George Lucas Educational Foundation

Playing It Too Safe Online Will Make You Sorry

How teachers are working around overprotective content filters to use Web 2.0 tools in the classroom.
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate
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Bending the Rules:

A student at the Pleasantview Academy, in Hutchinson, Kansas, uses ArtSnacks, a site typically blocked by the school district, after an exception is made for a class project.

Credit: Courtesy of Kevin Honeycutt

Los Angeles high school teacher Antero Garcia wanted his students to analyze the subtle ways in which advertisers deliver messages. He figured he'd jump-start the discussion by having the class watch a few television commercials broadcast during the recent Olympic Games.

The clips were all available on YouTube, but Garcia knew he couldn't send students to the Web site during class. "Our district blocks YouTube, MySpace, Flickr -- all the social-networking sites that students think are fun and interesting," he explains. But Garcia didn't toss his lesson plan. Instead, he cued up a few videos in his laptop's memory cache at home and then high-tailed it for campus, hoping the computer's battery wouldn't die en route.

Like Garcia, teachers across the country sometimes must travel circuitous paths to use online resources in the classroom. In the interest of child safety, individual schools and entire school districts often install content filters that aggressively block these Web 2.0 tools -- not only social-networking sites but also blogs, wikis, and other Web pages that allow educators and students to create and access content.

Content filters and firewalls are great for keeping kids away from pornography, as required by the Children's Internet Protection Act (download the PDF), or preventing them from updating their Facebook status during class. But the same filters can stop teachers from accessing cutting-edge widgets and digital materials that have enormous potential for expanding learning.

Granted, these tools are relatively new, especially in the classroom, which means administrators are still grappling with how to approach them. Policies about Web site use vary from one district to the next, and sometimes from school to school within the same district. "It's all over the map," says Kevin Honeycutt, a technology-integration specialist who works with districts in Kansas. This causes "no shortage of teacher frustration," he says, adding that he once overheard a technology coordinator threaten to fire any teacher who dared to bring Web 2.0 applications into the classroom. "But that's the exception," Honeycutt concedes, "and he later apologized."

New Hampshire kindergarten teacher Maria Knee, a pioneer in using Web 2.0 tools with young learners, points out that keeping powerful tools out of students' reach during the school day doesn't prepare them for life. "Our kids are going to be using these tools and sites anyway," she argues. "Don't we want to educate students about them at school?" Many teachers do, and they've found some clever ways to get Web 2.0 tools into the classroom. Here are four practical suggestions:

Befriend the Keymaster

YouTube wasn't the only site that gave Antero Garcia trouble. He wanted to use Twitter, a popular microblogging tool, to have students ask homework questions or collaborate with classmates via their cell phones (the one technology all his students have). Twitter was blocked, but the barrier wasn't where Garcia thought it was.

"It turns out the district wasn't blocking access, but my school was," recalls Garcia, who then spent a week navigating the bureaucracy of the Los Angeles Unified School District to resolve the matter. "Once I located the right tech person -- who was friendly but overworked -- he entered a couple of keystrokes and let my students use the tool."

Knowing who holds the keys and establishing a good working relationship with that person is one strategy for unlocking the Web 2.0 toolbox. Technology staff, not instructional experts, typically make decisions about Internet filtering. "The wires-and-pliers folks are the ones who get blamed if something bad happens online," Honeycutt points out. Their job has been to limit access to technology, not to empower end users, he says. "Nobody told them that there's been a sea change." Getting that conversation started can be a first step toward better accessibility.

Knee, an early adopter of blogs, podcasts, and online games with her kindergartners, works closely with the technology director at Deerfield Community School, in Deerfield, New Hampshire. In addition, her district routinely blocks most social-networking sites and online games, but Knee is able to gain access with a call or an email to her district's tech director. Knee just forwards the URL of a site she wants to access, along with a short explanation. "I'm thankful for her support," Knee says. "She understands that I have an instructional purpose for using these sites, and she gets them unblocked within a few hours."

Being able to explain your instructional purpose for using a particular tool is critical, Knee says. She uses blogs as part of her literacy program and for math and social studies, and as a tool for connecting working parents with their children's all-day kindergarten class. She overcame a district block on gaming sites when she made a strong case for using Webkinz to teach her young students about online safety. And she shares results with school leaders, she adds, "so they can see what's possible."

