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April 19, 2012

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Interview | Watching Over Your Gaggle With Jeff Patterson

Interview | Watching Over Your Gaggle With Jeff Patterson

As the founder of Gaggle.Net, Inc., Jeff Patterson has led the company’s technology team for the past 9 years and is well-versed in the intersection of media literacy and web security. He is also the creator of numerous educational software programs; his products include Sound Companion for HyperStudio, Lesson Plan Helper, The Reading Success for Kids series, Sound Effects and Music Loops for Multimedia, HyperStudio Project Resource Kit, and Sweet Digizine. He is also co-founder of Pixel Genius Entertainment, Inc. Here, Internet@Schools sits down with Jeff and talks tech.

You’ve been involved in edtech for a long time now and have accomplished quite a bit for students and learning. What does “media literacy” mean to you? What is it, can you give an overview or a brief history of it from your perspective, and why is it so important now more than ever?

Jeff: Media literacy means how you interpret the information that you’re getting—how you find it, how you interpret it—how you validate it. So from that standpoint, it’s a very relevant topic. In a way, how you find it … that is no longer the challenge. Thatthe big change. When you’re talking about the past, you’re talking all about libraries and card catalogs. It was hard to find the information when I was a kid. Now, there’s an abundance of information. It’s hard to determine whether it’s accurate information, authoritative information and then to interpret that information.

That said, then you combine the idea that our entertainment is really merged with media literacy. When you go to YouTube, is that entertainment? Or is that information that you’re getting? When I go look up a drink recipe—and this might not be the best educational example—but when I go look up a drink recipe on YouTube, I’ll find several different examples, and the one that I probably watch to the end is some guy who is kind of entertaining as he shows me how to mix the latest chocolate margarita. That would be how I would describe what media literacy is.

One of the challenges—we always struggle with this—is, what is really accurate information? What is the right information and the relevant information. Those are big challenges, and how to interpret what it means. So sometimes it can be a real challenge to look for.

For example, it’s the new year, and I’m looking to lose a little bit of weight. I pulled out the old bathroom scale, and every time I get on it, within a 5-minute period, it will show a variance of 3 pounds, and it’s just frustrating. So I’ve been Googling bathroom scales and accuracy, and I can find out all sorts of new scales to buy, but to find out why my bathroom scale doesn’t work right is hard.

So to me, literacy is being able to find the right relevant information and interpret it; who’s trying to sell me something, who has an agenda. Those are real challenges, even for us well-educated adults.

Considering children and the internet, even middle grade students and high schoolers and the internet—how is media literacy closely related to web security?

Jeff: Old-school web security was all about blocking students from getting to something bad. While I still think that’s important and relevant, that’s not where the real security concern is now. The real concern is still about preventing them from reaching bad things, but it’s really about the appropriateness of the things they are doing.

It’s one thing to prevent them from getting on a racy website, but it’s even more important to prevent them from posting something inappropriate about themselves. I find that’s a bigger and bigger issue, where students are texting sexy pictures of themselves or posting something to Facebook that’s inappropriate that’s going to haunt them later. I would define web security as personal security. I also think that bullying is a big issue, and how do we control the bullying, because the reality is that things that happen online have offline consequences.

For my company, that whole idea of student safety and security, that’s what we’re built on. There are plenty of open source and commercially available tools out there that can do powerful things for students, but there can be negative consequences. And for school districts to put students on these systems, they put themselves at risk.


What are a few vital elementsto web security for schools?

Jeff: The first is blocking inappropriate things, whether that be text or images. We have an antipornography scanner that will literally look at two pictures, and it can tell the difference between kids in bathing suits and pornographic images—whether that’s an attachment inside of a PowerPoint or a single image on a webpage, it can tell the difference to prevent the students from being exposed to those types of things.

Accountability becomes a crucial element. You actually can’t block and police everything, but if we know we’re being held accountable for our actions, then most people have a tendency to police themselves and make good choices. Sometimes that’s just a matter of knowing that someone can watch. So an important element for us is to be able to quickly, as an educator or administrator, review what a student or even a fellow educator has been doing.

A third aspect for us is a little more proactive. We have a service called our human monitoring service. Any time a student posts to a blog, sends a message to a social wall, saves a digital locker file, or sends an email that has something questionable in it, it gets blocked or rerouted to one of our trained employees to review that content.

Sometimes it’s something innocuous or a false positive, or maybe it’s something that just gets deleted or unblocked and is allowed to be posted. Sometimes it’s a student using inappropriate language, and they get a warning. Sometimes it’s something more serious related to drug use or violence that could be taking place or students who were contemplating suicide or abuse. In those circumstances, we will contact a district.

So we believe strongly that the things that happen online affect the real world. We’re looking for ways to make positive outcomes out of potentially negative ones. Starting July 1 this year—we’re announcing it now—we’ll be including the [human monitoring] service free for all of our subscribing customers.

Up until this point, we’ve had a select number of schools and districts that have purchased this service separately. The biggest impediment to its use is the teachers feeling like they have to police something. But what they really want is just to know that their students are safe, that they can use it appropriately, and that they don’t have to worry. So that’s why we’re turning it on. There may be some school districts that choose to turn it off, which is an option. A few schools out there feel their teachers need to be on top of these things, but we’ve found that it’s better to get a consistent application of the monitoring.


What are some examples of media literacy and web security working together?

Jeff: There are a number of different tools inside of Gaggle, including a social wall, file storage, and blogs. One of the tools we added about a year ago is a filtered YouTube—we call it GaggleTube. It’s all the YouTube videos, but everything that’s inappropriate is filtered out. This allows students at a school that blocks YouTube to come to Gaggle, search for a video inside of Gaggle, and then we go and pull back all the YouTube results, filter out all the results that would not be appropriate in a K–12 setting, and then allow the student to continue using YouTube content to learn how to tap dance, solve a quadratic equation, or see the latest funny video. There is all sorts of great content on YouTube, but you have to have the literacy … or the knowledge to know which things are appropriate and which are not.

Jeff: It’s exposure to things that a student is not ready for. If you’re not aware of the things you are seeing, it is easy to get caught up in things that are going to cause conflict between you and other students. [It’s dangerous] not to know whether you are getting accurate information or understanding the agenda of the person who is writing or communicating the information. I think the educator’s role here is to guide the students toward better decisions.


What should educators look for when it comes to a secure web system?

Jeff: The underlying philosophy needs to be about enhancing the classroom and the students’ learning experience, yet keeping them safe. That’s what we have to balance.


Do you have any quirky anecdotes that help capture the importance of media literacyand/or web security?

Jeff: A student from Texas moved to the Memphis City School district last year and was given a Gaggle account—Memphis has Gaggle for all of their students. He was communicating via email with a friend still in Texas who was contemplating suicide and mentioned it in an email sent to the student’s Gaggle account. Our filters caught some keywords in the incoming email, and our Cyber Security Agent notified the district. Memphis was able to determine the other student’s former school and contacted them, alerting them to their student’s mental distress. Although I don’t have specific districts to share, over the years we have identified situations involving students signing up for dating or X-rated sites, as well as cyberbullying, where teachers and administrators were able to intervene.


More generally, what are your thoughts on education these days?

Jeff: We are really at the cusp of some major changes, simply because the ubiquity of the technology, whether it be an iPad, a laptop, or a smartphone. More and more, we are seeing people accept the idea of tools based on the internet that they use to communicate and collaborate. The cost of devices is coming down, and the need for change within our schools is so great that I’m really hoping within the next 2 or 3 years we see mass acceptance.


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