Do You Want Kids to Be Safe Online? Loosen Those Filters!

Article excerpt

I AM on a mission to spread the word that Draconian filtering at schools is a practice that produces negative outcomes. The time to speak out about such constraints is now! As I write this, on a warm sunny day in September 2008, I am conscious of the fact that this column will be published in January 2009. Thus I am challenging readers to make a New Year's resolution to work for gaining more internet access for students and faculty members in K-12 schools.

This has long been a mantra with me, and I believe that, as time goes by, the stated reasons for such filtering become harder to justify. Let me hasten to say that I am not campaigning for frivolous surfing at the expense of bandwidth that should be used for educational purposes. I am talking about the kind of filtering, often banning any use of words deemed objectionable, that keeps kids and teachers out of so many great educational resources.

My first article in this series about filtering appeared in the September issue of MMIS, and a second followed in November. By way of recap, to this point I have offered a general description of the situation, followed by what I think is the most compelling argument to use with administrators when requesting more access: that other districts are moving far ahead and doing well with access that allows entree into Web 2.0 resources.

In this column I will offer a second strong reason to take another look at very tight filters: that allowing additional access helps us make kids more, rather than less, safe. I am painfully aware that many educators wish they could do more online instruction and activities with kids, but they fear jeopardizing their jobs by "making waves." So I am joining my friend Nancy Willard, a noted cyber-safety and filtering expert, in speaking out in the hopes that I can in some way provide weight to the argument.

MORE ... NOT LESS ... SAFE

Why do I assert that students are more rather than less safe with increased internet access at school?

To many that may sound counter-intuitive! Here are some reasons for saying this that I find compelling:

* If we have access, we can teach kids about good and bad sites. Some of my students report that in their schools, students are not allowed to search the internet at all. Instead, they are only allowed to use sites from preapproved lists. To get a site on such a list, a teacher or librarian must make a request, which is then relayed to a technology liaison or school/district administrator. Then, the requestor must wait for the request to be reviewed and (hopefully) granted. It is not hard to imagine that by that time, the need for the site has long since passed. In other instances, teachers and students may search online, but far too often the sites they want to view are blocked. Even if the unblocking process is very fast, students are not being taught how to be safe and smart searchers. They are receiving no instruction about how to size up a site to determine if it is authoritative, unbiased, and appropriate for their use. Then, when they go home, to the public library, or elsewhere on their own time, they are babes in the woods regarding website evaluation. Sadly, their teachers may also be uninformed and are just relying on the filters and lists, since that is their only avenue to internet use. Other teachers simply give up altogether. Kids in these schools are not being well-served.

* Filters both underblock and overblock. We know from numerous studies and evaluations of various filtering applications that they are far from 100% effective. Students easily circumvent filters by searching with terms in languages other than English and by other inventive tactics. And, of course, the internet abounds with sites that teach students how to skirt filters completely. As far as underblocking is concerned, even with filters, inappropriate sites certainly slip through. Furthermore, no filters guard against information that lacks authority or is inappropriate for student use regarding age. …