A reader asked me to think about the state of Chromebook use in the district. I’ve spoken to a couple of children and there’s some clear themes. Most of the information here is gathered from middle and high school students. I’m not an IT professional, but I’ve been coding since I got my parents got a discounted IBM 8086 and I know my way around cybersecurity more than most.
First off, what do the district’s policies say about computer use. From policy 815 (among many other parts),
The District will employ the use of an Internet filter (“filter”) as a technology protection measure pursuant to the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). Blocking shall be applied to visual depictions of materials deemed obscene or child pornography, or to any material determined harmful to minors. The filter may not be disabled for use by other minors for any reason.
The policy has a lot of other details about how nothing on their systems is private and a long list of prohibitions, but not much more about what the IT department will be doing to monitor computer usage. It says they can, but not necessarily that they will. That’s followed in the policy book by 815 Appendix A, which includes,
I understand that the district makes no assurances of any kind, whether express or implied, regarding
any Internet or email services. I further understand that the use of any information obtained via the
Internet and/or email is at my own risk; that the district specifically disclaims responsibility for the
accuracy or quality of such information; and that the district is not, and will not be, responsible for
any damage or loss which I suffer…
Due to the nature of the Internet and email, it is neither practical nor possible for the district to
ensure compliance at all times with the district’s Acceptable Use of Networks, Internet,
Computing Resources and CIPA Internet Safety Compliance Policy. Accordingly,
parents/guardians must recognize that each student will be required to make independent decisions
and use good judgment in his/her use of the Internet and email. Therefore, parents/guardians must
participate in the decision whether to allow their child access to the Internet and email and must
communicate their own expectations to the child regarding appropriate use of the Internet and email.
So the policy says the district will use a filter but…it’s on you, parents. The school is not able to keep your children safe online on its own – it doesn’t have the resources to monitor all Chromebooks.
I’m going to set aside the issues that are usually raised by those on the left – the security tools the districts use are an invasion of privacy. You can read their statements here. Those are valid criticisms. Mostly I’m thinking about safety here.
VPNs and Cracking
Go on Youtube or Reddit or any search engine and search for how to disable GoGuardian or any of the other technologies the district employees, and you’ll find a wealth of information on how to defeat them. The world of IT professionals is no match for the ingenuity of schoolchildren. Our own district’s IT staff are probably so busy trying to keep it working at all, they have few resources to police computer usage. And teachers are dealing with worse behavioral issues. Playing Minecraft or watching Disney+ on school Chromebooks is the least of their worries.
There are two things I’ve heard that give me concerns. The first is, the use of VPNs. A VPN is a system that allows your computer to connect to a network of servers. The network of servers bounces your web traffic around and it emerges from a different place on the network, thus hiding from both sides who is connecting to what. I have a VPN for my computer from a service I pay for. I connect to their network and my web traffic can emerge in New York, London, or Mongolia. When working right, my ISP doesn’t know what websites I’m viewing and the websites I’m viewing don’t know where I am.
If you’re a dissident in China, Russia or Iran, this is essential. It’s a vital tool to find out information from outside and communicate securely with one another. I also have another VPN for connecting to the college network so I can work from anywhere, another important use. VPN’s are vital tools. But…those are legitimate VPN’s. Free VPN’s that evade the school’s networks may have no such accountability. While the VPN hides your web traffic from both sides…it knows everything, and has access to all your web traffic. A malicious VPN can learn a lot about you and do more nefarious things with the traffic if they’re clever. So, in regards to children’s security, these VPN networks can be a hazard.
The other thing I’ve heard about is cracking. Students are using illegally obtained games to run on their Chromebooks. Besides the illegality, cracked software is an unknown. Maybe the person that cracked it was just doing it for the lulz, and besides the piracy, there’s no further risk. Or maybe they’re using it to inject other code onto your computer. The average 13 year old probably doesn’t know or care. Actually, I suspect many adults using cracked software haven’t really thought that through either.
Wikipedia and Machine Learning
I’ve heard that Wikipedia is blocked. In the past I’ve seen two reasons for this: 1) Wikipedia is inaccurate and 2) Anyone can post anything to Wikipedia.
