Tuesday, November 17, 2009

An article on schools blocking sites

Here is a piece I wrote this summer, which has been rejected for publication. So here it is.

When I present at conferences or train teachers on using technology tools in their classrooms. We discuss setting up Personal Learning Networks, for their professional development, sites to find and share activities for lessons, and sites their students can use to work with others around the world. Following these workshops the teachers are excited and ready to expand their classrooms beyond the walls of their school. When they get back to their school a new reality hits them. The sites that are collaborative and useful are blocked on their district network. This causes frustration and disappointment. The teachers write to me about their attempts to work with their technology department to get the sites unblocked, usually unsuccessfully. The impression they get is that the technology departments are concerned about security of the network, and afraid of consequences of the actions of some students. What is needed to overcome this problem, and what would the fallout from this be?

My children go to a different school system from where I work. Their school blocks several sites and has a restrictive Internet policy. Generally the students know how to go around the blocks, and this is fairly common knowledge. In my district, I block what I feel is the minimum needed to follow the requirements of The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), and when reviewing computer and network logs, I find that students tend to do the work they are assigned on the computers, and spend little time attempting to go around the blocks in the system. In my children's school, pieces of network equipment are accessed and changed, simple things such as changing a printers default language, or putting passwords on printers are done by the students. This not an exception, I have found, in informal discussions, that districts that heavily block sites, have more issues with students working on going around the blocks rather than getting to work. It has become a game with the students, rather than using the computers they are attempting to get around or "fighting the system" out of frustration. I know that my district has its share of students attempting and succeeding getting around our filter, but with monitoring, we are able to see what is going on and try to fix the situation.

When we have young children, and take them to the park, we tend to keep close tabs on them, watching and correcting their behaviors. As the children age, we continue to monitor them, helping them make good choices. Eventually we hope we have taught them what they need to do in order to be safe in the park and getting to the park, so we let them go alone. We still check on them, and ask about what they did, and if something is not right, we help them understand. Using this we hope that we have taught our children what they should do out in the world, and what they should not do. We need to do similarly with Internet usage. The students need to learn and be guided on their behaviors. We need to educate and guide them in the basics of digital citizenship in early grades, and continue to guide them through the school years. Many educators and adults have the belief that students know more about technology and therefore there is nothing to teach, this is not true, anymore than if your child knows how to fix a car, that they know more about driving than you do. We are past a point that ignorance is an excuse. We need to understand that information on the Internet is no different than information found elsewhere. Some good, some bad. We need to teach how to tell the difference. Teachers have been able to do this while evaluating print material, this is no different.

Where the problems seem to stem from is confusion as to what is to be filtered or blocked according to CIPA requirements or if Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) demands some controls on teacher or student Internet access. One point is easily dismissed; FERPA is about student record privacy. It has nothing to do with Internet blocking; it has to do with local network security. CIPA requirements are surprisingly simple, it requires that there be technology protection measures (some sort of filter) to block access to pictures that "are obscene, child pornography or harmful to minors" nothing else. Any blocking above this is a district decision. One requirement of CIPA seems to be missing from many schools, that is "Schools and libraries must also certify that, as part of their Internet safety policy, they are educating minors about appropriate online behavior, including cyber bullying awareness and response and interacting with other individuals on social networking sites and in chat rooms. " It appears as if the writers of CIPA want schools to educate about using the Internet. Schools are to adopt a policy with this in mind. Is this being done in your district?

I tread in two worlds, I taught in the schools for 15 years before becoming a technology director, I know what it is like being in the classroom, and when I see some of the available tools for student and teacher use, I want to have teachers use them. In my technology director world, I seem to be in a minority, many of my peers come from a technology background in business or similar, and do not have classroom experience. I tend to look at networks from a different perspective than they do. I look at school Internet access as a resource for the students and teachers to use, and that we can, through training, guide students and staff in the correct usage of this resource. If there are abusers of the Internet, we deal with individual cases, such as the teacher that spent a good portion of her school year planning her wedding, or the student, who was doing research on bomb making, which was not a class topic. In these cases, the issue was dealt with, we did not suddenly close off sites, but educated these people on appropriate behavior, and used the necessary disciplinary methods to deal with them, by the way these disciplinary methods were spelled out in the Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) that students and staff are required to sign, and are actually required by CIPA.

