Day: July 11, 2009

The Case for Email Literacy

The image below is deliberately blurred as there are some terms in there that are offensive and this high quality blog doesn’t use potty mouth.  <grin>

It’s Sunday morning, and I’m doing some cleanup and maintenance on various accounts and things that I use so that things are relatively organized to make my time online productive.  Part of this means cleaning out mailboxes.  This seems like a never ending task but it’s necessary.  If you don’t, you can easily reach storage limits and have your account suspended or even worse.In this case, I’m clearing out my Hotmail account.  What’s unique about this free account is that I don’t share the email address with anyone – it’s not on a website, blog, or any other resource.  I don’t use the account for general email; it’s just an area where my family can send me email and I can log into Windows Live services like Bing.And yet, the spammers and garbage senders from the web have found this account.

The content filter has correctly identified the garbage above and appropriately files it in the Junk box.  Thankfully, content filters stop these type of messages from clogging up the main mailbox but they are kept around just in case a message gets flagged inappropriately.  It’s good practice to take a quick skim through the messages periodically in case something gets targeted inappropriately.

The spammers have tried their best to avoid the filters – replacing the letter i with the digit 1; replacing the letter o with the digit 0; misspelling words so that they won’t get caught in a dictionary check and yet you still recognize what the word is.

Windows Live Mail
Image by niallkennedy via Flickr

So, I do my quick skim and was about to blow them all away when I started to think about what a student would do.  From the email address, you’d have no idea if I was me, or a business using this account, or a 12 year old student.  Spammers don’t really care – they just want their message delivered and if you’re naive enough, for you to open it and click on a link because your credit card has been compromised or you have a health problem that needs fixing or you’ve got contact from a long-lost relative or you’ve won some sort of lottery.  While it may be amusing at one level, it can be very serious at another.  For all of the millions of pieces of junk mail navigating the internet, the goal is to get a couple of people to get curious and click through to get taken advantage of.

How does education handle this?  Often, quite badly.  Use a content filter to block or filter this stuff so that it’s not visible and therefore doesn’t exist.  Don’t give students email accounts so that the opportunity doesn’t present itself.  Run a simulation to show what “might” happen.  All of the techniques might have some educational value but how effective is it?

Students go home to the family computer and go online real time.  With real email accounts and accepting real internet traffic, they deal with these issues on their own.  A simplistic solution is to say “Where are the parents?”  “Why aren’t they supervising online activities?”  These are very simplistic, passing the buck solutions and don’t really address the situation.  Parents aren’t experts – many did not grow up with email and may be just as naive as their children.

Education has taken on some very serious societal issues in the past.  Sex education, addressing drug use, bullying, etc. are now an accepted part of the curriculum.   Progressive educators are finding ways to incorporate email and other online literacies in the classroom.  It’s time that this become a serious topic covered in all classes, every year, so that we raise literate online citizens.

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