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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Blocking and Filtering and Lockdowns, Oh, My!: The Internet-Security Overreaction

Chris O'Neal

Educational consultant and former Edutopia.org blogger

This past year, I've been working with school districts and schools in many places, and it's been such a great learning experience as I've had the opportunity to see teachers everywhere doing incredible things, sometimes in spite of very tough testing schedules, complex accountability guidelines, and rigid pacing guides. Still, they carry on, forging ahead, trying out project-based learning, extended multimedia learning units, technology-rich lessons, and so on. One issue that I'm finding proves difficult, however, regardless of where I go, is the Internet-filtering systems in place in some districts.

I understand the whole filtering issue, and I fully support some level of safeguard in classrooms. I also understand we have laws and regulations in place designed to protect children's safety (the Children's Internet Protection Act [CIPA]) and the privacy of our children (the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act [COPPA]). I have a ten-year-old daughter, and I would be very wary of sitting her down in front of a computer and telling her to simply have an unguided search session to see what she can learn. She'd learn lots, no doubt -- lots that I don't care for her to learn just yet, or things I'd rather teach her myself.

However, I'm finding that in some districts and schools, the filtering and blocking system seems to be in overdrive. Teachers tell me regularly that wikis and blogs are blocked across the board, for everyone. This is unfortunate because not only does this prevent our students from using these incredible tools, but our teachers are also unable to take advantage of a brilliant avenue for learning, collaboration, and communication that wasn't possible just a few years back. Some of the best educator blogs are blocked in some schools, and I just can't figure out why.

You know, pencils can be really dangerous, too -- and desks as well. I taught elementary school, and I can't tell you how many times students got stuck by pencil lead and desks fell over. I also can tell you that my own child has seen some strange things while sightseeing in Washington, DC, and other places. But we prep her ahead of time; we talk about what's out there, what's good, what's bad; and we try to impart street smarts. I understand the risk of taking her out in public. I also understand that in order for her to appreciate, use, respect, and harness everything around her, she has to experience it. She has me, her mom, and her wonderful teachers to help guide her along the way.

I think educators are pretty smart people. We figure out ways to use new things in our classrooms in spite of their potential risks. We set up expectations, rules, and consequences. I know I'm oversimplifying this issue a little, but the point remains the same: It's 2007, and blogs, wikis, and the like are powerful tools that need to be a part of our classrooms. Students are using these outside the classroom, so why not find an educational, productive way to allow them inside? This would give us a chance to impart some media smarts while taking advantage of some pretty powerful tools. For example, check out this interesting use of wikis in the classroom.

Share your stories, reactions, and experiences with finding the balance between blocking and unlocking. What works? How do we comply with CIPA but not put a total lockdown in place that prevents teachers and students from accessing critical learning tools?

Chris O'Neal

Educational consultant and former Edutopia.org blogger
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Comments (24)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Lyn Barber's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I understand that someone needs to monitor the use by students. That someone should be the person teaching the class where the use is in progress. Our District is so locked down that last year I could not get on DNAI.org or Nature.com or genome.gov. The decision was unilateral by the IT department manager and left out all teachers. The day before this went into effect I had worked in the media center with my 5 classes of 28 students each to use DNAI.org to build messenger RNA and protein and to begin the discussion of the mystery of the Romanovs. I had only one day in the media center so I planned to finish the lesson the following day in class using my own computer and projector, accessing the internet and projecting it on the screen for discussion. My first period class was so excited to find out whether or not Anna Anderson was Anastasia, they kept saying "Hurry!"....I got on the internet and went to the site only to find "access denied." The previous night they put the block into place. My students were deflated. Teachers work so hard to get that level of engagement and then, without so much as a by-your- leave, "POP" ....deflated. The rest of the classes quickly heard that access was out. Very quiet classes that day. Now I only use CDs or downloads that I can run and project from my computer. They have put up more blocks that willnot allow me to get my computer on-line. It is hard to get them engaged the first time. Like any other person once their hopes are up and then dashed, it is harder still to get them up again. I have often wondered how the IT manager would like it if I blocked access by his techs to all the geek/repair sites (I'm a former computer person) without telling him. He would be rightfully angry. I am passed angry now, just totally frustrated.
Richard's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I can't see the example of wikis at school. It is blocked. The idea of a different set of blocks for students and teachers is a good idea. The bottom line is the one size fits all mentality that will prevent multiple filters in most school districts. For example, last year the Toyota Grants page was blocked! If you want to complain about a block on our system, there is no direct link on our server. You need to use a phone to start the process!!
Amy Barto's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I have begun exploring wikispaces with my students after reading a previous article in an edutopia newsletter and I am very excited! Of course, we ran into the issues discussed in this article, particularly since I work with students with learning disabilities so privacy is an issue. We use it as a support for the classroom and to support communication with parents. For my students, becoming proficient with supportive technology can be vital to their success in school (and life) so while we are finding ways to be very careful with their access and the access of others to them. Using the wikispaces provides a real-life context for learning current content as well as the skills they will need to be life-long learners. It also provides some of them for a place to speak that they don't always have - they are encouraged to develop strengths and communicate, while often these are the students who have difficulty entering conversations, especially academic conversations, in school. These are students who are usually pulled out of many academic areas for remediation - or instruction in the "stuff you don't get", where the wikispaces offers built in support for some of them and a space where they know someone is listening to them. I understand why some of these tools are blocked in schools, but I find that the question is how much can we protect them from and still include them in positive manners too?
Chris O'Neal's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Wow, great thoughts everyone. By the comments here, it really is a tough call. Regardless of the current stance your school or district takes, it's worth a push to have a conversation about why, the good, and the bad of blocking. It's a law right now, so we have to have a filtering system in place. That part is simple enough. However, it's 2007, and if we're not having healthy, practical conversations about media literacy and information saviness, and taking immediate advantage of powerful tools for learning then we are doing our students and classrooms a disservice. At the very least, I think it should be mandatory that filtering policies and procedures include input from the instructional side of things. ~Chris
Tim Hand's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Chris

