Web Filtering and the Schools

Fair warning: This is a rant about the inability to access certain social tools in certain K-12 school systems. [For another rant on a similar subject see this rejection of over-the-top web-related fears in education.]

I’ve presented and talked with a number of different K-12 teachers from a number of different school districts in my roles as a history professor and as a relative of numerous such teachers.

I’ve increasingly been annoyed by the trend among many school districts to block access from their networks to more and more websites. Now, let’s be clear. I understand that there is a great deal of material out there that we’d rather our students did not look at. But the process of filtering and blocking is done is such an awkward, blunt manner that the process of teaching is being impacted. [This is not to mention my problem with the notion that blocking access makes these things go away; we should instead be teaching students to engage the Internet in responsible ways.]

Let me give you some examples.

  • del.icio.us and ma.gnolia.com — social bookmarking sites — I tried to demonstrate del.icio.us to a group of teachers recently, only to find that it was blocked, for reasons no one could explain. — How exactly are these a threat to individuals? Seriously, can somebody explain this one to me?
  • Basic Searches — I was on a K-12 school network and trying to find a citation for a friend to a scholarly article on Civil War prisons. I remembered the title, “Houses of Horror,” but was stymied by the keyword filter placed by the school system on the Google Search I ran. Now, I was able to find a workaround to locate the citation, but finding things online are difficult enough without such restrictions.
  • YouTube — YouTube is blocked by many school systems, and perhaps I can understand why. However, there are many useful videos on there for history (and other) teachers. Why can’t teachers access such materials, even if students can’t? Why block an incredibly useful resource for teachers? [I know there are walled garden version of these: TeacherTube, unitedstreaming, etc. But none of these are YouTube, the largest and most important of the video sites.]

The two biggest problems I have with the filtering are:

1) It ignores the reality that most students will figure out a way around such filtering. Or even if not, they’ll find this stuff outside of school, and likely outside of the guidance of the people who are trained to teach students how to process information in a responsible way. At the least, guided time online outside of walled Internet gardens better prepares students to be better Net citizens. How are students to learn information literacy if they get only a filtered version in the place where they are supposed to be learning critical thinking, source evaluation and knowledge creation?

2 ) It shows a remarkable lack of trust for teachers themselves. Blocking teachers’ access suggests that although they are trusted with teaching 20-40 students at any given time, they are not capable of figuring out which sites are appropriate and which are not. The filtering systems used are too often blunt objects which make it harder for teachers to do their jobs well. [I’ve talked to teachers who’ve never been on YouTube, never heard of del.icio.us, never tried any one of a number of tools central to Web 2.0, and the main reason is that they don’t have access to them in the classrooms and schools where they spend so many hours each day.]

I acknowledge that K-12 school systems face real problems in protecting children and young adults from the worst that is online. I understand much of the effort that they’ve made in this area, and comprehend that there are very real financial and technical constraints. However, in order for school districts to prepare their students for the digital world in which so often live, filtering systems have to become more targeted, and until they are, teachers need to be able to bypass those systems to gain access to some sites that are wrongly blocked.

Am I off the mark here? Am I missing something? Are there other obvious sites/tools being blocked I haven’t listed here? Let me know.

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2 Comments

  1. Are you aware of the CIPA requirement for schools to control/filter content or risk losing federal funds? This is why most schools move to more restrictive controls and policies, whether they want to or not. Some schools (like ours) have the ability to change how access to content is controlled based on the user (teachers more, students less). Not perfect, but better.

  2. Having the ability for teachers to have at least some control over access to content is certainly a step in the right direction. [Again, I understand that there are restrictions that public schools face on these issues. It’s how they deal with them that’s the issue.]

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