberta’s then Minister of Education Tom Lukaszuk made this statement: “It’s an in-your-face campaign. We’re waging a war on bullying and making Albertans aware that bullying happens everywhere.”

A new Dalhousie University study conducted by Dr. John Leblanc and his research team provides the facts. Of 41 cases of bullying-related teen suicides from 2003 until April 2012, in the U.S., Canada, the UK, and Australia, 78% involved both bullying and cyberbullying (face-to-face and online harassment), and in only 7 cases (17%) was it cyberbullying alone.

That key finding supports a 2012 Norwegian research report by Dan Olweus, based upon two large-scale studies covering 2006 to 2010, that identified traditional bullying as the core problem, suggesting that cyberbullying was “an overrated phenomenon.”  American researcher Danah Boyd told Education Week in March 2012 that the Internet doesn’t necessarily increase bullying but it has heightened what she described as “a youth culture of fear.”

The root of the problem, according to Dalhousie University pediatrician LeBlanc, is likely to be found in family dysfunction and its toll on today’s teens. “for the most part,” LeBlanc says, “the vast majority of children and youth are not psychopaths. They’re not out to get you.; they’re not callous. They are reacting themselves to what’s happening to them.”  It also manifests itself in many forms from physical assaults to social exclusion, name calling, and gossiping.

A November 2012 report, Family responses to bullying,  produced by the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, gets to the real nub of the problem.  Anti-bullying laws and regulations are limited and insufficient in their reach and potential effectiveness. “Families are an important part of the solution to bullying,” the IMFC report points out, and “a solution that has been overlooked for too long.”

Wayne MacKay’s 2012 Nova Scotia report is identified as a positive exception to the rule.  His approach, the IMFC notes, recognizes that “parents are the most influential role model in communicating appropriate behaviour” and takes a “less coercive” more preventative stance, attempting the admittedly difficult task of “engaging parents” in the effort.

The IMFC’s senior researcher, Peter Jon Mitchell, commenting on Alberta’s tough new anti-bullying law, was blunt in his assessment, telling  Postmedia News that “government makes a lousy parent.”  Instead of imposing more punitive legal measures and refereeing in family matters, he called for “more emphasis” on building “positive relationships between kids and adults.”

The IMFC is not alone in raising a red flag.  Even Canadian anti-bullying experts like Simon Fraser University’s Brenda Morrison agree that threatening teens with punishment for not reporting bullying is most likely to drive the problem further underground.

Will tough anti-bullying laws and further punitive state measures actually reduce the incidence of bullying and cyberbullying in and around schools?  What’s missing in the current array of “silver bullet” solutions proposed by provincial and state governments?  Will we eventually come to realize that rebuilding family life and fostering positive, mutually respectful parent-child relationships might be the best longer-term approach?

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America’s undisputed champion of Social Media in education, Tom Whitby, was recently jolted by an exchange on Twitter with a professional colleague.  Big ideas in education were “getting drowned out, ” his tech savvy friend remarked, as a result of the endless discussions about Social Media and the heavy emphasis on promoting “connectedness for educators.”  Social Media is a powerful medium that can be used to learn, but our near obsession with it may be at the expense of other powerful ideas. His Twitter friend went even further: ” it’s still all pretty much primordial soup.”  http://tomwhitby.wordpress.com/2012/05/29/social-media-help-or-hindrance-to-education-reform/

Sparked by that intellectual challenge, Tom took to his blog An Island View (May 29, 2012) to make the case, once again, for today’s educators to take full advantage of the Social Media in leading a 21st century revolution in education.   As the founder of  PLN, the Professional Learning Network, he can be quite passionate about its power to create “professional learning communities” spanning whole continents. Like Canada’s 21st Century Educator, David Wees, he credits Social Media for giving him a new lease on life.  It has certainly made a difference in their professional lives spawning #edchat and attracting a legion of camp followers.   Whether it is the harbinger of a new age education revolution is more open to question.

