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Insight, Anger, Hope

posted Mar 29, 2012, 12:48 PM by Eddie Woo   [ updated Mar 29, 2012, 12:49 PM ]
Yesterday, for the first time, I addressed the whole school at a formal assembly. It was probably one of the most important things I've ever done in my role as the school's intranet co-ordinator. It was difficult for me - though I'm quite used to speaking in front of large groups of people, I've never presented something quite like this before. Therefore as I prepared, I kept on second-guessing myself and scrapping what I had written in order to start again. Then, when I got up to actually speak, I was uncertain of how people would respond - indeed, I didn't even have a clear idea in my head of how I thought they ought to respond! So this wasn't easy. But I'm still really glad I did it.

I've included below the full text of my speech, just for posterity's sake.


I’m here to speak to you today because of my role as the intranet co-ordinator here at school. That sounds boring. So to make things less boring and more interesting, I’m going to tell you a story. It’s a story that will give you some insight into things you normally don’t think about. It’s a story that ought to make you angry. And it’s a story that should give you hope. Insight. Anger. Hope. Ready? Here we go.

Insight: the story so far

The story begins about four years ago, not long after I started teaching here. Partly because it’s my job, and partly just because I’m a nerd, I spend time looking around at different bits of technology that could help teachers teach better and students study better. So in 2008, I discovered this thing called Google Docs. For those who aren’t familiar with Docs, just picture starting a document in Microsoft Word - but imagine that while you’re typing in one section, your friend next to you on another computer can type in the same document at the same time. In fact, your friend in another room can do it too. Even your friend in another country can do it if you’re coordinated enough with your time zones!
Sounds great, right? One problem: it was blocked by the web filter installed by the Department of Education. Even though teachers were able to get to more websites than students, even I as a teacher couldn’t use Docs at school. I had to use it at home. So I took Docs and I filed it away in the “too hard” basket.

Fast forward a year. I came back to my “too hard” basket and remembered Google Docs. I thought to myself, you know what? This is a great tool. And it sucks that we can’t use it. This is worth making some noise about. So that’s what I did. I contacted the people who manage the web filter and after many weeks of back-and-forth explaining, negotiating and compromising, Docs was unblocked for teachers. But you still didn’t have access.

Things stayed that way for about two years. So now our story is up to 2011. After all this waiting, we were finally able to arrange a trial, along with three other schools in NSW, to give students access to Docs. The idea was to use it here and show how awesome it is for schools, so that we could gather evidence and make a case for the rest of the state to have it unblocked. So we were the guinea pigs.

And the trial went well. Big important people came and visited us, conducted surveys and interviews and grilled us with questions. It was time consuming, but it was worth it. The evidence looked so strong that the Department was willing to let us continue to have access to Docs even though the trial was over. So at this very moment, you are one of only four schools in the state that can use Google Docs at school, because we participated in this trial.

Anger: recent events

So that gives you some insight into my job and into the things that happen behind the scenes with technology. That brings us up to today. A few weeks ago, I was told about a group of students who had started using Docs as a common space for keeping notes on the lessons that they had each day. When I heard this, it made complete sense. Just ask anyone in my IPT classes, they can tell you all about how we do this all the time in our lessons. And it’s a really good way to do things. If you miss the teacher explaining something, or you’re away one day, or just to help you keep yourself organised – taking notes together like this is a really smart idea.

Sadly, the reason I was told about this group is not because of the great work they were doing. These students had been working on Google Docs when one of them decided to use that common space to put up an image containing a sexual joke at the expense of someone else in the group, and then make a religious insult toward someone else.

Now, I want to pause at this moment and ask you to reflect on what you’re feeling right now. What emotions are swirling around inside you right now? Are those emotions any different now that you’ve gained some insight into how this story began? Let me tell you what was going on in my head. I was angry. I am angry. 

Now, I don’t mean, “angry because my YouTube video is taking more than ten seconds to load”. And I don’t mean, “angry because my thighs still hurt even though the cross country was two days ago”. (Okay, maybe that’s just me.) I mean, “angry because something is wrong – because something isn’t the way it should be”. Have you ever felt that way? You should. There are lots of things out there in the world that are wrong. That’s why we it’s so good that we have a social justice committee. If you’re not angry, you either don’t know or don’t care. And neither of those is excusable.

