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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Stop Blocking Online Content

Severely limiting Internet access does high school students a disservice.
By Jon-Michael Poff
Credit: Wesley Bedrosian

The blocking problem started back in August 2007. Each time desktop-publishing students tried to access images, they were blocked. When my English teacher, Lisa Huff (profiled in this Edutopia.org article), needed to get to information from Flickr and the document-sharing site Scribd, she was blocked. My classmate Megan Holifield wanted to watch a news clip on YouTube for inspiration in producing her own broadcast, and she was blocked.

Instead of embracing technology as twenty-first-century schools should, the Batesville, Arkansas, schools -- along with many others -- have been turning on the firewalls, preventing students from realizing the full opportunity the Internet offers.

Students and teachers need online tools to create projects, dispense information, and deepen their understanding of the subject matter. After more than a year of imposing a strict blockade, it's high time for the Batesville schools to bulldoze the firewalls and let the light of the Internet shine on students and teachers.

Last fall, a classmate at Batesville High School told me he spent forty minutes trying to access his school-assigned blog, one our English teacher graded regularly. Another classmate said she couldn't get to the images she needed for her desktop-publishing class; she had to download them at home. (Luckily for her, her family owns a computer.)

Not only is this blockade frustrating, it's also hindering our prospects as college- and work-ready students. In a multimedia world, it is essential that students leave high school with a deep knowledge of digital tools. Blogs are not only a cool way to publish your opinions, they are also the future of social and business networking. RSS reader sites like Google Reader enable users to sort and consume massive amounts of information efficiently. The use of photo sites is vital to creating multimedia projects.

District administrators and technicians have been aware of the problem since we voiced our concerns back in September 2007. Last year, I confronted a technician who was remotely accessing my computer about the growing problem of blocked Web sites. He told me that was just too bad -- some things we can't change.

Well, some things we can change. Some things we must change. As of this fall, it seems our district is beginning to grasp the need to equip students with up-to-date technology skills -- our blogs, Flickr, and TeacherTube are now unblocked. But there's still a long way to go.

To be fair, it's not just administrators and technicians who control the Internet at our school. The federal Children's Internet Protection Act states that schools and libraries may not receive the E-rate discount on communications technology unless they have technology protections and an Internet-safety policy. Such policies, according to CIPA, must include measures "to block or filter Internet access to pictures that: (a) are obscene, (b) are child pornography, or (c) are harmful to minors." My blog includes (d) none of the above. Neither does the information Mrs. Huff needed to access, nor does Megan's video.

Of course, the Internet does include some inappropriate material that school technicians need to block. However, blocking educational sites along with the nasty ones is not the solution. Clearly, we need a better, more efficient filter -- one that allows for unhindered educational use while also preventing twelve-year-olds from viewing pornography.

Beyond filters, there lies a fundamental issue of trust. Where is the district's trust in well-meaning, hardworking students when their Internet access is limited to the school home page and CNN?

Think back to when your parents first let you start driving. In the back of their minds was the knowledge that you might ding a door, hit a pole, or even smash into another car. However, they eventually realized they couldn't hold your hand forever; they had to let you drive by yourself. In the same way, districts must loosen the reins and let students "drive" by themselves. And, just as parents teach their teens how to make a left turn on a busy street, schools must mentor students so that they learn to navigate the information superhighway for themselves.

How much longer will schools compromise students' education? To those who have the responsibility to make a change, hear our cry: Tear down that wall.

Credit: Wesley Bedrosian
Jon-Michael Poff is a senior at Batesville High School, in Batesville, Arkansas.

Comments (23)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Justin K. Reeve's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm the web manager for a school district, and in principle I'm anti-filter as well, but in practice I simply can't be. There are laws in place in our state, and as long as CIPA is in effect, we simply can't give students unrestricted access to the web. The problem is deeper, though. We started filtering BEFORE teaching students proper, safe, responsible Internet usage, and as a result have created a unique cultural phenomenon. We've driven free-access Internet usage underground in schools (as if students aren't smart enough to use proxies, or just pull up the blocked web sites on their cell phones and bypass the filters entirely). It would take a lot of time to undo this mindset among students, that accessing inappropriate content on the web in a school is "edgy" or "cool." This is why such a solution won't present itself overnight (although I don't think anyone is claiming it will). And as Melissa mentioned, how are we supposed to demonstrate how to use certain sites safely if we can't even gain access to them?

