DAILY INSIGHT: Tragedy and technology: What roles should schools play?

By Carl Hooker, CIO Advisor

The Boston Marathon bombing was a tragic event for a myriad of reasons. Attack on our own soil adds a layer of harsh reality. Whether it be an international faction or a domestic “lone wolf” at the heart of the attack, we are left to deal with the aftermath. I was teaching first grade on September 11, 2001 and remember the day as if it were yesterday. Teachers coming in and giving me updates (via television) about what was happening. Me trying to keep a “game face” on with my students even when my own worst fears were creeping into my mind. The reality hitting all of us when we took our kids outside to recess and noticed the strangely silent sky as all air traffic had been grounded.

We all have stories about that day and until yesterday’s events in Boston, I didn’t think much of the effects of our technology integration tying to these national disasters. However, when every student in your school district has a portal to the Internet in their hands, there has to be a discussion about what is our role in this? I’m not sure there is a right answer to this question. What age is it appropriate for kids to “discover” the carnage of reality? We can’t shield them forever and teachable moments are important, but how do we as a school district set that level of “old enough to understand.”

My first answer is: That’s a parent’s decision and not ours. However, with 1:1 and BYOD access, that line has been blurred when we welcome and encourage technology usage in our schools. We play a role in how information is being monitored and guided with our kids. I had a middle school principal call me today to ask if we should consider “turning off the Internet” if a tragic event of the 9/11 scale ever happens again, god forbid.

I had two responses to that request. The first was: “Yes! We need to shield/protect our kids from this in whatever way possible.” The second response was: “I wonder if others out there have considered this already?” Feeling that my first response was more based on emotion than logic, I took to twitter. Here are a few of the discussion points brought back my way and some of my non 140-character responses.

I’ll address this point a little later, but Chris is right, if students want to find something inappropriate on the Internet, they can. Us blocking them on their school-issued device may make us feel better and think we did the right thing but….

To Vin’s point, they all have the access available to them through other means. Maybe us turning off the Internet isn’t enough, especially with older students. Better for us to take the lead in learning and adjusting to tragic events rather than just turning a blind eye?

These are both understatements and also harsh reality. These stories become such big deals in our news and online world because they are rare. However, I wonder (and worry) a bit about how desensitized we and our kids have become? Not saying the media is solely to blame for this, but think about how prevalent death, dismemberment, explosions, etc., are in our media culture? Heck, I’m a zombie-show lover myself but I can feel the difference between the reality of yesterday and what’s on a show. I spoke with my boss about this and he brought up the Kennedy assassination. He said no one had ever seen anything like that before. When Jack Ruby shot Oswald on live national television, it was completely un-fathom-able. Is that not the case anymore?

Laura is an 1:1 elementary teacher. The elementary setting is a lot more controlled in terms of access to technology and smartphones aren’t quite as rampant. Turning off the Internet (or WiFi likely) at that level, especially at the time immediately following an event, could avoid any chance lasting images a child may stumble across. At any rate, her response made me harken back to my 9/11 experience. The teachable moment has a lot of value and I think as a parent, I want to have that discussion with my child even if just to soften the blow of reality.

I think Lucas and Renaud land on a solution that makes the most sense. With the older students (middle school to high school), we need to be there to support in the moment as well as the day after when it’s on every students’ mind. Validation of resources, historical attacks, and in some cases, rumor control, are all important discussions to have with your students during moments like this.

So it appears that there is not a true “right answer” to this other than we need to be aware and ready to leap into action should a crisis happen. That could mean restricting some level of access at the elementary level or having the teachers prepared to change plans when looking at their tech-integration lessons. I do think at all levels a crisis plan for student access should be discussed. Staff need to be prepared and ready to discuss when unfortunate moments in our history happen. It’s our job to not only protect our nation’s most valued resources, but also to teach them when tragedy strikes.

Thanks to my Twitter PLN for their viewpoints: @rbolsjoly, @jacobtech, @kreyus, @profvinnycho @wrightsbatclass, @KSLibraryGuy

Please add to the discussion by commenting your thoughts below. Thanks.

Carl Hooker is director of instructional technology at Eanes ISD in Texas and blogs at Hooked on Innovation, where this is cross posted.