Google has launched a YouTube for Schools service to make educationally relevant videos available for use in school. It's a great idea, but for it to actually be used in schools, many districts around the country will have to modify their filters to allow teachers to access at least this portion of YouTube.
Most schools have some type of filters in place designed to block pornography and other inappropriate material, and it's common for these filters to also block social media, including all of Facebook, MySpace and YouTube. Schools that accept federal E-rate funding are required to block materials that are obscene, depict child pornography or are harmful to minors -- but there is nothing in the federal rules that require schools to block social media.
Treat social media like books and sports
It's a good thing schools don't treat books and sports the way most treat social media.
There have always been books that are inappropriate for a school setting. But rather than ban all books, schools allow the ones that support their curricula and encourage children to explore literature in general. When it comes to sports, schools recognize that there are dangers -- every year, lots of children are injured and some die from sports related injuries. But rather than ban sports, schools embrace them and make sure that kids have good coaches, safety equipment and rules to ensure fair play.
Of course we could just let the kids play in the street without any training, Of course we could just let the kids play in the street without any training, supervision or mandatory safety equipment. That's how many schools approach social media -- including such things as videos on YouTube or resources on social networking sites.
It's not as if kids are staying away from social media just because they can't use it at school. They're using it at home, at friends' houses and -- via their mobile devices -- anywhere they happen to be. It's not as if kids are staying away from social media just because they can't use it at school. They're using it at home, at friends' houses and -- via their mobile devices -- anywhere they happen to be. Their non-school hours are filled with use of technology and social media. Maybe schools ought to put a sign at the front gate that reads, "You are now leaving the 21st century."
Teachers and parents as social media partners
It's time for teachers -- and parents -- to become young people's partners in the use of social media. Just as we teach reading and supplement the use of books with great mentors in the classroom and encourage fair play and skill development with coaches on the athletic field, we need to incorporate educators into our kids' use of social media.
I'm not suggesting that kids be allowed to polish off their Facebook profiles in school or dish the dirt with their online friends while they should be paying attention in class. But completely blocking domains like Facebook.com or YouTube.com denies kids access to some incredibly useful material.
There are thousands of Facebook pages dedicated to a wide variety of subjects that can be used in schools. If you search for "Facebook education," you'll find links to numerous ways that Facebook and other social media can help teachers supplement their existing materials. One article that comes up in that search, "100 Ways You Should be Using Facebook in Your Classroom" lists some incredibly useful projects like encouraging kids to follow news feeds relevant to course material, share book reviews, practice a foreign language, create their own news source, keep up with politicians, post class notes, brainstorm and lots more.
Even more than Facebook, Google's YouTube can be an incredibly useful resource in school. Sure, there are plenty of inappropriate videos on the user-supplied service. But there is also a wealth of resources from a very wide variety of sources, including the Smithsonian Institution, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, UC Berkeley, PBS, TEDTalks and the amazing educational videos from Kahn Academy, which are used in schools throughout the world. You can find some of this material -- along with tips on how to use YouTube in the classroom -- at YouTube.com/teachers.
Because many schools simply ban YouTube, these incredible resources are not available for use in the classroom. Kids can watch them at home or on the way to school via the mobile devices, but not on school computers. Preventing distractions such as videos of cats dancing on a piano or keeping kids from age-inappropriate videos in school makes sense, but not at the expense of preventing kids and teachers from accessing a vast library of educationally sound videos.
As part of the launch of "YouTube for Schools" (schools can sign up at youtube.com/schools), Google is encouraging school districts to open up their filters so that teachers can access YouTube.com/edu. Hopefully school administrators will see the value in this and find ways to unblock at least this portion of YouTube.
Disclosure: Larry Magid is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a nonprofit Internet safety organization that receives financial support from Facebook and Google.
This article also appeared in the San Jose Mercury News and on SafeKids.com.