I was visiting a school district not long ago and had a chance to visit with its curriculum director. In passing, she referred to their technology director as acting like an autocratic character on the Seinfeld television show who had particularly strong beliefs about, yes, soup. The reason? The tech director had been unilaterally blocking Web sites.
School tech directors have two strikes against them to start with. First, educators don't always fully embrace technology. Second, we techies appreciate the vulnerability of the systems we maintain, but most people don’t. We see those viruses, hackers, software conflicts, power surges and SUDs (stupid user dysfunctions) that are always surrounding the fort, waiting for the smallest breach, and then sneaking in and wreaking havoc.
Access to the resources of the Internet has added a twist to the selection of ideas and images readily available to students while in school. Without using a filter, the Internet is an either/or proposition —either students have ready access to all of its content or none of it.
On one hand, valuable and arguably essential resources are available only online, so not giving students access to the Internet is educationally unsound. On the other hand, inappropriate and arguably dangerous materials are online, so giving students complete Internet access is educationally irresponsible.
There is little disagreement that prurient Web sites should be blocked. Most educators agree that Web sites designed especially for students should be available. The problem is that the bulk of sites fall somewhere on a continuum between these extremes. When the Internet is filtered at a district or regional level, high school seniors and preschoolers have the same degree of access.
Maintaining intellectual freedom and providing a healthy and educational online environment may appear to be a difficult balancing act. But some districts seem to have accomplished it by providing a mechanism to give all stakeholders a voice in setting policies. These districts have met the requirements of the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), while giving staff and students access to the greatest range of online resources.
A Collaborative Process
Policies, rules and guidelines related to filtering need to be created through a formal, collaborative process that is undertaken by a group consisting of educators, students, technology staff and community members. Such a group—whether a policy committee, technology advisory group or a building-site team—needs to address the following issues and then make recommendations to the school board and administration.
Filters: Advise whether to use a filter, and, if so, which filter to use and how to configure it.
Blocking: Recommend how to handle requests for sites to be either blocked or unblocked.
Overriding filters: Make suggestions on who should be authorized to override filters, how and under what circumstances.
Measurements: Recommend the best ways to evaluate the effectiveness of the district’s filtering practices and policies.
Practices: Suggest other practices that can help ensure safe, appropriate student access to the Internet.
The group that designs such policies, rules and guidelines should receive reliable information about applicable federal and state laws and local school board policies regarding student Internet access; the types of available filters and the strategies each uses to identify sites to be blocked; research (and opinion) on the efficacy of filtering software; and local network and hardware configurations.
A district’s policy-making groups need to understand the requirements of CIPA and the financial consequences if a district chooses not to meet them.
But even the best filters may both overblock and underblock and offer only a partial solution to controlling access to Internet resources. Overreliance—or sole reliance—on filtering programs can lead to complacency, causing educators to monitor student use less diligently and to teach good evaluation and selection skills less frequently.
Finally, good decisions should be based on the principles and guidelines of other professional organizations, such as the American Library Association, as discussed at ALA’s Web site on CIPA.
Guidelines, policies and procedures need to be documented, distributed and discussed among all stakeholders to ensure there will be no change in practice without a formal re-evaluation.
The Mankato Area Public Schools system in Mankato, Minn., has created sound policies to ensure that students and staff can operate in the least-restrictive Internet environment possible, keep students safe and yet meet the requirements of the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). The district offers these recommendations:
1. Choose filters that are based on features and customization, not on cost or convenience.
2. Use the “override” option in the Internet filter when needed.
3. Treat requests for the blocking of specific Web sites that fall outside the parameters of CIPA (obscene material, child pornography or content harmful to minors) like any other material challenge.
4. Take a proactive approach to ensuring good Internet use by students. Encourage media specialists and classroom teachers to:
• Articulate and model personal values when using technology. Talk to your students about what you believe to be ethical conduct online. Set clear limits about what is allowed and what is not allowed.
• Build student trust. Students—either by accident or orneriness—will access inappropriate sites. Educators should view this as a chance to guide and instruct.
• Allow students personal use of the Internet. Although schoolwork takes priority, there are some good reasons to allow students to access the Internet for personal use, especially in the school library. That gives students a chance to practice skills, gives weight to the penalty of having Internet access taken away and helps make school a place kids want to be.
• Reinforce ethical behaviors and react to the misuse of technology. Technology use behaviors should be treated no differently than other behaviors—good or bad—and the consequences of student behaviors should be the same. It is important not to overreact to incidences of technological misuse.
• Create environments that help students avoid temptations. Good practices include using computer screens that are easily monitored and in areas visible to adults; requiring that passwords not be written down or left in easily found locations; and getting students to log off secure network systems when finished.
• Assess children’s understanding of ethical concepts. Technology-use privileges should not be given until students demonstrate that they know and can apply ethical standards and school policies. The teacher should keep evidence of testing in case a question arises of whether instruction had been given on appropriate use.
• Educate staff and parents about ethical technology use. Through newsletters, talks at parent meetings, staff meetings and school orientation programs, the library and technology staffs need to inform and enlist the aid of all adults in teaching and enforcing good technology practices. This is an ongoing job.
• Help children understand that ethical behaviors are in their own long-term best interest. Rules of society exist because they tend to make the world a safer, more secure and more opportunity-filled place.
Doug Johnson is the director of media and technology for the Mankato Area Public Schools in Mankato, Minn.