Online Education and Censorship: Bryce Hartranft

Issues of censorship in school have been long debated. Should teachers be able to talk about evolution? Is Huckleberry Finn's use of the N-word too strong for children? Should the past transgressions of America be included in modern textbooks? All of these questions and their subsequent decisions affect our teachers, students, schools and communities.

Online education is a new area within education and is increasingly being used as an alternative to traditional forms of schooling. Online education's use of technology, cheap implementation and accessibility make it desirable for schools as a means of alternative education or credit recovery. Our world is constantly shifting towards the use of technology in every facet of life. From ovens that will cook your food for you to phones that connect a person to the remotest parts of the world. Kristmundsson states "the traditional role of the teacher as the 'fountain of knowledge' must be reconsidered as massive amounts of information are readily accessible on the Internet.... With the continued emergence of new technologies, learning will be less about knowledge residing in the head and more about learning the pathways to knowledge" (Kuiper, Volman, Terwel, 2005). Both of these factors: teacher taking a facilitating role and technologies promoting connectivist ideas, support the use of technology in learning and in the workplace. The sooner students become familiar with technology, the better.

Online education is also helpful because of its low relative cost. While individual tuition in online programs may seem expensive, when bought in bulk they are much more competitive with the costs of educating a student in a normal high school. According to my own school's (Rantoul Township High School #193) 2010 report card, the operating cost per student is $10,609 per year. When this is then added to the money the schools loses for a truant student (something that online education can help prevent), the cost saving abilities of online education start to accumulate.

Another great feature of online curricula is that they are able to be accessed from any location with internet connectivity - whether that be at school or at home. By use of cloud computing, schools do not need to install any special software and can give their students the option of working from home as well. This accessibility promotes constant contact between the student and the material, thus eliminating downtime in which material can be lost or forgotten.

As useful as online education is, however, it has not been examined critically through the lens of censorship and how the information is presented to students. As Kristmundsson stated, by using online education, teachers are no longer the main dispensers of information, but instead, have been replaced by text or video based lessons which may or may not include all of the information. It is the goal of this section to give educators an idea of the strengths and constraints of using online education and how censorship of information affects student performance.

Examples of Online Education

In order to have a focused and concise discussion of the topic, for the purposes of this section, online education will be defined as any web-based programs that are used by students to gain credits and that are not directly led by a human instructor. This definition eliminates software that must be installed, online practice games that do not garner credits and any online programs that are led by human instructors such as those that can be found at many of today's colleges (CTER, University of Phoenix, etc.). By making this distinction, we will be able to have a much more focused investigation. Here are some examples of what constitutes online education:

Edoptions: A Case Study

In order to give the reader and in-depth view of online education, Edoptions will be used as an example. Therefore, it will benefit the reader to have an understanding of what a student's activities would look like on a day-to-day basis while using the program.

  • A user starts by logging-in at
    • Once again, note that this log-in could be done anywhere that the student has internet access, even on a phone.
  • Once logged in, the user will be presented with a screen listing all the classes they are currently taking.
    • These classes are added by local school administrators that know which classes the student needs.
    • On this screen there are also links to change options, review current grade reports and send email within the system - even to a teacher about a specific question or problem.
  • The user has his or her choice of whichever class he or she would like to work on.
    • Most classes are set up in a binary fashion with lessons (readings) followed by submissions (questions on the readings) - about 18 of each.
      • Students can have both pages up at the same time in order to prevent cognitive overload from having to click back and forth between reading and questions.
    • There is no required path to complete a class.
      • Students can complete the submissions in any order they choose, even backwards if they prefer it.
      • Some student prefer to focus on one class, while others like to work on many different classes at the same time.
      • The speed at which a student completes submissions is determined only by themselves and so if a student really applies him or herself, sometimes classes can be completed very rapidly.
        • I have seen some students complete a class in a day while it takes others weeks or months.
      • These freedoms help students take control of their own learning.
    • When a student completes a submission:
      • The computer auto-grades the multiple choice questions.
      • Any open-ended or subjective questions must be graded by an instructor by logging in as well.
        • The program offers recommended "correct" answers, but in the end, it is up to the instructor.
      • When a submission is done grading, the student can immediately go back, see what they missed and what the correct answer is
        • Instructors have the option of leaving feedback or recommendations for the student to see also.
      • If a submission's score is low or if an instructor wants the student to try it again, the instructor can "reset" the submission and the student can redo it.
        • The amount of resets is limited only by how much the instructor wants to do it.
    • Many classes have midterms half-way through the submission and most have a final at the end.
      • These assessments are made up of questions drawn randomly from the submissions.
      • Students are not allowed to use the lessons during midterms and finals, in fact, once an assessment has been open, that is the only thing the student can get to in the class.
    • In order to pass the class, the average score of the submissions and assessments must be above whatever the school considers failing.