Technology directors who do not have an education background tend to over block for one of two reasons. Fear. Fear of the unknown or fear of legal action. Web technologies are changing constantly, gone are the days of web pages tending to be static, today the web is about communications and collaboration. This is the world students are living in and will be living in. Some adminstrators, not just technologists, fear what is out there. Several years ago, I did an Internet awareness class for parents, they had heard all of the scare propaganda out there, one would believe that someone was going to reach through the computer screen and drag them into cyberspace. After the class, the parents had less fear and saw what a valuable resource the Internet would be. New advances in web-based technology are occurring all of the time. We need to educate the members of the district to see how these can be used, and we need to educate the students on proper behavior on these social sites, after all it is in CIPA that we do that. How can we teach about these technologies if they are all blocked? How much do we fear legal action in schools? Think about when you were in school and what it is like now. I recall recess with minimal supervision, swings, monkey bars, merry-go-round, slides, we do not see this anymore for fear of lawsuits. Now, if a school has recess, it is on a well-supervised playground with some very safe playground equipment in a padded area. The Internet is out there, we need to supervise younger students, and oversee what they are doing. They will get into places we don't want them to, just as kids will still break arms and legs at the playground. We need to teach what to do when in the "wrong place" on the Internet, just as students are admonished to not jump off the top of playground equipment onto another student. Fear is overcome by education.

The second major consideration for blocking is bandwidth. This is important. Bandwidth is the amount of data your network can carry, and there is a limit. In most homes this is not a big issue, but in schools it can be, we have hundreds or thousands of computers sharing an Internet connection, just like a highway, there could be too much traffic for the road to handle. My district is one of the smallest in our area, but we have more bandwidth than most districts. Several years ago we understood where technology was going, and saw that we needed bandwidth to handle streaming video and similar things. The school board and superintendent were educated about upcoming uses of the web and saw that there was a need, so we upgraded our connection. We now can increase our bandwidth fairly easily, at of course a cost. I have a tough time agreeing that bandwidth is a problem. If it is, update your network; allocate bandwidth resources to specific uses. Don't block, build.

Technology directors can be intimidating. They tend to talk in terms that most people don't understand, do not let them get away with it, control is important to them. Ask for them to speak in terms or analogies for all to understand. It is possible to give a non-answer to almost any query using technical gibberish, it is done in many other fields, and it is not acceptable. I know of a few cases where a superintendent has deferred all decisions about technology to the director, these include educational decisions, because the technology director 'knows more about this stuff'. Superintendents, principals and teachers are the educational experts in your districts, not the technology department. There are wonderful resources 'out there' on the Internet, which students and teachers should have access to. School districts have been pouring money and other resources into their data networks; they should see some results of this investment. The technology department should be held to task as to why the network is not as open as it could be. The network does not belong to the technology director, but to the school. It needs to be run as such. In so many districts I do not see this happening, the networks look like something for the technology department to parcel out, with students being the last consideration in the parcels. That should be reversed; students should be the first consideration.

Teachers want to have some sites unblocked. How do they do this? Does your district have a policy or procedure for evaluating web sites for blocking or unblocking? Some teachers and even administrators feel left out of the process, and have no idea why a site is blocked or why it is unblocked. What I do, is if a teacher wants a site unblocked, I look at the site, and generally open it, with some exceptions. Districts should have a way to review sites and have them opened or closed. Leaving this in the hands of the technology department is not always the best idea. Media specialists, teachers, administrators all have knowledge of age and educational appropriate materials, and if site meet this criteria, they should be opened up for student use.

A year or so ago went to a district to do a presentation, before going, I sent a list of websites I needed to have access to, these were not controversial sites, or high bandwidth sites. When I arrived to give my presentation, I was informed the technology director would not open the sites for me. I had some things on my computer to compensate for this, but my question is, if I was hired by the superintendent to teach something, gave him the list of sites, I would think that he would hold enough sway over the director to overrule his decision. I did not want to push the issue, as I had to do some re-thinking for my class, but in talking with the superintendent, he could not articulate the rational behind the decision. Who is really in charge of the schools ability to teach and learn? Should the technology department have final say? I hope not.

Get to know your school network, it is a wonderful resource for all, and should be opened with that in mind.

"Children's Internet Protection Act". Federal Communications Commission. 7/9/09 .

“Children and the Internet”. National Conference of State Legislatures. 7/10/09 http://www.ncsl.org/IssuesResearch/TelecommunicationsInformationTechnology/StateInternetFilteringLaws/tabid/13491/Default.aspx

"Unmasking the Digital Truth" 7/15/09 http://unmaskdigitaltruth.pbworks.com/cipa

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