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Sneaking Past the Authoritarian Firewall

By November 9, 2004web-tech

The other day while I was at work my laptop started making an attention-getting noise.  It was my older daughter, who was in school, sending me an instant message asking if I could pick her up at school late so she could work on a play.  After the brief exchange, I reflected on the fact that this communication could only have taken place by instant messaging. 

My daughters’ school has a wireless network and the high school students all have Wi-Fi enabled laptops that are used for their classes.  Of course, they also use the computers for the usual other fun stuff, like instant messaging.  In addition to computers, the girls in high school are all packing cellphones.  Obviously, the school doesn’t want to allow kids to make or receive cellphone calls during school.  So, even though all the girls in high school have cellphones, they can’t use them during school.

But they can instant message.  How is that possible?  Why would the school allow instant messaging, but not cellphones?  The school doesn’t allow instant messaging, and actually blocks the port typically used for sending instant messages.  But my daughter learned from one of the Juniors how to find the an open port in the network firewall.  So, armed with this arcane tech knowledge, she can send and receive instant messages while she is at school.  When I asked her how she did this she showed me with great glee, flipping through Windows configuration screens like a professional network administrator.

Again, I was caused to reflect on the social implications of technology.   My daughter has no interest in technology per se.  But she is a communications junkie, and any technical impediment to her communication efforts causes her to learn the technological solution to bypass the impediment.

I don’t think the instant message hack is so terrible, but I’m sure some parents would be horrified (mostly out of a generalized fear of technology, especially the loss of control part of it).  I, however, like the idea that I can quickly communicate with my daughter at school.  She’s a good student and she isn’t likely to be any more distracted because of her ability to instant message than she would be if forced to use other low-tech methods of distraction. 

If her teacher is interesting and engaging then I’m sure she’ll be paying attention.  If the teacher is boring and tries to get attention by demanding it then it won’t matter if the students are sitting on straw mats in an empty room. 

Here are some givens: You can’t force people to pay attention, and you can’t keep young people from communicating at the maximum possible output level. And, on a slightly different note, here’s some other tech-in-education food for thought from an MSNBC article: "in Kyoto, the cell phone culture has generated a new type of university class. Students in more than 52 courses ranging from math to welfare studies at the city’s Bukkyo University almost never speak aloud.  Rather, they e-mail questions and comments from their cell phones to their professors while in class, and professors answer orally."

P.S. If you appreciate these kinds of observations, you might want to read this as well.
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