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Freedom of Information: How a Wisconsin School District Ditched Internet Filters

Related Tags: Technology Integration

Among the more memorable people I met at last week's ISTE conference in Denver is a renegade technology director from Racine, Wisconsin. Just a few months after his promotion from network manager to director of information systems of the Racine Unified School District last summer, Tim Peltz made a revolutionary move: he removed the firewalls that had blocked students from many parts of the Internet. He didn't just remove a brick here and there. He tore those walls completely down.

In a back-to-school letter to faculty and staff, Peltz announced that students could now access almost all websites, online chats and discussion boards, streaming video, Skype, and Web-based e-mail services like Gmail. He even opened up the two sites that seem to scare the pants off many school administrators - Facebook and YouTube. The only content blocked was "adult" (sexual) sites and what Peltz calls "hardcore extreme views," such as the websites of violent gangs. Students had to log in each time they used a school computer, so administrators could identify anyone who misbehaved online.

"I got a lot of resistance," Peltz said when we met in Denver. "But I held my ground." (Though he did restrict YouTube access only to teachers after some elementary students got into what he describes as "PG-13" videos.) It helped that he had the support of the district's director of curriculum and instruction, Jeff Weiss.

Peltz is passionate about teaching with technology and opening Web access because he believes it's (a) a powerful way to engage students, and (b) the only way to teach kids how to safely and productively use technologies that they will use -- and misuse -- whether the school restricts them or not. (Case in point: one Racine high school student last year made a video of a fight and posted it to YouTube using his cell phone -- no school Internet access needed.)

"The Internet is a right, whereas previously it was seen as a privilege," said Peltz, who is 33 and has two young daughters. "If you take the Internet away, it's kind of like saying, 'You can't have this textbook.'"

(Want to hear a student's take on Internet filters? Jon-Michael Poff, a high school student from Arkansas, wrote this plea for free access in the pages of Edutopia.)

Peltz's new M.O. wasn't fully tested last year, however, because Racine's aging fleet of computers, loaded with a frustrating hodgepodge of platforms and operating systems, couldn't handle much of what the newly-open Internet offered. The Web was mainly used by tech-savvy teachers who didn't need much guidance on how to navigate it well.

This summer, though, Peltz pulled off a bit of a tech-funding coup. By consolidating the technology budgets of about a dozen "funding silos" (such as Title I, special education, English-language learners, subject-area adoptions, and building services) into a single technology line item, he's replacing the district's 6,500 old machines with 8,000 leased, new computers, all with the same operating system. And that's saving Racine $400,000 compared to last year. Not to mention the estimated $200,000 in energy cost savings from switching to newer machines. Yep - you read that right.

So when school starts this fall, open access to the Internet will be a reality in every classroom (including YouTube access for students).

"You're not scared?" I asked him. "Not even a little bit?"

He shook his head. "I'll take the heat," he said. "I'm ready for it."

Still, I get the feeling Racine's road ahead may be bumpy. "We're behind the curve on training," Peltz admitted. A key piece of the transformation -- training teachers how to teach students to use the Web safely, smartly and respectfully -- still hasn't been planned. A committee including teachers, administrators and a school attorney is meeting this summer to craft a policy governing students' Internet use and the consequences for misbehavior.

Most districts are especially cautious about Web access because they fear losing their federal E-rate telecommunications discount if they violate the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), Peltz said. Peltz's take: "I feel that if teachers and staff are showing the kids how to use the technology in an appropriate, productive manner, we'll be in compliance."

That's a heretical notion by today's standards of school Internet filtering. But I'm betting that it's Galileo-style heresy; with proper teacher training in place, a few years from now people like Peltz will be seen as prescient.

What do you think? Bold progress or brash mistake? Have you had any successes or lessons learned that you'd share?

-- Grace Rubenstein, is a senior producer at Edutopia

Comments (26)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

K Lohse's picture

[quote]I may be picking on the older generation of educators in this country, but why not give it a shot. [/quote]

I think we should stay away from making this a "young vs old" issue. There are plenty of "older" teachers who remember slogging through the library, waiting for research materials, using now "out-dated" tools for learning AND teaching. Many of these teachers are ready to use the "new" tools in instruction and freeing their students' time and effort so that they can be focused on finding good resources and information, and creating engaging products with which to show their learning.

Mark Moran's picture
Mark Moran
CEO of company that teaches students how to use the Web effectively.

