One in six schools block Wikipedia

This morning’s Sydney Morning Herald ran an education story "Teaching the Facebook Generation". The overall piece looks at how social media impacts on the relationship between students and teachers, and is worth a read to understand some of the issues faced in today’s school environment, where Web 2.0 has both upsides and downsides.

What caught me eye was some numbers on the proportion of Australian schools which block various websites:

  • 86% of schools block Facebook
  • 57% of schools block YouTube
  • 14% of schools block Wikipedia

These stats are from the 2009 report "Web 2.0 site blocking in schools" from the Strategic ICT Advisory Service, which is funded by the Australian Government’s Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.

I understand the block on facebook in schools (although it’s a little futile, because most students who want to can get to it any time that they want from their phone), and I kind of understand the YouTube block (although, some of best educational learning resources, like the 2,000+ videos Khan Academy for maths, get swept up into the all-encompassing ban, depriving students in the classroom of the chance to learn alongside the students who have taken 40 million free lessons on Khan Academy).

What surprised me was that 1 in 6 schools block Wikipedia. Okay, not everything in it is 100% accurate, but researchers have demonstrated it is as accurate as conventional encyclopaedia’s (and Wikipedia itself has an excellent self-reflective article on it’s own accuracy). My daughter came home from school with a project on Antartica exploration, with specific instructions from her teacher that she must not use Wikipedia for her research.

What worries me is that we’re already falling behind with testing students for the skills needed for the 21st Century workplace – but are the technology restrictions meaning that we are also failing to teach the skills they need? For example, if so much of modern business involves integrating the web (eg a marketing agency with no skills in social networking will soon be an ex-marketing agency), how do we teach the skills the students will need as they move into the workplace? As businesses create their own internal social networks, wikis and information marketplaces, what’s the correct way for a school to keep up with the skills and technology needed, whilst fulfilling their duty of care to their students.

Most IT managers I’ve met in schools focus on the systems and processes (for example, they think about SharePoint as a way of controlling information flow and processes), whereas exactly the same systems could be turned upside down – put the user in control, and enable social networking and wikis within the safe environment of a school community. Is that what’s happening in most schools? Or is it easy to ban something, but tricky to enable an alternative?