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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

Comments (24)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Ken Messersmith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am looking at your blog entry and see that no one has responded. I believe it is because no one has any experience with finding a "balance between blocking and unlocking". I have had the same experience with schools in our partnership network. They are all locked down so tightly that teachers are discouraged in many cases.

The most successful technology uses that I see in our area are ones that do not require the use of the Internet. Things like digital storytelling and using PowerPoint and Keynote to develop multimedia presentations are the most prevalent in this area.

We need to find an answer to this problem because we are depriving our students access to a whole range of knowledge with our current system.

I like to use the analogy of the swimming pool. There may be as many children hurt in swimming pools in a year as there are children hurt through technology use. That doesn't mean we ban swimming pools. What we do is make sure every child knows how to keep themselves safe around water. The same is true of science labs. No science teacher turns students loose in a lab without first making sure they understand the safety rules. Why won't this work with technology?

Sherman Minter's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is indeed a distressing problem in our schools. I find that as I study or as I write, I constantly draw on the internet for information. I am quite regularly amazed by what is available. For example: My wife recently asked me to boil some eggs for her school. They needed to be free of cracks. Not knowing exactly how to do this, I just searched for "how to boil eggs without cracking" and found more advice than I needed on the subject.
I also recently wrote an article concerning the reauthorization of NCLB and I needed some history of federal legislation regarding education. I found it quite quickly on the internet.
I don't know how I would function without it. Our children will be even more dependent on it than we are. To deny them free access is to deny them learning opportunities. We can and should safeguard them against harmful material but we can't let this protection prevent them from learning.

John Newsham's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Another aspect of this is: Who decides what is being blocked? Is it a principal, teacher, librarian or a committee. Or is it the guy in technology services who has the password to the filter? Is he a certified, experienced eductator with an understanding of classroom techniques and curriculum? Or is his certification in Microsoft networking and experienced with hardware?

Too often it is not an experienced educator making these decisions. It's the technology guy or gal who is making decisions on the basis of making his life simpler rather than providing challenging educational experiences for students.

Steven Day's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My experience is that there is no differentiation in the filtering my district uses. I will regularly get information that I cannot access a site because SurfControl won't let me. I have the same limits and controls as the kindergarten and first grade students. As a professional and an educator, I signed the forms for the district agreeing I wouldn't go to the "bad places' on the web. Shouldn't that be enough? If as an adult, I need information on how to play Mancala in my classroom, I really don't believe that i should have to try over 9 sites just to get the instruction for playing Mancala. (true example)

As a profession, allow me the dignity of knowing where I should go on the web from a school computer and stay our of my controls. Once I log in as an adult, hold me to my signed agreement and then let me go where I need to. Place filter controls on users rather than systems. As students grow up, they should have greater access to information. Just a parents allow our children more freedom and hole them more responsible as they grow, so should the school system about computer usage.

My students are telling me all the time how they get around the filter controls. The most common is to go to a translation website and access blocked locations through them. Seems that the translations goof up the ability of the filtering software to block. If our students can get around the filters, what are we really teaching them? Rather than having discussions about what content is appropriate and how to be responsible users of the information, we are propogating another form of hacker.

We can't even find out how sites get blocked in our district. But from my experience is is more to make someone's life easier rather than benefitting our students.

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