Currently here in NSW Department of Education & Training, we are faced with similar issues. The system has opted for a 'one size fits all' regime across K-12 and for vocational education Institutions. However after much uproar the Dept has
retracted its policy and allows for individual schools to modedrate their own filtering. But currently each school must apply on a casae by casae instance to have sites unblocked. Understandably for many teachers this is too much hassle and they retreat off the Net. The issue of 'Duty of care' etc needs to be considered in terms of denying students access they have at home to the real information economy.

Larry Haynes's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As an elementary school principal, I can see the need for filtering. However, our district has gone to the extreme in my opinion. Because a few teachers were visiting MY SPACE accounts and shopping online, we all are strapped with a filter so tight that access to several good sites is blocked. We have to request for a site to be unblocked. Any site, including grant opportunites, that are affiliated with a major corporation (Target, Sears, Wal-Mart, etc)is blocked because it categorizes the site as "shopping." Access to blogs of any kind is prohibited. Limited access is one thing. Zero access is another.

Gary Latman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

At the school where I was an English teacher and Technology Coordinator, as quickly as sites were blocked, kids found proxy sites to bypass the Chicago Board of Education censors. In my lab, I had monitoring software, which I used periodically to get a sense of what students did and where they did it. Rarely, if ever, did they go to sites that were really objectionable. Usually, they just wanted to communicate with others. OMG, they were using the medium to communicate, but Central Office has a great need to CONTROL. They have blocked YouTube, numerous file sharing and file storage sites, and even blocked Yahoo's Briefcase, where I have nearly a dozen years of Language Arts tests, quizzes, and other resources. What's really enlightening is that when I need to access a censored site, I find a tech savvy student to get the latest proxy site. The bureaucrats have dummied down the curriculum, and now the Internet.

Scott Siri's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Most IT departments in schools are undermanned and underfunded. The tech guy does not have time to block every bad site on the entire World Wide Web. This is a GROSS misunderstanding among teachers. Most schools subscribe to blocking services. The blocking service chooses sites to block and schools choose the categories of media that they want blocked. If we don't want kids to have access to Blogs, Wikis, and Chats on inappropriate topics, then we need to block all blogs, wikis and chats. We can open up specific sites but this too is cumbersome, because it requires "unlocking" every single page of a site that teachers want access to.

Here's a tech solution. If you want a blog or wiki that your kids can use, set up a web server in your school and host a blog or wiki on the inside of the filter. If you want a chat for your class, you can do that too on the inside of the filter. Most schools have websites that could also host chats, discussion boards and wikis. The district won't block their site. Software for these web 2.0 applications can be found for free on the web but someone has to set it up. If you want to use this stuff in the classroom, get your feet wet in the tech and learn how to set it up!

The dangers that lurk outside are not the fault of the IT department and they don't have time to "unlock" 1000's of pages on the internet. At some point we as teachers have to take the responsibility for finding workable solutions that are acceptable to all parties involved. The administration needs to pony-up the money to fund good filtering services that allow for differentiation between teachers and students.

Administration also needs to realize that most industries have 1 tech per 200 computers and this assumes that 1 computer = 1 user. How many schools have funded that kind of technology help ratio? Technology costs money. If we want to use it effectively in education we need to convince the people who fund it that it is worthwhile. We should not abuse the techs who work tirelessly to maintain it.

I teach full time.
I work tech on the side.
I will soon have a Masters in Educational Technology.
I'm tired of being blamed for "blocking" teachers.

ISTE suggests the following as Satisfactory Efficiency
Computer-to-technician ratio is
between 75:1 and 150:1.
Reference
http://tsi.iste.org/techsupport/tech-support-index-2.4.pdf

Sorry for the rant, but this topic always stings me a bit.

Kim Flintoff's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been very lucky in that I am currently working in an independent girls school. Each girl (and teacher) from Year 5 through to year 12 is provided with a MacBook. Each machine is preloaded with a Standard Operating Environment (including Adobe CS3, MS Office Pro, iLife, iWork and more). Each girl has an administrator password to add or remove software as she requires. Our net access is logged but not filtered. And guess what? We have very few incidents of misuse. Over 1200 machines in a 95% wireless environment. Just goes to show that education works better than external control.

Chris O'Neal's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Kim,
Thanks for sharing that - I wish other schools would consider that option. I think there will always be incidences where students purposely try to do inappropriate things - but they do that anyway on the recess playground, football games, etc. We teach them, guide them, deal with issues, etc. I just think locking to the extreme is more dangerous than some flexibility.

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