Innovate in Safe Places

When Honeycutt introduces Web 2.0 tools to schools, he often starts with a virtual sandbox in which teachers can play with new applications before granting access to students. "We need to create places where teachers can take chances," Honeycutt says. “Every district needs to anoint some teachers to play with Web 2.0 tools in a safe, hypothetical environment. I call it taming the tool. Teachers need time to consider, 'Under what conditions would we allow this tool into the classroom?'"

Other schools create more of a walled garden, where teachers and students are free to create online content, but the outside world can't watch. Steve Hargadon, project director for the Consortium for School Networking's K-12 Open Technologies Leadership Initiative, says this type of environment is a safer place for experimentation. "You can provide access to Web 2.0 tools internally without having to face outside the school network," says Hargadon, who created the popular Classroom 2.0 social-networking site for teachers. "This gives you time to get comfortable before deciding how much to open it up."

He says the easiest solution is Moodle, a popular free learning-management system. "You can install it on a server within a school," he explains. "It has discussion forums, wikis, many of the collaborative pieces. But you control who gets to see the content." Other free open source applications include Elgg and Drupal, both of which require more technical expertise to install and manage. Teachers may also access ready-made, secure, and free student workspaces provided by companies such as ePals and Oracle (through its ThinkQuest platform).

Teach Good Digital Citizenship

The Eastern Townships School Board, in a rural part of the Canadian province of Quebec, has a consistent, open policy for Internet filtering. "We don't block anything," says Ron Canuel, director of the 7,000-student district, which assigns every child a laptop starting in third grade. "Instead, we focus on educating kids and providing supervision."

When it began the laptop initiative six years ago, the district took a hard look at Internet filters. “We realized that students don't see these as impediments, but rather as challenges,” Canuel says. "Students find ingenious ways to go around them." Rather than fighting to stay a step ahead of tech-savvy pupils, the district emphasizes online safety and digital citizenship.

"We spend a lot of time educating students about what's good and bad information," he adds. "We ask questions about the sites students are accessing." Students understand that they'll face sanctions if they engage in inappropriate conduct online, Canuel says. Five years of research show benefits across the board, he adds, citing stronger academic results, a lower dropout rate, and improved attendance.

Instruction in digital citizenship needs to start early, agrees New Hampshire teacher Maria Knee, and it requires ongoing adult supervision. "Being online with five-year-olds is something I don't take lightly," she says. "On field trips, we work to keep kids safe. This is the same thing. We can't afford to make mistakes." As students get older and their technology skills increase, they continue to need modeling and mentoring. Tech-integration specialist Kevin Honeycutt adds, "Kids get smart fast when it comes to technology, but the filter between their ears is still developing. That's our job, as educators, to help with. We have to get kids ready for the future, even if we're uncomfortable."

Advocate for Access

Teaching students to use online tools safely and effectively comes down to treating everyone equitably, Antero Garcia believes. His students are predominantly Latino or African American, and almost all come from low-income families. "Most of them don't have Internet access outside of school," he says. "And in school, they only get to use computers for research or test prep. They don't have relaxed opportunities to explore online or just update a MySpace page. A lot of teachers might see that as recreation, but there's a lot of educational potential in these sites."

Garcia advocates for more open access as a social-justice issue. On his own blog, he writes, "Sooner or later someone is going to expect my students to be able to quickly and effortlessly post to a blog, add to a wiki, or collaborate via some sort of social-networking protocol. And once again, my school will have failed to prepare them for such a task."

In the still-evolving Web 2.0 era, anyone with Internet access has the power to create and publish content online and interact with content others have created. It's nothing less, the Consortium for School Networking's Steve Hargadon says, than "epic change" in how information is shared and shaped. "The great majority of educators don't understand that yet," he admits, but he is encouraged, he adds, by "how dramatically far we've come in just the last two years. We're just at the beginning stages of figuring this out. We'll get there."

Suzie Boss, a journalist who lives in Portland, Oregon, is coauthor of Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age. She also blogs for

Comments (14) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

David Truss's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We may be, "at the beginning stages of figuring this out." But we better do it quickly. PODs are on their way into our schools in the next 5 years... "Personally Owned Devices". I wrote, in a post linked to my name:

So now a big question comes to mind. At the pace we are going now... Will we be ready to utilize these amazing tools that will be brought into our classrooms?

I say no!

So, new questions arise: What do we need to do to be ready? What needs to change? How do we maximize what we can do now? Who makes this happen?

No it's not about the technology... you don't need technology to promote inquiry and a love of learning in students. It is not about preparing our students for the future... it is about preparing our teachers for the future. It is about asking ourselves the right questions and promoting a spirit of inquiry with our teachers. And finally, it is about leadership.

