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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

Charlie Makela's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I want to add my two cents to this issue. I was working with a group of teachers yesterday and was explaining the new Acceptable Use Policy for our division that is required by the state's mandate to include Internet Safety into the curriculum. One of the questions raised was the possibility of the filtering system differentiate between student and staff logins. They were concerned that much of today's news originates on the Web and denying them access to sites such as YouTube affects their ability to incorporate these newsmaking events into their instruction. It isn't a matter of downloading it from an unfiltered computer to show in class later as you can not legally save a video clip from YouTube. They sited several other sites that they would like to incoporate but are unable to view from school. Many times the site is blocked due not to the content of the site, but the links off of that site contain objectionable topics. I agree that we need to actively bring this conversation to the table with the leaders in both instruction and technology. My 5 year-old granddaughter is already familiar with using technology in her learning. She uses interactive software and her parents computer. Cell phones, dvd's and mp3 players are part of her everyday world. Is the classroom she enters every day ready for her? We are asking students to leave their technology tools and knowledge behind when they come to school rather than building on their knowledge to create active engaged learners and consumers of information.
Mary Parke's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I understand the need and want to use Web 2.0 tools. The conflict is in honoring FERPA, COPPA, and CIPA. My guess is, that if the blog/wiki/etc REQUIRES login and restricts login to students in the course/class only, then the laws may be satisfied, and the course is contained for student-teacher; student-student use only. The problem comes in blogs and wikis that are made PUBLIC and thereby post student-user data to the world with no protection. The balance is in finding the correct tool for the use, in my experience. For example, some CMS (content management systems) allow for instructors to not only post class data such as handouts and links to websites, but they also allow for open-forum discussions. It is the discussion forums in this instance that violate students' rights (not to mention opens up the forum for hacking and spam). If instead, the instructor used a LMS (learning management system), then the same forums could be protected by login and other measures of security (depending on the system - such as SSL encryption). Using the LMS in this scenario instead of the CMS not only protects the students' data, but also the integrity of the institution's data and the instructor's data. The problem is that the law and the software companies are not working together in order to find best-case use scenarios (and the law is VERY SLOW to update). I run into these same issues with accessibility...but that's a WHOLE other story...
Roxanne Karr's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I, too, am distressed by our district's decision to block everything and then release sites, one by one, on request only. They started by blocking every search engine except google and yahoo (I had to request that they allow askforkids.com). They also blocked most of the sites I had linked on my school website, until I asked for each one to be unblocked, individually. Then they blocked iTunes. Imagine my thoughts when I read in Edutopia about all the wonderful educationally based podcasts available! I agree with Mr. Day-- I signed an acceptable use agreement; let me do the job I have experience in doing... finding appropriate sites for kids and then monitoring them as they surf those sites!
Sandy Sanders's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
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's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
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's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
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's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
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's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
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's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
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's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
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.

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