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Blocking and Filtering and Lockdowns, Oh, My!: The Internet-Security Overreaction

| Chris O'Neal

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?

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Comments (24)

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Sandy Sanders (not verified)

I agree that not as

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I agree that not as many sites should be blocked, but -- our students have access to computers and the internet on a relatively free basis. We receive much of our funding for internet access from state and federal funds which require that the use of the internet be largely for educational uses. Evidently there is a criteria for "education" and "non-education" followed by the state. Recently I requested that a "blog for hackers' be blocked because one of our students was using it freely to develop methods of getting into material to which they should not have access, i.e. grades and answers from web sites. Ideally we could steer this student into a few computer courses and take advantage of that talent for his benefit. Problem is that the student ignores all boundaries that are set for him. Would you want this student loose in your system? Since we have had school-wide access to laptops for at least six years, our students are all rather sophisticated at computer usage. Good in the technological sense, but bad in that the human capacity to keep up with oversight does not match at the present time.
Patsy Lanclos (not verified)

Great article, Chris! I have

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Great article, Chris! I have been doing Web 2.0 workshops trying to help teachers understand and become familiar with the Web 2.0 tools, hoping they would see the great impact they would have in engaging students and empowering their learning. However, I, too, have hit the brick wall with the districts blocking most everything having to do with Web 2.0 tools. Students have found ways to get around the filters and now the IT folks are sharing these sites so that everyone will block them also. My hopes are that through the Leadership Academies, administrators will understand these tools and not be so paranoid about them. We, as educators, must take the responsibility to help students learn to use them in a responsible way because they are using them outside of school with no filtering.
Jean Bennett (not verified)

I was sent a Flat

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I was sent a Flat Stanley project from my neice (4th grade.) I created a blog for her Flat Lucy that had pictures and educational links. The links were geared for 4th grade students and the images were of Lucy and all the places she visited. Was I ever surprised when I was told that my niece's school district blocks blogs! I wonder if they ban books? The point, is that as educators we must teach students responsibility in using the Intenet and Web 2.0 collaboritave tools. My niece's teacher doesn't know the web sites that I know would be engaging learning for her students about the area of the country I live in and the 3 other places in the country I visited during Lucy's stay. It was my niece's and her classmates' loss of an engaging learning opportunity (yes I did send the links and images in an e-mail to the teacher) through a blog.
Ron Smith (not verified)

The problem is one of,

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The problem is one of, frankly, laziness. Districts use filtering software that searches key words, in the url, in the title, and in the content of the home page. For instance, Picasso's painting, Guernica, is described on one site as having nude figures. Because of that, Guernica, perhaps Picasso's most famous painting, depicting the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, is blocked from the view of high school students in my district. It would take some effort for the powers that be to actually look at sites that are blocked, but by-and-large, they are not doing that. They use a shotgun approach, probably figuring that filtering too much is better that not enough. The answer is the acceptable use policy. Everyone signs it, teachers, students, parents. I have found that students will do whatever you expect them to do. Expect them to use computers irresponsibly, and they do. Expect them to stay on task and be productive, they do that. As a high school teacher, I am teaching young adults. I treat them like young adults--slowly learning how to use their freedoms responsibly. If we cannot teach students to be responsible, who will?
Ed Temple (not verified)

As a K-5 computer lab

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As a K-5 computer lab supervisor, I am happy to have filters which block blogs. There are plenty of reliable, safe sites which can provide the info our students are searching out without taking a chance that our children will access inappropriate material which can be posted on a blog site. There is simply no way to review all these sites first. We do have plenty of sites available to us which we can trust. My small lab has 25 computers and there is not way to successfully monitor that many students and prevent access of inappropriate material without the filters we have set in place. While it is easy to propose setting rules of technology for our students to follow, there is no guarantee that blog sites will institute or abide by these rules. Our filtering guidelines are modified to grade levels (elementary, middle and high school), but blogs are blocked at all levels for this reason. Without filters, a student searching for an image of slavery, for example, would also access images of bondage. I assure you that our parents would be justifiably outraged. It IS our responsibility as educators to provide the necessary tools for our students. Until blog sites can be deemed safe, they remain a questional resource. Let us seek ways to impliment the safeguards for these and future tools for our children.
Cathy Walters (not verified)

Another thought...We have different filters

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Another thought...We have different filters for teachers vs. students, which does help. Until you have seen a student's face who has innocently brought up an image of something no 10-year old should see, you do not really know the value of filtering. I understand the points made in these comments and know that the filtering makes it more difficult to conduct some projects, but I wholeheartedly support it. Do our school libraries carry adult-specific magazines, but tell the students to not look at them? No, they have chosen not to subscribe to them so they are not available to the students. How different is that than blocking "inappropriate" sites? Kids are curious--one will see something on the internet or do something on the computer and it spreads like wildfire--just like those e-mails we all get on jokes or stories. Maybe stringent explanation and enforcement of the Acceptable Use Policy to students is the only way to go...
Bryan Wilkins (not verified)

Problem is not with teachers,

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Problem is not with teachers, it's the administration. Teachers do not block, it is the IT department that blocks at the request of the administration. Point your question and wrath to the proper people.
Lyn Barber (not verified)

I understand that someone needs

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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 (not verified)

I can't see the example

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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 (not verified)

I have begun exploring wikispaces

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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?
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