Moreover, there are a LOT of parents out there who are simply anti-Internet. Many of them see absolutely no reason why students should even HAVE Internet access in a school, and will even actively complain to the school administration and try to get it banned. The problem is in the end, it's not a school administrator we report to, and it's not really the students we have to appease...it's the parents. And they are the ones voting for the legislators who make our laws, and who are putting their students in the school system and expecting us to keep them "safe"...how THEY define safety is different from how you or I may define it.

So what can you do? Work with the teachers, staff, AND your parents to try to loosen the bands, and open the dialogue. One thing I would love to see in my own district is a technology-oriented consortium of teachers, administrators, parents, and students. Something beyond just the PTA, and something which can produce actual results and positive change for a school district as a whole.

Kathi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is such a 'hot button' for myself. I am the single mom of two teens, ages 14 and 15. I knew to put restrictions on my son's computer. My daughter...I left it for some time. We had a certain degree of trust between us. But now, I am rethinking things. Shouldn't there be some degree of filtering on my daughter's laptop? She is 14 now, and changing before my eyes. I do not want to block images that may help her with schoolwork, but I am concerned about her exposure rate.

Kathi in VT

BK-Teach's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Just like any other topic I cover in my classroom, it boils down to teaching the students what is acceptable and what is not. I teach my students how to handle a paperback novel so that it lasts more than a year. I teach them my policy on using the bathroom during class time. I teach them what appropriate topics are for writing assignments.

I also teach them what is appropriate on the internet. First, I send a letter home explaining what we'll be doing online and have parents sign a media release saying that it's okay. Then I teach the students what is appropriate. I bought my own domain name so that students go to that site and then link to everything they need. No need for extra "stuff," good or bad. Those don't follow the expectations, lose the opportunity. Just like the kid who throws the paperback book across the room. You don't get the book and your can do a different assignment.

The problem is that not all teachers are doing what we are by teaching and modeling appropriate use. Then, in a large district, things get blocked because teachers aren't being good teachers.

I understand the bandwidth issue. However, if your students know not to be listening to music or watching videos in the background, this isn't an issue. I link to videos on teachertube and google video that are relevant to the lesson. That should be allowed and encouraged.

Enough ranting. Great article and comments!

Vaughan Johnson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

If a student looks up inappropriate material at home, no one is going to sue the parents. If he/she does it at school, someone COULD sue the school. In a perfect world I'm all for unblocking but 1 teacher can't see what 25 students are doing all at once and it's unreasonable to expect them to do so.

David's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I contacted our district regarding the blocking policy last year and got the CIPA answer. The interesting thing is that there is no official CIPA list. We are only required to have some sort of system in place, leaving many sites up to discussion. I know that some CIPA approved districts have things like youtube unblocked and some (many) do block them. One non-official list I found our district using came from an ultra-conservative christian group. It is very ambiguous what really is needed for CIPA compliance, but I think many paranoid tech admins overkill with their lists.

Further probing revealed that a huge chunk of the block list comes from teachers complaining that their students were "distracted" by these sites. I understand blocking inappropriate material, but there reaches a point when it is the teacher's responsibility to engage and monitor their students. There will always be some site that may distract and taint their minds. What we really need is more internet safety given to them and the ability to show them how to use many of these blocked site responsibly.

just my two bits,

Lydia Schultz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm lucky enough to work at a school that recently remodeled the space for the computer lab. It is arranged in tiers, so that the computers are behind the students when they face the front of the classroom. That means that when the teacher is talking and teaching the students are NOT facing their monitors. It also means when they are working on their computers, the teacher can see all the monitors in the room. It's great not only for keeping students on task, but it helps the teacher identify which students need help a bit more quickly as well.

V's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

That is a very good point, but why can't we just put in a filter that just blocks all the obscene material and allows the helpful sites?

Lening's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Internet affects the way students learn in a positive way, and the increasingly important network of contacts they develop. I don't believe that blocking access for any and every student is the best way to address problems. On the other hand, I do agree with cutting down Internet access during classes.

Steve J. Moore's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hey, excellent post.

This is a huge topic of discussion in every high school in America right now. Coming from Missouri, I know this is affecting my district too. Together, I have faith that we can find better ways to filter smartly and allow students the access they need to learn.
The Web is certainly the future of the classroom.

John's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I had no idea that content blocking was so broad. It seems ridiculous, to try to hide the world from students. It's not like they can't access these websites at home. By blocking everything and the web, they're just handicapping student's development and information foraging skills.

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