Infrastructure Opinion


By R.W. Burniske — February 01, 1998 9 min read
Children need “driver’s education” to safely cruise the Information Highway.

When school opened this year, I found myself for the first time in my life simultaneously a student, teacher, and parent. These overlapping roles—coupled with my repatriation after a decade teaching abroad—have shed much light on the often inscrutable process of education, but one of the more enlightening moments came after my 13-year-old son’s first day of classes at a public school in Austin, Texas. When I arrived home that evening, he greeted me with a request for a signature, handing me a five-page, single-spaced document titled “Acceptable Use Policy for Technology.”

I asked if he understood what it said.

“Yeah, I can’t look at porn,” he replied, “and if I do whatever the teacher says then I won’t get in trouble.” This is what my son, a perceptive adolescent, learned at school on his first day. He didn’t speak of a song he’d heard, a poem he’d read, or a funny story his teacher had told. Instead, he came home talking about an “Acceptable Use Policy for Technology.”

I asked what the consequences were if I didn’t sign the form.

“Mom can sign it,” he replied.

“Oh, of course,” I said. “And what if she refuses?”

“Then I can’t use the Internet at school.”

I wondered if that would be such a bad thing.

Then I went through the form with him, asking if he understood terms like “innocuous” and “objectionable” and “defamatory.”

“Not really,” he said.

I tried to explain. Eventually, like many parents, I signed the form despite misgivings. I signed, hoping this would help my child, not hurt him. However, I didn’t like signing a document that referred to him as a “user” instead of a “student.” Nor did I appreciate the litigious prose threatening to “terminate access” for ill-defined transgressions that could force users to “indemnify” the school “for any losses, costs, or damages, including reasonable attorneys’ fees” incurred due to “any breach of this agreement.” What sort of message did this document send to a 13-year-old? My son, who has seen twice as many countries as years, just shrugged in response to such questions. He didn’t understand all the fuss, but it was equally apparent that he didn’t understand this policy statement.

I wondered how other parents across the city, state, and country reacted when presented with this new species of parent-permission form commonly known as the “Acceptable Use Policy for Technology,” or AUP for short. How many of them could decipher the language of such a document, let alone weigh its social and legal implications? Here I am, a graduate student at a research university, working in computer labs equipped with the latest network technology, yet even I had a hard time with it. I didn’t like supporting a policy that warned of “disciplinary action” against “users” who “solicit the performance of any activity which is prohibited by law,” particularly when my son confessed that he didn’t know what it meant to “solicit” performances. Was I making too much of this? Perhaps, but I think it only wise to at least pause before endorsing a document that states the following: “Although drawing and painting have legitimate academic use, those activities are prohibited when done for recreational purposes.”

Imagine reading that sentence to a group of children. What does it imply? I know why school officials included it in their AUP. I’ve seen adolescents abuse their computer privileges. I know how skilled they are at turning educational tools into recreational toys. Pause for a moment, though, and think about the message of that statement if it were lifted from its technological context. Think of it as part of a school’s curriculum. Think of it, finally, as an “educational” statement. Now then, care to endorse it? If so, please sign.

I have heard the self-righteous defense of these dreadful documents: “How else can we protect children and establish our rules?” Such arguments, however, expose the flawed thinking—and disingenuous character—of AUPs. A school that does nothing more to “protect children” than distribute such documents is more concerned with legal issues than education. Surely we’re not foolish enough to think an AUP is anything more than a Band-Aid on a chancre. Or have we forgotten what an education is supposed to do for a child?

Draconian threats never taught students how to drive cars or prevent unwanted pregnancies; thoughtful educators did.

Among other things, these AUPs reveal an unhealthy preoccupation with a school’s published curriculum and neglect of what Elliot Eisner, a professor of education at Stanford University, has described as the “implicit” and “null” curricula. The implicit curriculum consists of everything that the school teaches indirectly through assemblies, dress codes, detentions, and the like; the null curriculum refers to neglected subjects, such as automotive repair, woodworking, and home economics. Often, what a school omits from its curriculum—or fails to consider as a contributor to its ethos—is just as important as what it self-consciously includes.

