Keeping Kids off the Internet – What’s With the Draconian Filtering Policies?

A couple years ago, I made a commitment to take my classes virtually paperless. Aside from the occasional in-class exam, my students and I rely on our class website and various online tools to move documents back and forth, to have asynchronous discussions, and to create and view presentations. Of course, the catch is that we need the internet, but my school has campus-wide Wi-Fi and I teach in a big city where hotspots and 3G are ubiquitous.

So it’s easy for me to forget that I’m lucky. On my campus the web is available in virtually all of it’s unfiltered glory. On top of the essential tools like our LMS, Dropbox, and Google Docs, we also have access to Web 2.0 sites like Blogger, Ning, VoiceThread, Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Sure, we’re concerned about our students finding offensive content, but we’re also committed to helping our students and teachers make wise online choices. If we’re preparing kids to be in the world, why not educate them about it?

So I’m reminded today that many teachers and students aren’t as lucky. I’m at a Model U.N. conference at a large suburban school in a well to-do area. The school has Wi-Fi, but the filter is so aggressive I can’t access sites my students and I use daily (I’m writing this post on my iPad on 3G).

Others have made the argument against filtering, so I won’t go into that in detail (see excellent arguments here and here), but I’d love to get your opinions. Is filtering necessary? If so, why filter so aggressively? Is there a way to filter effectively that both protects students and allows them to use the Web to its potential? Aren’t we doing students a disservice by blocking the full internet? As my PLN colleague @WackJacq told me this morning: “I’ve students who instead of experiencing epiphanies & wonders, learn about bureaucratic gridlock, & stubborn fear!  When/Where shall our students begin to learn how to use the internet as a learning tool?”

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Comments
  1. Shelley Wright    

    I absolutely agree. I too teach in a school division that is fairly “progressive” compared to many neighboring school division. We have access to Youtube and Facebook. But many school divisions around us don’t.

    And while I admit there’s much on the web that is not worthwhile, I would rather teach kids to filter content, than to teach them they’re not trusted.

    1. Mike Gwaltney - Post Author    

      Glad to hear you have access Shelley. Let’s hope it improves for the others around you! I think you’ve hit the nail on the head – we need to teach kids the essential information literacy skills we expect adults to have. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Teresa    

    I am an elementary teacher in a charter school. We are new and moved into a building in the district that uses the district’s wifi. Because of this, we are unable to get to several sites that are truly relevant to our classes, our students, and the work that we do with them. It’s so upsetting to spend all this time at home, creating lessons that revolve around a site or two, and then find that you can’t use it once you get to school! And because we’re a charter in the district, and technically NOT part of the district, we can’t even request that the sites be unblocked for the period of time that we want to use them! *sigh*

    That said, I had a parent who was VERY upset that I intended to 1) allow my students to use laptops for projects and research and 2) allow them to use the INTERNET of all things to locate information! She demanded to have all links we want to show/use/look at emailed to her a month prior to our using them so that she could determine whether or not it would be okay for her snowflake to view/interact with the site. I even invited her to come and HELP with the research part in the classroom so that she would be able to filter for her own child, but she declined and said that there was no reason at all to use the internet in teaching and requested that her child receive completely alternate projects so that he would not be touching a computer for any reason or that I scrap everything I’d planned to do and do something else without the use of the internet/computers for all the kids. bah.

    1. Mike Gwaltney - Post Author    

      Teresa, thank you for your comment. It certainly is a challenge, dealing with parental concerns re: websites used in class. I empathize as a parent with those that want to somehow control all the content their children see online, but I don’t know if that is possible really. I hope we can all forge relationships with parents that let us work together more effectively (though it sounds in your case like you were dealing with a fairly unreasonable person). I think a supportive administration is helpful in this regard, and I would suggest a school policy statement to let parents know that their kids will be online and that the trained professionals who work with their kids are able to discern what is generally unacceptable content.

  3. Robin    

    I teach in a school in England and our internet is filtered to the max. All email accounts like Yahoo, Gmail, Hotmail are filtered along with anything remotely to do with social networking. I recently requested Animoto be unfiltered but the network manager was ‘concerned’ that it was picked up by the social network filter. You Tube is filtered, mainly due to fears over pornography. Despite several of us requesting that it be unfiltered for staff use only, such as on the PCs in the staff room, we get the same reply – you might download something educational, which then might become porn half way through, as apparently happened to the ICT technician. We could then accidently show it to the kids, thus scarring them for life and getting loads of parental complaints. As if we wouldn’t check the content first! So for myself Google Docs and Twittter and all these other useful resources are denied me due to fear from the powers that be. We do have a VLE, which is very useful, but myself and several colleagues do feel very frustrated by the fear and paranoia that exists at my school.