Both are bullshit. Probably the most referenced article is a Dec., 2005 Nature article comparing Wikipedia to Brittanica. It found similar levels of errors,
Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopaedia. But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively.
Since 2005, Wikipedia has continued to grow and expand the systems they have in place to limit vandalism and inaccuracies. Most Wikipedia articles today are well written and cite their sources. This week I had students consult Wikipedia for physics equations. Learning to use Wikipedia properly – and spot vandalism and inaccuracies – is an important life skill.
The second claim is that Wikipedia is open to anyone to post to. But this is a non-sensical argument. I can write anything I want on my blog here, up to whatever limit my hosting service allows. I could write that “Mr. Conley is an agent sent by the International Consortium of Kangaroos to infiltrate our schools and further expand hopping-based propaganda like Jump-rope for Heart.” Or I could write that “Mr. Heinle plans to line NPE in tin-foil to stop Luxembourg’s nefarious broadcasts to encourage cheese-eating among children.” And it’s not just this one blog, there’s an almost infinite variety of sites out on the web with all sort of un-edited nonsense, little of which is blocked by the school’s filters. Compared to that mess, Wikipedia is a beacon of tight editorial control.
And lastly, Wikipedia is superior to many of the sites that I see teachers assigning my child to source information from. It’s better written. The content is more up to date and more thorough. It has less ads. Wikipedia is one of the world’s greatest treasures. A vast library of human knowledge available to anyone anywhere. It should be celebrated, not censured.
I’ve also heard ChatGPT has been locked down by WSSD. That will stall, but not end its usage. Schools need to rapidly come to terms with ChatGPT, StableDiffusion and other similar technologies. Blocking them will only slow, not stop, adoption. Even technologists are struggling to keep up with the rapid pace of technology in this field, so schools are going to struggle as these technologies rapidly become indistinguishable from human work.
I’m not a parent that cares much about screen time. Computers can be useful tools when used right. But it seems to me that teachers are falling into bad habits using Chromebooks. They’re on a lot. I asked my son for an estimate of how much of the time he has his Chromebook on at his desk. He guessed about 75%. Teachers may need more guidance on telling students to turn them off and not use them for every single task. Every time the Chromebook is out is another chance for distraction. There needs to be more intentionality around their use. Students should spend more time interacting with one another, their teachers and the world around them and less time at a keyboard. The behavioral issues I hear about so often are a symptom of our failure to connect to one another as humans. More time doing that, less Minecraft.
Whitelists and Blacklists
I’ve thought about the possible ways forward. One would be to better train teachers and parents in constructive ways to use the technology we have available. Policing is not possible. The children have more free time and are more comfortable with technology than your average parent or teacher. We can’t win that battle. We need to show children how to use it constructively in positive ways and when to use it, or they’ll figure out how to use it destructively on their own.
The other option is to put in place harder limits. Instead of blacklists banning access to sites such as Wikipedia, Reddit and Pornhub, you could instead use whitelists where only specific domains can be accessed. That puts stricter limits on what content can be accessed. This weekend we heard from students from nearby districts that have more comprehensively locked down their systems. The advantage – definitely safer. The disadvantage – it widens the technology divide. My son has a Switch, XBox, phone, and PC, all of which can access Youtube and Wikipedia for anything he might want to know. But other children in the district may have access to few or no systems beyond their school-issued Chromebook. Having access to this system and not having it locked down completely is an important equalizer between the haves and the have-nots.
I always come down on the side of enlightenment rather than throwing up walls or falling back on punishment. More training is needed – for parents and teachers. Parents should have a clearer understanding than they do of how much the school district can do to enforce the school’s computer policy. But rather than locking down more, its time to free Wikipedia and think more intentionally about what computers in the classroom are for.
I’ve had conversations with people at WSSD lately about advisory committees. The township has many committees to advise it on matters environmental, planning, historical, arboreal, etc. I posted just yesterday about the county’s sustainability committee as another example. Technology might be an example of an issue where an advisory committee of parents, technology experts (we have many in NP) and students may help guide the district’s technology decisions better than the seemingly whack-a-mole strategy that’s currently employed by the overstretched district staff.