I have a friend in a nearby school district who refers to her overly security-conscious technology department as "The Prevention of Education Unit." From what I hear from other educators, many technology departments deserve this moniker.
One action in particular angers both teachers and students: overblocking Internet resources. Given my training as a librarian, I often find myself at philosophical odds with fellow technology directors who come from the more control-oriented background of technology management. Few conscientious educators would advocate giving children unlimited access to the Internet, with its trash that sometimes seems more plentiful than its treasures. Children should be protected from pornography and schools protected from malware sites—and filters can help accomplish this. In addition, we adults are rightfully concerned when young minds encounter ideas that run counter to what we would consider good values.
But children's and young adults' access should also be considered in light of the long-cherished protections of intellectual freedom. No one has the right to tell someone else what they may or may not read, view, or hear. When single individuals, companies, or devices determine what one may or may not access, censorship is all too possible.
Challenging Misinformation About Filtering
It's not unusual for school districts to block Facebook or YouTube. Some also block Google, Twitter, blogs, or the websites of politically sensitive organizations. Many use Internet filter software provided by outside vendors. Such filters, originally developed for businesses to help keep workers on task, offer broad categories from which their clients can choose. The filter our district uses has 82 categories, ranging from Auctions to Abortion/Pro Life to Computer News, along with old standbys like Pornography (see Brightcloud).
Misinformation about Internet filtering often results in poor decisions about the use of filtering software, leading to unnecessary censorship of online resources. As an education leader, make sure your school's filtering decisions are not based on mistaken ideas like these:
- "The filtering company determines what is blocked, not the school district." Most filters have a great deal of customizability. Schools can enable or disable broad categories of blocked sites. They can also override filters by adding sites to white lists of allowed sites or black lists of blocked sites. Schools can legally turn off filtering on specific computers or provide a filter bypass login for specific users.
- "The Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires that we block Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and so on. We'll lose e-rate funding if we don't." The CIPA reads, "The protection measures must block or filter Internet access to pictures that are: (a) obscene, (b) child pornography, or (c) harmful to minors."1
That's it. Karen Cator, the U.S. Department of Education's director of education technology, reassures educators that schools will not risk losing federal funding for allowing students to access YouTube, for unblocking appropriate education sites that have been blocked by filter categories, or for giving teachers broad access to the Internet.2
- "The process for denying access to instructional materials doesn't apply to online resources." The same process that applies to removing a library book, textbook, magazine, or video from a school also applies to removing access to online materials. Once a district has decided that the Internet is an educational resource, the removal of any specific resource on the Internet ought to follow the same adopted policies and procedures that apply to print formats.
- "The technology director must determine what is blocked." The major intellectual freedom issue related to filters is not whether a particular resource has been blocked or not, but who made the blocking decision and how that decision was made. Determinations about the availability of Internet resources should be made by a formal group that includes educators, technicians, and community members. Such decisions fall into two levels. The first level is the broad filter level—selection of the filtering product itself and the category settings of that filter. The second level is the individual Internet site level (Planned Parenthood, Family Research Council, Flying Spaghetti Monster, and so on). No single individual should be making blocking decisions.
- "Internet filters are so effective that it's not necessary to supervise students while they're online or to teach them about online safety and appropriate use." One of the biggest dangers of Internet filters is overreliance on them. No filter catches 100 percent of all inappropriate sites. Students can use proxies and other workarounds to bypass the school's Internet filter. And increasingly, students are using personal devices such as cell phones and tablets that connect to the Internet through data plans, which are completely unaffected by school filters. Supervising students while they are online is imperative even with the most stringent, pervasive blocking. And there's another benefit to spreading the responsibility for student online safety: Taking the onus off the technology staff will make them less likely to feel they need to overfilter.
Use Filters Wisely
When chosen, configured, and monitored carefully, an Internet filter can become a useful selection tool. A limited filtering system that keeps youngsters from accidentally or purposely accessing inappropriate or even dangerous websites is ethically responsible. It's not the technology but its application that can lead to censorship. It's up to you, the education leader, to bring intellectual freedom and due process into the conversation—while recognizing the need to keep students safe.
Making It Happen: What School and District Leaders Can Do
- Develop, with the technology department, a collaborative process for setting good technology guidelines, rules, and policies—including those regarding Internet blocking. Make sure that educators, not technicians, make the final decisions.
- Have a process in place, similar to an instructional materials review, for handling Internet sites that teachers, parents, and community members may request be blocked.
- Recognize and support funding for sufficient bandwidth to enable the use of streamed media resources.
- Build awareness and expectations that all staff members are responsible for helping students be safe and act appropriately online.
- Implement a curriculum at all grade levels to teach students safe and appropriate online behaviors.