Since the explosion of Twitter, early adopters have been mad about its miracle powers. Back in September 2010.  Sarah Kessler sung its praises in “The Case for Social Media in Schools.” A year after Grade 7 teacher Elizabeth Delmatoff started a pilot social media program in her Portland, Oregon classroom, Kessler claimed that it worked like magic with kids.  Some 20% of students school-wide were completing extra assignments for no credit, grades had gone up more than 50%, and chronic absenteeism was reduced by more than a third. For the first time in its history, the school met its “adequate yearly progress goal for absenteeism.”  http://mashable.com/2010/09/29/social-media-in-school/

Social Media was trumpeted as the next great thing in inspiring learning and student engagement.   Zealots like Kessler made a compelling case and rhymed  off its advantages: 1. Social Media is Not Going Away;2. When Kids Are Engaged, They Learn Better; 3. Safe Social Media Tools Are Available — And They’re Free; 4. Replace Online Procrastination with Social Education; 5. Social Media Encourages Collaboration Instead of Cliques; 6. Cell Phones Aren’t the Enemy.

Her conclusion was a call to action. “Nobody would dispute that the risks of children using social media are real and not to be taken lightly. But there are also dangers offline. The teachers and parents who embrace social media say the best way to keep kids safe, online or offline, is to teach them.”

Since then, educators have become far more tech savvy, and, inspired by enthusiasts like Tom Whitby and David Wees, have adopted Social Media as a primary Professional Development tool and begun to introduce it into the kingdom of the classroom.

Promoters of Social Media can sound messianic. “We all learn from other people….”  but now” face to face connections have never been completely replaced, but rather enhanced, by technology.”  Borrowing freely from Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenburg Galaxy, they trace the steps from pen and ink to the printing press to electronic media. In Whitby’s words:  ” Technology historically allowed learning to expand from face to face contact to distances beyond the limits of both time and space, and the Internet has moved that to a whole new level.”  It is, he insists, time we began empowering educators with the Hi Tech tools and preparing students for life in this century.

Visionaries like Whitby are even dreaming of Schools that function like Twitter. ” I wish all educators had Professional Learning Networks like mine, but it is not a style of learning suited for everyone., ” he wrote. “Nevertheless, I began wondering what it would be like if the types of sharing, collaboration, reflection and discussion that are continuing activities on Twitter could at least be attempted in the school building environment.”  http://tomwhitby.wordpress.com/2012/04/17/what-if-school-was-more-like-twitter/

Promoters of Facebook and Twitter in schools have run into roadblocks on the North American educational highway. In many School Districts, they hit brick walls, especially so in Canadian K-12 school systems. That’s fully documented in my January 2012 SQE study, The Sky Has Limits, a recent look at the impediments to online learning and virtual schools in all 13 provinces and territories. http://www.societyforqualityeducation.org/parents/theskyhaslimits   Teachers are free to experiment with Social Media and to attend Ed Camps on their own time.  Far too many schools are “Out of Bounds” and an amazing number of elementary schools remain under IT lock-down regimes.

Fascination with Social Media is growing rapidly among teachers.  Some estimates are that  there are as many as 500,000 connected educators, globally using social Media for professional learning. That sounds astronomical until you realize that there 7.2 million educators in the United States alone.

Skeptics about the value of Social Media can still be found everywhere in the “bricks and mortar” school system.  High schools are full of contrarians who delight in quoting the latest commentary from Nicholas G. Carr and other leading critics. His Blog, Rough Type, is a veritable treasure trove of barbs and amunition for foes of the high tech revolution. Hot on the heals of his brilliant critique, The Shallows, he is fond of lampooning those addicted to Social Media.  His recent post comparing Various types of Social Networks to “recreational drugs” cuts close to the bone. After reading it, Facebook does seem like “pot” and Twitter may well simulate the effect of  “Black Beauties.” http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2012/04/social_networks.php

Breaking down the barriers in schools can be exhausting, sucking away energy and draining us of ideas.  Many gifted educators seek solace and refuge in the simple pleasures of a good book and a receptive class of students. Pushing Social Media, like flogging IT, is all too often about the process rather than the substance of education, teaching, and learning.   Learning how to learn seems to have supplanted the core mission of education — learning something that is worth knowing and actually matters.

Is Social Media a help or a hindrance to improving the quality of education in schools?  Is introducing the learning tools crowding out important ideas associated with education reform or, pedagogy, or methodology in education? Is it a distraction rather than a means for transformation? In short, have Big Ideas gotten lost in the scramble?

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