This is an outstanding development, and I hope it somehow becomes the norm rather than the exception. CIPA is well intentioned, but its implementation in many school districts has been suffocating. We've created Sweet Search, a Search Engine for Students, which only searches 35,000 carefully curated sites. The other day a tech director wrote me to say he can't allow SweetSearch in his school, because of what he deemed an offensive article he found using it. Stunningly, it was from the Science section of the Guardian, one of the most respected newspapers in the world. None of the authors of CIPA had this sort of thing in mind when they proposed the bill. On the other hand, one service about which I would advise caution is YouTube; a fair portion of its content is well beyond PG-13. There are many curated alternatives out there.

Grace Rubenstein's picture
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia

Mark, thanks for the thoughtful comment and the resource. If you're cautious about YouTube, would you name a few of the YouTube alternatives you'd recommend? I bet it'd be helpful for folks to hear your suggestions. Thanks!

Dr. Mike Todd's picture
Dr. Mike Todd
Chief Learning Officer

Students are craving for the use of media and technology to help connect what they know to the unknown. There are a few schools in FL I have worked with that allow similar things. Lake Weir H.S. in Marion county, fl allow students open access even with students registering their own laptops/netbooks. The school admin also allows cell phones to be used during class changes and lunch. In Flagler County fl, Palm Coast High allows open access without any filters for content. I am not sure how tech people keep an eye on misuse.

karen franklin's picture
karen franklin
Exceptional education teacher Virginia

That's very encouraging! It is extremely frustrating to try and use technology in the classroom but then be blocked at every turn. As long is there is guidance and responsible behaviors are modeled, it should be very successful.

Lily Bee's picture

I am a 2nd grade teacher in Fla. We have blocks on many sites as we should but sadly things can still get through. During a Social Studies lesson on Famous Explorers the students were typing in the names of different explorers, one student typed in Christopher Columbus and we were shocked and surprised when several sites came up and the student clicked on one, what opened was a sexual site showing male body parts and explaining a sexual postion called The Christopher Columbus. This was a pretty awful site to have come into a 2nd grade classroom. I was standing right there beside the students and I was able to close it very quickly but it was still seen by 4 students. I am a believer in blockers in classrooms absolutely!!

Claire Gudewich's picture

I applaud the fact that the district is allowing open access to the Internet. I believe as many others have stated that access to the Internet is a right and not allowing access is in no one's best interest. What I am not clear about is when the teachers will be provided the training they need to deal with encounters that are bound to happen such as the one described by the second grade teacher. As a former technology teacher in a private Catholic school I faced resistance on many occasions from parents who believed I was teaching too much to their students with regard to Internet safety. I was using curriculum supplied by iSafe, by the way.

Change is difficult for all of us, however, why do we keep fighting kids on using tools that they are comfortable with? I believe that it is our responsibility to learn their tools and use them to our advantage. Nearly all teenagers carry cell phones; many are now using smart phones, so let's figure out a way to make that technology work for us, instead of trying to shut it down. Think of all the missed opportunities for teaching and learning because we unsure or not familiar with the technology. Sometimes, I believe, we are our own worst enemies because we are reluctant to embrace the change.

Mark Moran's picture
Mark Moran
CEO of company that teaches students how to use the Web effectively.

Hi Grace,

Richard Byrne compiled this amazing list of YouTube alternatives for FreeTechnologyForTeachers a while ago; while a few new ones have cropped up, this is a terrific list to start with.

Ashley G's picture
Ashley G
High School English Teacher from IL

I wish this could happen at more schools. If we want to keep our students motivated and interested in learning, then we need to join forces with technology rather than being against it. I would love to have a Facebook page for my students and their parents to be able to communicate with me and other students in my classes. I feel this would be a great place for them to ask questions and to see what is going on in class. Of course, Facebook is blocked at school. I think if we open up more technology to our students and teach them how to use it responsibly it will bring great things to the education world

Bob Calder's picture
Bob Calder
Internet and Society

The question is, "Where's the content?" Do ed-friendly video archiving sites have what I want? No.

Why not? If you understand why Wikipedia obliterated the encyclopedia business model, you need to widen your perspective to include all knowledge.

You want to teach students how to use the web effectively? How good is it to teach kids that the only good, trustworthy content is inside walled gardens? There is no doubt that schools will pay you to do it. That's not the question.

Students already know the only thing media centers have to offer is a way to get through paywalls.

The key is di-ver-si-ty!

The vertical application ghetto is alive and well in the education industry. It is just as effective at stifling innovation in education as it has been in the rest of the economy.

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