It’s worth thinking in such terms while examining the impact of the Internet gold rush upon our schools. To accommodate “computer literacy” in their K-12 curricula, many schools are pushing electives such as music, art, and physical education to the periphery. This raises two significant questions: As schools introduce computer technology to their classrooms, thereby endorsing an extension of the explicit and implicit curricula, are they forgetting the null curriculum’s impact on students? And by drafting AUPs, are schools pandering to vocal watchdogs of the explicit curricula at the expense of the implicit curricula?

L et’s not kid ourselves: Draconian threats never taught students how to drive cars or prevent unwanted pregnancies; thoughtful educators did. Certainly, we need to offer children guidance for telecomputing, but AUPs as presently conceived are threatening when they ought to be instructive. So here’s a modest proposal: Let’s develop a “Cyberpilot’s License” program that teaches kids what we mean by the responsible use of computer technology.

There is precedent for this proposal. When adolescents misbehaved with automobiles half a century ago, few people proposed banning cars from local streets. Instead, they introduced a school program to teach students to drive responsibly. In a master’s thesis completed at the University of Texas in 1951, graduate student Thaddeus Betley examined various proposals for driver education, noting that studies had discovered that “wrong attitudes, bad habits, lack of skill, and ignorance. . . account for the majority of [automobile] accidents.” What did he conclude from his research? “Certainly, education must play the major role in any program which aims to eradicate these causes.”

Unfortunately, it wasn’t until the Highway Safety Act of 1966 that driver education became a requirement for highway-safety programs. We should not make the same mistake and delay introducing instruction on the appropriate use of the Internet. Such a program should address the fundamental anxieties that undermine the Internet’s potential as a mode of communication and education. Certainly, there are serious issues to consider as schools help students merge with Internet traffic, but tossing litigious documents in the faces of middle schoolers without teaching them what they mean is irresponsible. The implementation of a Cyberpilot’s License program would encourage a more thoughtful integration of technology into existing curricula, enabling educators to play a proactive role rather than a reactive one.

Few computer-science courses give “Web ethics” more than a passing glance.

The Cyberpilot’s License program should be designed, like driver’s education, to address not only the skills necessary to operate this machinery but also the attitudes and behaviors that promote healthy practices. In Hot Rod, a mid-century book about automobiles in America, Henry Gregor Felsen offered insights that speak as forcefully to Internet drivers today as they did automobile drivers then: “Those young drivers have learned to drive. They can operate a car all right, and make it go as fast as anyone else, but they haven’t learned the one most important factor in driving—the proper attitude.”

Critics of this proposal may consider it an unnecessary encroachment upon curricula. Others will quarrel over the appropriate place for it within the curriculum. Both forms of resistance, however, are myopic and evasive. We cannot dismiss “netiquette” as irrelevant, banishing it to the null curriculum. Nor can we allow disputes over its proper place to stall its introduction. As currently designed, few computer-science courses give “Web ethics” more than a passing glance. Meanwhile, humanities teachers complain that they already have too much to do and too little expertise with telecomputing to accept such responsibilities. However, emerging technologies blur the distinctions between disciplines, compelling simultaneous instruction of skills and the responsibility inherent in their exercise. “Computer ethics” must, therefore, be an integral part of any class that uses computers and a prerequisite for computer literacy.

The Cyberpilot’s License is no more a panacea for misuse of computers than driver’s education has been for reckless driving. But such a program will help schools create AUPs that make a meaningful contribution to their curriculum. It should provide in-service opportunities for faculty and elective courses for students, introducing the terms and technology, ethical issues attending them, and the rights and responsibilities of cyberpilots. Upon completion of this course—not before—students would acquire signed letters of consent from legal guardians, assuming responsibility for their on-line actions. This would address the legal and parental concerns that AUP defendants cite, but it would make these policies instructional tools rather than vague threats.

It’s difficult to speak to these issues without sounding hysterical or self-righteous. However, I’ve been turning them over in my mind as a graduate student, teacher of undergraduates, and a parent of middle school and elementary students. The convergence of those viewpoints motivates this proposal as a progressive one, not a reactionary one. To succeed, the Cyberpilot License must bring human concerns to the foreground of computer literacy, encouraging a thoughtful approach to technological issues without neglecting human issues. That basic tenet is our best hope for ensuring that computer technology serves humanity rather than humanity serving technology.

Hysteria? Perhaps. But I’d rather be charged with that and preserve a humanist curriculum than be guilty of an indifference that renders humanism null—and void.

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