    1. Mike Gwaltney - Post Author    

      Ouch Robin, I can sympathize with the difficulty you’re having. Let’s hope you can convince your school’s leadership that teachers can be professional and would always check the content first. I hope you can! Thanks for the comment.

  4. Julie    

    When/Where shall students start learning to use the Internet as a learning tool? Of course it should be in school. However, we’ve been told that our filter is set where it is because certain funding we receive requires it. I don’t know if that is true or not.

    What’s happened in our district is that students just find a way around the filters. Kids hacked the Wi-Fi password, post it on Facebook or text it, have it on their phones and iPods, and with the Opera mini-browser, they can even get around the school’s filter. So no website is unblocked.

    What we’ve done is created a culture of sneakiness rather than collaboration with the kids, which furthers the us vs. them mentality so prevalent in most schools…we should be teaching responsible use. Until school boards and administrators realize this “internet thing” isn’t going away, we won’t get anywhere.

    1. Mike Gwaltney - Post Author    

      Julie, it is demoralizing to think that schools have set up an adversarial relationship with students, through which their teachers and school leaders are seen as the enemy who they must undermine – having to resort to a kind of underground method to get to knowledge bases online no doubt causes them to resent school. Disheartening. I hope we can overcome the fears of school board members.

      Thanks for your comment. Best of luck at school.

  5. Lisa Read    

    I, too, am an educator frustrated beyond the pale with filters. It’s all been said here, and well, so I’m just raising my cup of bitterness in commiseration. Here is a link to a few of my rants on this very topic…! http://readlisaread.edublogs.org/?s=blocks

    Thanks for speaking up…it does help knowing one isn’t alone in the wilderness

    1. Mike Gwaltney - Post Author    

      Thanks for your comment Lisa. Let’s offer a toast (with our cups) to a future where we teach responsible use of the internet rather than banning it. Cheers!

  6. Shane Pilkie    

    Unfortunately content filtering is often in place as a result of ignorance and irrational fear of the unknown. We have a relatively good network in our schools but it has some problematic filtering. Firstly, a lot of content is filtered to protect our politicians – they don’t want parents complaining and they definitely don’t want negative media attention so many social networking tools are blocked. Keywords are blocked – often to save money on bandwidth costs – mp3, games etc. This means sites like greatmathgames.com.au are also blocked because of the word game in the URL. YouTube has recently been unblocked for teachers and students can view YouTube videos that have been embedded in moodle or sharepoint sites.
    Most filtering is unnecessary and removes the chance to educate students about online safety. They go home to unfiltered Internet and have no concept of appropriate online behaviours.

  7. Evan Rubin    

    I am a world language teacher trainer at the Language Acquisition Resource Center at San Diego State University. I work with K12 and university teachers and I am often surprised to hear about the extreme filtering that goes on in many K12 schools. Like you Mike, I presented at a high school in Aneheim, CA to a group of language teachers, and I could not access half of the things I wanted to because of filtering.

    Anyways, I’m writing this comment because filtering also make my job more difficult. The goal in my workshops is to not only teach the tech tool, but how to use it responsibly, the pitfalls and dangers, how to create private access, and how to use the tool according to core teaching pedagogy. All these things make teachers aware/more educated about the tools they are using, and then they can implement activities using the tech tools, aware how to teach responsible use, and monitor student activity. Unfortunately, I am usually stopped before I get started when teachers tell me that tool is blocked by their district, and their focus swings to filters, dangers, privacy issues, and away from the training. The extreme filtering discourages teachers, and even though they may want to learn how to use ICT tools, they see no point if its blocked in their classroom. Vicious cycle.

  8. Luke Allen    

    Aggressive filtering tends to be lazy filtering. It’s generally outsourced to some “filtering” company using global settings with little or no regard to educational appropriateness. In-district personnel then adopt a “hands-off” policy, not wanting to be bothered with filter over-rides. I tend to think of it as trying to teach the kids to swim but not letting them in the pool.

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Mike Gwaltney