Throughout this entire process, what the student reads and answers is controlled by Edoptions and its staff that creates the lessons and submissions. Below we will take a look at ways for online education to avoid becoming entangled in censorship - both political and cultural.

Why does censorship of student material exist?

For right now, this discussion will not consider the varying degrees of censorship as good or bad. Instead, this section will simply admit that censorship exists in a multitude of different levels and to examine why that is.

In terms of education, there are two reasons that information might be withheld from students. Johnathan Bignell states that children and their interaction with media is a matter of discourse and action, neither of which children have a role in. Children are merely the receivers of whatever adults decide (pre-digested culture), which in turn is influenced by social and cultural assumptions about media. This reveals one of the reasons that censorship is employed: to protect the "immoral and suggestible" child or student from ideas that may influence them negatively. This fear of youth corruption stems from "the assumption that the child is determinant of the adult," or in other words, what happens to the child, will determine how the adult ends up. Bignell goes on to say that while it was cinema that started public fears of media contaminating the youth, "each new communication medium has given rise to similar moral panics," including, I would argue, the internet and, thus, online education (Bignell, 2002).

The second reason for the use of online censorship, is that it permits those that make use of it a certain amount of control. Starting with B.F. Skinner in the 1960's, the behaviorist movement introduced the idea of breaking information into small, bite-size chunks and then conditioning students to perform specified, quantifiable and terminal behaviors. This viewpoint was only strengthened by individuals like Leon Lessinger who argued that schools should be held accountable just as factories hold their industrial production standards accountable. In a sense, education had become confused with training. Despite flaws in the argument, teachers and school administrators were held to the strictest standards and this pressure still exists today. With the advent of No Child Left Behind and high stakes testing, censorship and control are seen as methods by which educators can influence student performance and achievement in a manner which will benefit themselves (Saettler, 1990).

With these two influencing factors in mind, let us now turn our attention to forms of censorship which may be found in online education sources.

Forms of Online Censorship

Hero Syndrome

The following is an account from Edoptions US History course about America's first president, George Washington:

Because of his experience as an Army general during the Revolutionary War, many early political leaders felt that George Washington should lead the country. He became the country's first president in 1789. Washington set many precedents for future presidents. For instance, he decided to be addressed as "Mr. President" instead of "Your Majesty" or any other royal name. This was done to show the American people that their new government was not trying to install a monarch, like a king or queen in England. Washington also avoided getting the new United States involved in any serious wars in Europe, mainly between the French and Great Britain. He officially declared American neutrality. Washington retained this stance throughout his presidency. In his Farewell Address, he said that Americans should avoid permanent foreign alliances. During President Washington's first term of office, a commission was formed to draw up plans for the construction of the new capitol along the Potomac River. One of the members of this commission was Benjamin Banneker. Banneker, a free Negro, was a self-taught mathematical genius who had published an almanac, built the first American clock, and become an authority on astronomy. Banneker helped complete the work by drawing up the plans for the new federal city (Edoptions, 2011).

The reader will probably note the many great things that Washington did, including leading the continental army, avoiding pretentious names and avoiding disastrous wars with Europe. It even mentions the fact that while he was president there was a "negro" on a commission that designed Washington D.C. All of these achievements are true and depict Washington as an upstanding gentlemen that overcame difficulties, remained humble and could serve as a role-model for youth. The problem with it, however, is that it is not the whole truth. What the paragraph does not contain is the fact that Washington was a wealthy landowner as the result of owning over 300 slaves.

Now the point of this exercise is not to lambaste good Mr. Washington, but instead to examine a practice within the social sciences in particular, but visible throughout education - "hero syndrome." Hero syndrome is the conscious or unintended censorship of unpleasant facts in order to make a person seem better. It makes sense that such a practice exists in our world of violence, hate and immorality, especially since many students lack good role models at home, why not create a figure that they can look up to? When information is censored from students, however, are they not being set-up for an eventual let-down when they realize that everything they had been taught in school was false? Would it not be better that students are given all the facts up front and a rigorous discussion could be held about why those unpleasant ideas exist? Instead of avoiding it with censorship, students could be taught how to cope with unpleasant information by encountering it and learning to deal with it.

Open Response

The power of discussion in a class room setting cannot be overstated. Discussion actively engages students in the learning process, it allows instructors the chance to perform an informal assessment and grants students invaluable real world experience in participating in debates and exchanges of opinion. While discussion is easy to conduct in a face-to-face atmosphere, it is impossible to have true synchronous discussion in our form of online education because it is a constantly asynchronous environment. The asynchronous nature of Edoptions is great for students that have differing schedules and motivation so that they are able to work whenever they want to, in terms of discussion, however, it is just not possible because they are rarely online at the same time. The power of discussing ideas is no less powerful, however, so as a result, online education has resorted to using open response questions in order to give students the benefits of synchronous discussion. Both methods have students "...applying course content to one's personal life, gaining insight into instructional or psychological processes, or elucidating personal emotional perceptions and reactions..." (Jay and Brooks, 2004). One important issue that arises from this substitution though is students censoring themselves.

