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Responsibility and Trust in Computing

In the comment thread for Wednesday’s post, Hazel pointed out how computers in the classroom are often considered — and often are — a distraction to the lesson at hand. This asks the question, then, of how to help integrate computers with education while minimizing the distraction and temptation.

Interestingly enough, this problem is also paralleled in the area of responsibility with cars, since any parent knows that in granting permission for their teen to drive, they are trusting them not to go speeding around or engage in other such irresponsible behaviors. Of course, some parents react to this by installing GPS units in their child’s car, which allow not only for tracking position, but the rate of change of position (cough, cough, derivative) which tells them how fast the car is going.

Coming full circle, a similar solution has been fielded with at the private school Cary Academy (whose yearly tuition exceeds my annual college expenses — but I digress) where the kids are given tablet laptops for use in class. But with these laptops, the child is kept honest by parental oversight via a mechanism that allows the parents to view a remote (which is to say, not on the computer and therefore immune to tampering by the child) log of the child’s internet use in class.

The problem then becomes an issue of boundaries and trust. For example, it is entirely reasonable for a parent to monitor their child’s in-class browsing, just as it is expected that a parent will keep an eye on their kid on the internet at home. It is even socially acceptable for a parent to log every aspect of the child’s computer use in their leisure time. It’s not a prospect that entirely thrills me, but that’s because my parents never tried to do anything like it to me or my sister. I can’t speak with authority, but I reckon that even if they could have viewed school-provided logs of my internet usage there, they wouldn’t have used them.

And, of course, the reason for that is trust. I was brought up to be responsible and and use my judgment.

On the other hand, there is the case of a former girlfriend of mine. Her father used software and hardware to log her keystrokes and take screen captures of whatever she was doing. But in the nine months that I dated her, I never once met him face to face. If he was trying to protect his daughter from strange people, he sure had a funny way of going about it.

And as one further anecdote, I present my first semester of college, for which I first acquired my laptop. There was always temptation to take it out in class and thumb around the intertubes instead of paying attention. And, sometimes that temptation was succumbed to, with the obvious effects. Of course, no one was accounting for my grades except me, and so I learned the hard way what happens what happens when you don’t pay attention in class. And so these days, I don’t use my laptop as a distraction in class. But that’s not because of a prohibitive edict; instead, it comes from a grasp of the consequences of such actions and an inescapable responsibility for those same consequences.

Since it’s impossible to legislate bad parenting — such as not teaching self-accountability, it seems to me that the Cary Academy approach will and should prevail in the lower grades. I’m sure that printing a student’s top 10 in-class visited sites on the bottom of a report card would probably be more elegant and effective — although I would say putting a hit-count next to each site would probably be necessary to avoid a clever kid from just setting up an auto-refresh to inflate the numbers.

I imagine college will continue largely unchanged from the current order of things in terms of student responsibility. That is, aside from a few patently farcical ideas from professors who wish that the magic wand of technology might be waved and to remove this problem. I’m specifically recalling a report of a professor who wished that he had the equivalent of spyware on his students’ laptops, that he might perpetrate them same invasive surveillance that my ex’s dad did.

And let me be clear here: I am by no means attempting to whitewash this issue and state that it isn’t a problem. At least once a week, the guy in front of me in my math for nerds class plays World of Warcraft through class. Maybe he already knows the material and is just zoning out but sitting in his seat because of the University’s attendance requirement for this level of class. But no one — aside from egotistical professors who require rapt attention at all times — is being hurt by his actions but himself. At a certain point, you have to take off the training wheels and let your kid skin his knees a few times.

And doesn’t it seem like a legal adult who lives independently, feeds himself, and washes his own laundry should be given at least that much?

Categories: Real Life
  1. Hazel
    March 16, 2008 at 6:45 pm

    That is all true, unless the person in question is unable to learn from his mistakes for one reason or another (which would most likely be due to the parenting to begin with). Of course, that brings up a whole new group of issues that make it a far more complicated problem than I could elaborate on in a comment. Since that is the case, I’ll simply say that I do agree with all that you said here, if only to the extent to which you went. Parents and teachers should certainly trust their children, at least once they reach college, to take full responsibility for their own education, even if they do make a few mistakes along the way. I also concur that this should be gradually given throughout the person’s life up to that point so that he may get used to it with support first. After all, everyone messes up a few times when they’re new to something, and self-discipline is no different.

    Also, thanks for the slight reference, though I believe you were the first to bring it up.

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