I haven’t even mentioned the fact that most (if not all) of this was taking place on the new school laptops. You know, those ones you got given? For free? My older brother and I saved up for three years to buy our first computer. We combined all our money together and the best computer we could afford was... well, let’s just put it this way. If I compare the speed of your laptops to a runner, like say, Mudith... then my computer was like a rock. That sits on the ground. And doesn’t move.

Now, that’s funny, right? But honestly, it just goes to show you what a phenomenal gift you and your generation have received. A gift that others have worked so hard for. A gift that, in the case of Google Docs, I personally worked so hard for. So to hear how those gifts were being abused - how they were being used not to help people learn better but to insult and bully people - well, how does that make you feel? 

In my case, I didn’t just feel angry. I felt betrayed. I felt as though I had just spent years of my life working in a remote African village to build a massive underground pump and a plumbing system so that people could have fresh, running water in their houses for free. So they wouldn’t have to walk two kilometres through the deadly heat to go to some well and pump up a few litres of dirty stuff that they had to lug back home. And then to hear that the villagers weren’t using it for bathing or washing or drinking. Instead, some of the villagers were using it for waterboarding. Do you know what waterboarding is? It’s a form of torture, used to aid illegal interrogations, where the victim continually experiences the sensation of drowning. In undeveloped areas it’s very popular because it leaves no incriminating marks on the body and, as the name suggests, all you need is water.

So that gives you a sense of how I felt when I discovered this was happening. And I hope you are feeling a bit of it too. I hope hearing this makes you angry. I hope hearing this make you say, “This is wrong. This shouldn’t be. This should never have happened.”

Sadly, the fact is that it did happen. And before you think to yourself, “Oh well, that’s over and done with, I wonder what classes I have on after lunch...”, you need to realise that we are all in on this. I bear responsibility for this due to my role in making the tool available to you. And you bear a responsibility too. You see, the most tragic part of this story is that though this happened in full view to a whole group of people, the person who finally reported this to Ms. Connors and I was one of the victims. No one else came forward. In fact, instead of coming forward, the bystanders just tried to remove evidence of their involvement in the document. (That’s impossible, by the way.) 

See, that’s incredibly disappointing. Can you imagine being out in the playground watching someone get harassed and beaten up – then just walking away from the scene and acting as if you saw nothing? You see, this is not just about the one person whose idea it was to use Docs this way. This is about all of us who were standing around passively watching and not saying anything about it. This is about all of us who have, whether we intended to or not, created a culture where people can think it’s okay to walk away and pretend nothing happened.

Hope: a vision for the future

Well, this has been a pretty unpleasant speech so far. And there’s a good reason for that. These are unpleasant realities and confronting them is not supposed to be fun. But where do we go from here? What are we supposed to do? I’ve shared some insight, and I’ve tried to make you angry for the right reasons. I want to end by giving you hope.

When all these events unfolded recently, I had to decide what to do. And honestly, for a very brief moment, I empathised with those guys who run the Web Filter, because I could imagine them saying: “I told you so. This is why we blocked it. We knew this would happen. Now look what you’ve done.” But at the same time, I knew that going back and blocking everything again would not work. You see, the web filter was designed as a technology solution to a technology problem. It was built on the assumption that if the problem is related to technology, then the problem can be fixed with technology. But you see, I don’t believe that and I don’t think you do either. This is not a technology problem. It’s a social problem. It’s a people problem. It can’t be fixed with technology. If they tried, you would work out ways to get around it. There are always ways: I know, because it’s my job to find them before you do. 

No, no, there is no technology solution. If it’s a social problem, we need a social solution. The problem is not here (the computer), it’s here (inside us). And so that’s where the solution must be.

So here’s my hope. This is my vision. I have a vision of this school where James Ruse is not just the best academic school in the country. Where James Ruse is not just the home of the greatest musicals ever. Where James Ruse isn’t just the champion of all the zone swimming and athletics and cross countries. I have a vision where James Ruse is the place where people go to see how technology is used right. Where James Ruse is the place people talk about when they discuss how to use technology with integrity. Where James Ruse is filled with students who think really hard, not just about how to get the top marks, but about the impact that our actions have on others. Where James Ruse is the shining example of where we don’t shrink back from difficulty or failure, but we get back up and pursue excellence as a community that uses technology to help each other, not harm each other. Where James Ruse can say, “we are the leaders of the future and its technology”, and back up it with actions not words.

That’s my vision. Will you join me there?