Friday, December 11, 2009

Big Ideas: Character, Environmental Education and Equity should include conversations about Technology

Beginning last spring, a group of board consultants, administrators and curriculum resource teachers, met to explore how we would implement the big ideas coming forward in many of the Ontario Ministry of Education documents.  Our guiding question for our work is: What are the skills, knowledge, and principles needed to live and to work for sustainable development?  Although technology does not have its own ministry document and receives remarkably little attention in any of the ministry materials, we felt it was crucial to our conversations about sustainability.  My sense is that if the ministry is rolling out documents around character education, environmental education and equity, to name a few, the internet should be a significant part of these conversations.
Character Education
If teaching students about respect, citizenship and leadership is important in our brick and mortar spaces, it is just as important in our virtual spaces.  I recently received a letter home from my daughter’s school explaining that someone had generated an email with a list of girls’ names (called a ‘hoe list’ note the spelling).  This list had circulated online inviting students to add new names and ‘rank’ the girls. The students involved are in grade 7 and many were very upset.  I am pleased to report that the school is treating this as a learning experience for the children and an opportunity to talk about character and online behaviour.  Personally, I’m interested in how this event differs from a note being passed around the school.  It isn’t quite the same thing.  The action of passing the email version of a note takes place outside of school time.  It would be interesting if the outcome saw these same students participate in a online activity to reinforce positive character attributes.  Anytime, anywhere learning applies to the unwritten curriculum too. 
Environment: Our Ecological Footprint
This is not an area of strength for me.  I rarely reflect on where my possessions ‘go to die’.  Yet, in the past 8 years we, as a family, have gone through 1 Personal Computer, 3 laptops, a netbook, a number of cell phones, satellite radio devices, and much more if I move into what we did with our VCRs or the many MP3 players that were lost.  So, there is an issue around materials consumption and waste when we make a connection between the environment and technology, but also around the energy required to operate home/office computers and data centres.  Internet data centres require energy to operate and to run cooling systems.  Bill St. Arnaud claims that the internet is the fastest growing source of CO2 to the atmosphere.  This doesn’t mean that companies aren’t taking a green approach; many, such as google have developed zero-carbon policies. 
Equity and Universal Access: Who gets access and how?
There are many logistical issues that impact internet access, such as limited bandwidth in remote areas (Northern Ontario is a local example).  When we think globally, Africa is an example of a continent with limited internet access.  According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, “Africa’s only connection to the internet backbone is an undersea cable running from Portugal along Africa’s west coast.”  Add to this that
  • monopolies held by telecommunications companies make internet access very expensive;
  • the hope of another fiber optics project was stalled for political reasons;
  • East Africa is primarily dependent on satellite connections for internet access;
  • “land-locked countries” such as Rwanda, “face a special challenge as they will only be able to access bandwidth via an intermediary country.”
When we talk about equity and internet access, we have to ask, “who gets what content and how?”  Even when we reflect on recent events in Iran we recognize that this is an issue as countries develop different regulations around accessing content on the internet. Our schools are a microcosm of this issue when they block sites like YouTube.  They are doing more than inconveniencing teachers and students, more than sending a message about internet safety and undesirable content. They are embodying the kind censorship that we fear and that we would not tolerate if imposed on a national level in Canada.  They are preventing the students who need internet access the most from learning with and about the internet (I am referring to those students who may not have internet access at home, or may not have permission to use the home computer). 
Other Equity Questions
  • In what languages is content available?
  • Will all countries be supportive of the free use of knowledge?
I want to mention that our Big Ideas group doesn’t focus on technology alone.  We delve into ministry documents that we are expected to implement and topics like student voice, aboriginal education and inclusivity. The important part is that we are working at making connections and trying to incorporate these big ideas into our work with teachers, but we would be remiss if we did not make connections to technology.  I welcome your thoughts on the big ideas and hope that you will push my thinking.
Read more about internet access in Rwanda
Listen to Bill St. Arnaud on CBC Radio as he discusses how Canada’s broadband access compares to the rest of the world. 

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