"Protecting" Our Students

Last week on the Ohio Tech Coordinators’ listserv, tech guy John Case tore the lid off the web filtering debate. He pointed out these facts:

  • Most schools block social networking sites, because objectionable content can easily be posted by visitors to these sites.
  • Most schools have filtering systems that can be circumvented by knowledgeable and/or ambitious students.
  • Many technology in education luminaries (including Alan November and Will Richardson) think social networking sites have a place in education.

StopJohn floated the idea of building an internal system which would allow students to participate in an online social environment within the school. This would take the “walled garden” approach of only allowing students within the school to read and add content. This is something we’ve tried on a very limited scale, and it has worked. The students can participate in an online community. They learn how to be responsible members of that community by not posting inappropriate content and not sharing personal information. Because they’re using their network accounts, all of their activity is identifyable, so they’re responsible for their actions. It has worked fairly well.

The problem is that it doesn’t truly give them the perspective that a global community might bring. I know that I have blog readers thoughout the US and in Canada, Australia, and Germany. While I don’t often get comments from these people, they read the pages or subscribe to the feeds and contribute when they’re moved to do so. In a closed system, we only have the people in the school who can contribute.

From the school’s perspective, if we block social networking sites, we can pretend to protect our students from accessing inappropriate content. But without a clear definiition of what a social networking site is, we end up blocking anything where users can contribute content. Increasingly, that’s a lot of stuff.

Consider this: Alexa attempts to rank the most popular sites on the web by tracking use of their toolbar. It’s not the most scientifically accurate way of measuring web use, but it does produce fairly believeable results. Of the top 20 sites listed, ten are blocked by our web filter. If we block every site that allows comments, or lets you share files, or uses email tools, we’re left with the static web of the 90’s, where all we can do is use it as a giant digital library.

Even beyond the social networking issue, there’s lots of material online that could be considered inappropriate. Last summer, as I was redesigning our schools’ portal pages (which are the default home pages on our browsers), I considered incorporating news feeds from various sources. After a couple days, I ended up burying the news feeds on a subpage rather than keeping them out front, because they almost always contain violence or sex. You can check for yourself on the news page from our high school portal. Odds are, there will be a link to some news items that we probably don’t want all of our students reading about.

At some point, we have to start teaching our students to be responsible Internet users. Most people don’t have filtered Internet access at home. Our schools are supposed to provide adult supervision in all areas where students are using the Internet. It may be time to stop relying on the technology to protect them.

I’m not saying that we’re going to turn off the Internet filter. The federal government has made sure that’s not going to happen. But maybe it’s time to stop worrying so much about what someone might post online, and start teaching our students how to behave responsibly — as both information creators and information consumers — in this environment.

One thought on “"Protecting" Our Students

  1. “Our schools are supposed to provide adult supervision in all areas where students are using the Internet.”

    What does “adult supervison” mean – an adult simply present in the room (completely ineffective) or an adult actively engaged in looking over kids shoulders as they are online (completely unrealistic). How does this “rule” apply in an age where school campuses and other public areas are increasingly wi-fi enabled and internet devices are increasingly smaller and more convenient? If a student could use her cell phone to access the internet in the bathroom, could the school district be held liable if there is no adult present there at that time?

    “It may be time to stop relying on the technology to protect them.”

    Technology cannot really protect them. One of the most critical roles technology plays in our society today is expanding and organizing our access to data, information, knowledge, and opinion. Filtering software on an institutional level makes no sense because members within a large group of people will rarely agree on what should be filtered.

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