BLOG POST: Fear and the Internet – James Robson

James ProfileI’m currently researching how teachers interact with their professional peers in online social spaces. My focus has therefore been on ICT use for professional development rather than ICT use in the classroom.  However, as I’ve been sifting through the piles and piles of data I’ve collected over the last year, I’ve noticed a very interesting theme emerging relating to just this issue: the challenges teachers face when it comes to actually integrating technology into their teaching.

In the past, a number of studies have highlighted equipment related, economic and even competency barriers to effective classroom ICT use, although with the significant investment in this area under the Labour Government, these issues are perhaps less relevant.  More recently, studies have highlighted practical and environmental issues as preventative factors.  Selwyn, for example, offers a powerful example of the impracticalities of using state of the art technology in out of date Victorian school buildings.

However, an additional issue that I’ve been coming across a great deal in my interviews with teachers is more structural. It relates to a discourse of fear that often seems to pervade schools, particularly at the administrative level.  This fear generally appears to be manifested in relation to the need to ‘safeguard’ children from the dangers of the Internet, but also as a fear of legislation relating to teacher-student online communications, or even fear of embarrassing media coverage if ‘things go wrong’.

As one might expect, such fear is expressed in control over the ways in which teachers can use ICT as part of their teaching.  However, what has been particularly noticeable in my data is that the fear and control exists in tension with an apparent top-down promotion of classroom based ICT use and heavy investment in hardware.  For example, Melissa (not her real name), an RE teacher from a fairly average secondary school, describes how:

‘most departments have got a set of 30 iPod Touches and there’s now a suite of iPads…  we have all this technology, but we’ve got a policy where we’re not allowed to use anything that might allow a combination of a camera and the Internet together.  So in reality it’s all useless.’

Similarly, Jane (secondary school teacher) discussed problems with her school’s ICT policies:

‘one of the most incredibly frustrating things is we’ve spent thousands on web conferencing facilities and as yet have not found a single project that we’ve been allowed to do because of the concern of safeguarding because we don’t necessarily know who’s at the other end type thing making videos of children.’

These two examples (fairly representative of the 18 teachers I interviewed) illustrate the interesting situation where ICT investment is in conflict with the limiting power of the administrative structural bureaucracy.  As Charlotte (secondary school teacher) sums it up: ‘They’re willing to spend on all the technology because they can see it’s a good thing, but in practical terms they’ve wasted so much money because they won’t let us use it to full capacity, or sometimes even at all’.

The fear, which all participants highlighted as the motivating factor behind the restrictions, always appears to be ill defined with few concrete examples.  I wonder whether it fits into a wider discourse of fear of the Internet that pervades society at the moment: specifically that children online are always in danger.  If it’s not danger from pedophiles, then it’s the risks of cyberbullying, or the issue currently in the media, it’s the dangers of hardcore pornography.

While I would never want to diminish these clearly very real dangers, it’s likely that the any teacher attempting to do anything even remotely innovative with technology will struggle while fear remains such a dominant discourse in relation to children using the Internet.  Perhaps only when it is counteracted with more positive messages highlighting the benefits technology can bring to learning will innovation actually become embedded in the classroom.

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