But traditional leadership alone won't work. It is YOUR leadership that we need. Do not go quietly into your classroom. Do not go quietly into your schools. Do not wait for PODs to arrive. You are the one that can make a difference... ask yourself, "How can I prepare my colleagues for the future of education?"

Beth Pennington's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have a school district not only with a filter but with a program so that everything added to the computer or changed it reset after each restart. I cannot add programs, view streaming content, or even recover student work.
I just started finding the back ways to use the web 2.0 tools at this school and have gotten on the right side of the school tech person.
I had to create my own permission slip for the kids to use the flip cameras, to blog, to show their work, and to type in the NING that we have.
It took 3 months, we just started.
Let me tell you! The KIDS LOVE IT!! Anyone who is thinking of doing these things needs to go for it!
The are energized and excited about the study of science, and they are 8th graders! They typically dont get excited about anything but cell phones and dating!
I did have a flip camera stolen this week while I was out sick, UGH!!! So if you integrate these expensive technologies then make sure you secure them everyday.
just my thoughts.

Vicki Davis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a phenomenal article that hits the cusp of the issue. I also find it interesting that the new revisions of CIPA require schools to teach safe practices in social networking sites, chat rooms, etc. when the same law also is the justification for schools to blog nearly everything!!

It is such an important issue. I still have to wish that youtube would let us create an educational URL that we could "send" videos to that would be safe for schools. There are many things that could be done to "vet" the sources of information and become a massive filter/ safety net ourselves.

Stephen Veliz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I've been waiting for someone to compose the perfect articulation of this problem, and potential solutions. Thank you.

This will be in the hands of everyone that I can reach.

Katie Fredette's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Beth! I am trying to set up a ning site for some college students. Is your site public? I would love to see the setup or chat with you about it. Here is the front page for mine. I would really appreciate any suggestions. Thanks! Katie

Sam's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The education board can build such a website and upload the media themselves. Students can be taught how to be safe without opening up all the filters currently in place. People just need to think in simpler ways thats all. It doesn't seem to be a dilemma to me at all if the education system is willing to really teach the kids net safety while keeping them safe.

randal sean harrison's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You can capture youtube videos as standalone files using

This is a fairly straightforward process.
1. head to
2. In the address field, paste in the url of the page which has the youtube video, which will look something like "" (typically longer)
4. Click Download (to the right of the url bar)
5. In the green box below, select a file type for download. I usually select mp4, which is a larger file size but better quality.
6. It will download to your computer (usually on the order of many megs, so I wouldn't do this over a telephone modem but over a much faster connection, and can then be renamed and copied to different computers.

Re the question of legality/fair use.... Showing your students the "text" from a file on your computer is essentially the same as showing them using a web browser, right? However, the DMCA actually makes illegal the *transfer* of the images. So if I wanted to take a DVD of the Matrix and cut it into a short clip of a few minutes to show in class, while (under the right circumstances) this is covered under fair use, the DMCA makes the technological transfer between media illegal. But fair use is obv. a much larger issue...

John's picture

Just remember, as users of the YouTube site we all agree to the Terms of Service. Their TOS explicitly states you cannot download (extract out) any videos currently on their site. That means no third party tools to get the videos out of YT to bypass your school's filtering system. Fair Use/DCMA/Teach Act would not cover you as an educator because you have not "legally" obtained the videos (can't violate a site's TOS just to get at the content and reuse or share it). Most schools have the wrong type of filtering system and that is the root of the problem. Schools need a flexible, teacher-managed, filter. Much like the library is a book filter and librarians and schools decide what books to put in, same is true of the web and web tools. Let the teachers open up their class to full web use if they choose for a class period, they filter back down afterward.

I don't buy the argument" "Our kids are going to be using these tools and sites anyway," she argues. "Don't we want to educate students about them at school?" This has never been the case with any other non-technology based media or devices. Kids are gonna have sex too, but there is no class explicitly telling them how to do it in its many methods. Kids are going to eat junk food, but we try to keep that out of schools. I agree with teaching them how to use the sites productively and to get them ready to be good digital citizens, but we don't put porno mags or books on bomb making into the library and teach students how to avoid them. Libraries have always been a filtered place and no one cared. Send students YT videos via or but don't take 'em directly to the video pages. Schools have never permitted the type of language (in any form) and hate speech found in the comments of YT's videos to enter their buildings. Why now? The tools are valuable, but much of what takes place online is adult driven experiences. These kids are not mentally and emotionally ready for wide open Internet.

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