While it seems counter-intuitive that a student would use self-censorship, in certain educational situations, students see it as a benefit to their grade. Ava Chandler pointed out, "...the best writing, like the best school work, is always, as always whatever pleases the instructor" (Jay et. al., 2004). Therefore, it makes sense that a student may not respond truthfully in an open answer format, but instead, write whatever he or she thinks the teacher may want. An important question thus arises: when students are asked to write open response questions, are they also being inadvertently asked to censor themselves? Whether educators intend to censor students or not, they should always look at whether they are actually censoring them in the end anyways. Ways to avoid this unintended censorship include having an open discussion with students about honesty and perhaps grading submissions favorably which seem truthful. In the end, however, there is no real way to tell if a student is being truthful or if they are just appealing to their own perceptions of teacher desire. Despite this fact, it is important for educators to be aware of this self-censorship phenomenon.

Restricted Sources

A major question for educators is how to introduce students to quality sources that will provide useful information while challenging preconceived notions. There are two extremes in the spectrum of source selection: teachers can be restrictive by allowing students to choose from only a few hand-picked selections or be very open by allowing students to pick any source source that they want. Both have benefits and limitations, being restrictive prevents from choosing poor quality sources, but it also eliminates the opportunity for them to learn from choosing their own sources. Students that pick all of their own sources, on the other hand, may gain valuable experience from selecting sources, but there is no guarantee that these sources will be quality ones.

Online education is not immune from the dilemma of source selection either. It might seem obvious that an online education website like EdOptions would use the power of their internet to their own advantage, but was discussed earlier, just because there are good sources out there, does not mean that students will find them. In fact, as Kuiper, Verman and Terwel point out, "...students...may appear to be learning with the help of the Web when in fact all they are doing is gathering information without processing it into understanding and insight." Therefore, while online education may take place online, it is subject to many of the same decisions that teachers in a traditional class room face: how much structure and scaffolding to provide to students while working with sources of information. EdOptions uses textbook style sources written expressly for the program. As a result, students rarely have any choice in the information which they use, which links EdOptions very closely to the extreme of restrictive control and in a sense, information censorship (Kuiper et. al., 2005).

Arguments Against Censorship

As mentioned in the Why Censorship Exists section, there are two main reasons for why educators either intentionally or unintentionally use censorship in the class room: the idea that students need to be protected and the issue of control. This section will now examine how censorship puts students at a disadvantage and promotes intolerance.

It makes sense that conscientious parents and educators would want to look out for young students so as to make sure that they are not viewing something that they would find trouble coping with and that may affect their future actions. In reality, however, much of the research that supports claims that children can be strongly influenced by media are rather dubious. As Bignell writes: "The view that children are prone to imitative violence claims support from methodologically dubious research over a long period, mainly from the USA. Work by researchers such as Bandura and Himmelwhite and others gave credence to this view, despite highly questionable methods of gaining evidence, and arbitrary interpretations of child behaviour" (Bignell, 2002). In addition, when children interact with media, they are partaking in a process of identity creation. Just as children learn language by watching their parents, children are able to observe culture by viewing media and finding their role within society. The obvious retort to the theory of identity creation is that if students view inappropriate material, they will create an inappropriate identity for themselves. Quite to the contrary, however, when children choose to experience adult themes, it is "in order to test their own maturity at coping with troubling emotions" and "[t]his achieved partly by gaining the understanding of modality which will allow them to repudiate and manage these emotions...and the awareness of modality is itself a characteristic of 'adult' relationships with media texts" (Bignell, 2002). Ironically, by censoring and blocking media content, parents and educators actually make students more susceptible to inappropriate content because they are not prepared to recognize the various modes which exist in life (such as inappropriate and appropriate) and differentiate between them.

When viewing history, it is clear that societies like Socrates' Greece, Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union that promoted censorship also were notorious for taking rights away from the people. Greece was known for its ob rule, the Nazis burned books and Stalin not only killed his enemies, but he erased them from history as well. Busha's study in 1970 showed that when students are asked for their opinions on censorship, "those students whose opinions scored high on a censorship scale would also score high on the authoritarianism scale." This begs the question: when educators censor material from students, are we encouraging authoritarian ideals? Also, re not these authoritarian ideals directly contradictory with the American values of liberty freedom and justice? Busha goes on to say "the authoritarian type is driven by the fear of being weak and displays an intolerance of ambiguity." As shown in the previous paragraph, when students interact with media content, they are testing themselves, creating their own identity and gaining an understanding of modality - all of which are very ambiguous traits and skills. Rather than showing intolerance for the ambiguous process of identity creation, educators should be encouraging students to explore the world around them, even if it is a bit messy. After all, life is rarely clear cut and the sooner students get used to working with a messy world, the better.