Wednesday, September 9, 2009

How Do Teachers Overcome Strict Internet Filtering?

Last night over 90 educators joined the Edchat conversation on Twitter to talk about strict Internet filtering. As I have discussed before, Web 2.0 and Social Media tools have found their way into classrooms and schools around the country. Some schools and districts have embraced the change and relaxed their filtering to allow teachers and students to use tools like Ning, Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, Google Talk, blogs, wikis, and others. However, there is still evidence that the majority of districts still have very strict Internet filtering, not only for students but teachers as well.

Our conversation began by discussing what types of filtering was in place around the country (and the world). A few teachers/administrators said that their school or district was open to the idea of Social Media and relaxed their filters. But there were others who said that their IT departments would not even listen to the idea of 0pening any Social Media tools. And a small few said blogs were forbidden. (One teacher said their administration interpreted CIPA in such a way that all communications with students had to be outlawed.)

Our conversation evolved into a discussion of what teachers could do to help stubborn administrations and school boards understand the need for relaxed filtering. Let me be clear. No one advocated for no filtering or using tools such as proxies for circumventing the filters. We want more conversations like the one during edchat to take place in districts around the country.

Here are a few summarizing comments from participants:
  • Though filtering is necessary to keep out undesirable content, it should be flexible so that quality educational tools and sites are not blocked.
  • We recently expanded teacher access. Teachers should take responsibility for modeling and monitoring internet use and be vocal about what they need for quality teaching with the internet. Their support of responsible use is the key to expanding access.
  • My district "does not support wikis, blogs, or social networking." Sigh. This is what I was directed when I signed on as an administrator a few years ago. Mind you, this is all due to one teacher, who, two years ago, set up a classroom blog, but did not know how to screen it. The result was a complete bashing of the district, its teachers, and the superintendent. My take: If you give kids no perameters, they are bound to create havoc; they're kids who question authority at every turn. Kids are naturally bred to push and question the boundaries that adults set for them, but if there are no boundaries in place to begin, well...I've seen the result and it has hindered the learning of teachers and students for years to come.
  • I think there need to be more conversations that are open concerning the true benefits for each district. The legal and financial details need to be drawn up prior to meetings so that people aren't operating on assumptions. From there, what's best for kids should be the top priority. If those simple steps are taken, tech can be more usefully integrated into any school with teacher and admin buy-in.
  • Filtering is too strict. Even teachers can't search and find resources necessary to assist students because the filters in the district are so tight...All searching must be done from home. Lift the filters and allow teachers to do what they do best...teach.
  • Filtering has become a real issue - but it is not working. Students know how to get around these if they really want to. My push has been to filter less and get the teachers more active in teaching students how to use technology effectively - filtering is not the answer when it comes to social networking.
  • Five years ago, I thought filtering was the way to protect our students. But now I believe that educating students on ethical behavior shifts the responsibility to the students for their safety, and in the long run, will be better for them.
You can see the entire archive of the chat here.

I think you can see that the theme that keeps coming up over and over again is the need for less restrictive filtering and more education. I could not agree more. Through the use of restrictive filtering we are creating a generation of Internet users who do not how to use the tool responsibly. All they know how to do is use other tools like proxies to get to what they want. Instead we need to start educating our students as to what is responsible Internet behavior and what is not.

My final thought is this, why block? Why not provide students the opportunity to extend learning beyond the school day through commenting on a blog or adding to a wiki? Why not provide students the opportunity to learn beyond the walls of their classroom and talk to other students halfway around the world through Skype? I thought we were trying to educate and prepare 21st Century students? Why are we refusing to use 21st Century tools?


  1. Why block? For the same reasons as follows:

    1. Many times there are fences between playgrounds and parking lots.
    2. School libraries have practically no objectionable material in them.
    3. Medicines have safety caps on them so kids can't get them.
    4. There are children's menus in restaurants.
    Etc., etc...

    There are times children need to be protected and not treated as adults at such an early age. This is one of those times. There are plenty of online activities and tools they can use that they should have access to even with filtering on. If not, then the filtering policy needs to be flexible and reviewed monthly if not weekly.

