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

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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

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Jeff Johnson's picture

While we do have a content filter, we've taken a similar approach by customizing the filtering scheme and allowing access to You Tube and social networking sites to most users. We hold high expectations for teachers and students alike and now have a "Responsible Use Policy," which replaced the old AUP a couple of years ago.

Bob Calder's picture
Bob Calder
Internet and Society

I wonder what patterns blocking files would reveal if compared across school boards and companies? I strongly suspect that decision-makers merely add and seldom edit, allowing others to actually make key decisions. I'm sure Jeff is in the minority, but there will be degrees of activism that characterize school districts.

Jeff Johnson's picture

Nancy Willard has written lots on the topic of internet content filters, how the underlying rules come to be and related topics. Her"Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use" web site can be found here

The degree to which filters can be customized varies from filtering product to product and some are rather complex to manage. In schools, teams of educators should be able to participate in the filtering review process. This is a source of frustration for many teachers.

Elizabeth Rossen's picture

I support Tim Peltz's actions and agree with many of the comments posted here. Education is moving away teaching in a vacuum, and opening up to a global community. The internet is an effective tool for achieving these types of connections as well as to provide up-to-date content and learning tools. As the article mentioned, there will ultimately be misuse; however, I believe that there will be far greater gains in media literacy if we can teach students to constructively use the websites they are already using.

paul's picture

One standing ovation for Tim Peltz please, for standing for open access to the internet for students and teachers in Racine. The increased freedom of students and faculty to access online chats, discussion boards, streaming video and web-based email may encourage integration of internet resources in classroom. The increased access will place bandwidth burdens on their system but with modern, high-speed switches and routers, if updated with the new computer equipment, and adequate service from the district ISP should meet those demands

Kelly Silver's picture

This was an exciting article to read because I didn't know that a school would ever allow unlimited internet access to its students.  I definitely admire Tom Peltz for what he did.  Not only does unlimited access give students more opportunity to separate useful online resources from silly ones, but it probably reduces the excitement of going on YouTube and Facebook because those sites aren't blocked.  The fact that students must log in with their own name and are monitered that way will reduce the amount of students trying to visit those kind of websites too however.

Brenda Mooney's picture

We have a granulated filtering system in Liverpool UK. Schools can choose what they want unblocking/blocking or leave it to the Local Authority to manage this. This gives schools autonomy to make their own decisions. The next stage in my role as E-Safety Lead, is to support schools in 'managing' bringing down the and guidance as they are doing it...exciting times indeed!

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

Brenda, thanks for the update on your work in the UK! I'm curious -- what kind of support are you giving schools to help them manage the opening of the filters? What information and strategies do you find that they need?


Steph S.'s picture
Steph S.
Former 5th grade teacher from Fort Myers, FL

Wow, I think this is an absolutely WONDERFUL idea!! I think every school district should follow Tim Peltz and what he is doing. Kids already know all about using the internet and what's out there. My school actually wouldn't even let teachers go on certain websites. They blocked everything. My kids would always tell me these videos they saw or they researched tsunami's and found all of this information, but we couldn't access it because it's blocked. I came from a Charter School, and I know they would never allow open access on the internet. They should, and so should every other school in the country!

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