    The vast majority of teachers in districts will openly admit, "I have no idea how to use technology", or "I am not very good with technology." So, train them extensively first, then open up the filters a bit. Not the other way around. Going completely wide open is a disaster waiting to happen that no school administrator (even tech) will be able to contain. Schools don't go completely wide open with anything else...why should this be any different?

  2. To Anonymous,
    I understand where you are coming from, however, not knowing is not an excuse. I didn't know it was wrong to steal from that store will certain not stop you from being arrested. Yes, districts need to do a better job of educating their teachers about how to use technology. But what about students who already know how? And what about progressive teachers who already know how? Why do schools and districts continue to hold them back through unnecessary filtering?

    Lets look at your examples. Kid goes to a playgroud and the parent says don't go over that fence. Kid doesn't listen and goes anyway and gets bit by a dog. The parent did not educate their child as to the dangers outside the fence.Same with the medicine. If the parent does not educate that certain bottles, containers or cabinets are not for little hands or little mouths they are asking for trouble.Children's menus? Again, poor educating on the parents part. It is the same thing with filtering. Instead of giving students all the information about the proper uses of the Internet or social networking tools we just say you can't go there. Sorry, out of luck. To me, that is so backwards of how education should be!

    I know I will never change minds and I am ok with that. As long was we are having conversations. Teachers who want to have access to tools and sites need to feel like they can talk to their administration. Again, we are teaching and preparing students for the 21st Century. Why do we refuse to use the 21st Century Tools?

  3. @Steven, so how do the parents with no Internet access educate their children about the dangers? How do the parents who have no clue about it in general educate their children? Schools need to be more proactive in their approach to Internet use with their community.

    I, too, believe that parents have to be involved in this process. But, until they are all on board and until all teachers can handle the world of Internet and global communication, schools are not ready to go without Internet filtering.

    Back to my fence analogy. The simple fact that the schools put the fences there is because it is the responsibility of the school to protect kids from the dangers that lurk on the other side. It is up to both the schools and parents to educate the kids about that. The fence also keeps people and things from getting in.

    Now, take the fences out completely. You can't tell the others not to come in and you may want to teach students to "watch out", but without the barrier, students don't know where the limit is. Take the filters out of schools and the same happens. You let the bad stuff automatically in and as much as you can teach the kids about that bad stuff, you give them direct access to it. Filtering for teachers/admins is a bad idea. I agree there, but going w/o a filter for kids is equally a bad idea. Why treat them like adults before they are ready?

    Take tech out of the equation. Do this, tell your librarian to bring in all the porn magazines, books on making bombs, books filled with hate speech, etc. and scatter them in among all the books. Then, teach students that it is a bad idea to actively find them. Also, tell them what to do if they come across them. How would your school handle that? After all, the school libraries have always had only a selected list of books/mags available to students. That same mindset needs to be applied here, IMHO.

    Again - filtering teacher access = bad. Filtering student access = common sense. Filters that are overly restrictive = poor implementation or wrong filtering tool

  4. These discussions that pit educators against their IT departments are unfortunate. Most school districts purchase a filtering solution and select categories provided by that solution to block or open. Typically, the categories to select for filtering are pornography, violence, downloads, and other categories that pose high risks to the networking infrastructure either through malware and spyware or high bandwidth consumption. Sometimes, categories like social networking are blocked due to the historically negative feeling of the community or due to the concern of parents. Believe it or not, most parents do not see the educational value in Facebook or My Space and do not want their children on it during school hours. I can't help but believe that any IT department would be willing to open ANYTHING if they know parents are aware that it will be open (parent educatio programs will help) and if teachers request a site be opened for educational reasons. Again, school districts pay for filters. Suggesting that the district IT department should weed through the millions of sites that are blocked to open what they think might be used educationally is the same as suggesting they not purchase a service but spend their time weeding through every website that is created (1,000 per minute) to determine what is or is not objectionable. Instead of complaining in generalities, let's complain only if we have requested a site be opened and the IT department declined. And, in that case, what was the reason for the negative response? Was it that approval from parents had not been secured, that the site contained malware, spyware, or viruses? That the site was bandwidth intensive? I don't think we will hear even one case of anyone in an IT department who replied that "It's blocked because I want to block it." If we are all working to the common good of educating children, let's develop a common rhetoric to make technology work for the good of all.