Better Strategies Needed for School Internet Access

By Justin Reich
Saturday, July 11, 2009

Web site filters in schools have had tremendous success in keeping one group of people from freely searching online. Unfortunately, that group is teachers.

Content filters are knee-high fences around the Internet: They may trip up older folks, but teens leap right over. Walk the halls of a public school, and students will readily share tips for evading filters, some of which would be good work-arounds for the Great Firewall of China. Recently, a student from Hingham, Mass., pointed me toward the Facebook group "How to access Facebook from school," which has 187,000 members. Those members receive strategies on simple methods to surf freely at school. Put another way, every time school administrators patch one weak spot in their defenses, these kids are prepared to drill open a hundred more holes.

In a battle between overwhelmed school IT staff and a 187,000-member Facebook group, plus dozens of other filter-bashing networks, blogs and e-mail discussion groups, the smart money is on the students.

Under the Children's Internet Protection Act of 2000, any school or library that uses federal funds to buy computers is required to install Internet filters. Such legislation may score political points, but it isn't safeguarding students from online hazards. More often, filters hamstring teachers' efforts to develop lessons that effectively prepare students for 21st-century challenges.

Ask teachers about how to get around filters and a frequent response is, "I have no idea." The next most-common response: "I have no idea, but when I need to get to a blocked site, I ask a student for help."

Filters prevent a great majority of teachers from gaining access to valuable online teaching tools and multimedia content, such as historical newsreels on Google Video, citizen reporting from blogs on Blogger, or opportunities for international dialogue through instant messaging services such as Meebo. Many teachers who begin experimenting with teaching strategies that use emerging Web technologies get frustrated and give up when filters block their plans. Filters ensure that some teachers can't access clips from video-sharing sites, can't connect with other classrooms through social networks, and can't use blogs or wikis to create collaborative learning environments. Yet while teachers have their hands tied, students can easily wriggle into MySpace or play with their Nintendo emulators.

The best strategy for protecting students online is educating them about Internet citizenship and safety. Young people need to learn about safeguarding their personal information, handling cyber-bullying, reporting and ignoring advances from strangers, avoiding online scams, and being courteous in online communication. They must understand the dangers and consequences of making details of their private lives available to the public. This education needs to happen at home as well as in homerooms, health classes, school assemblies, technology classes and guidance counseling.

The other effective strategy for protecting youths online is supervision, both high-tech and old-fashioned. Teachers whose classes use computers need to patrol their classrooms to observe student screens. School librarians and IT staffers need to have desks near computer clusters. As new schools are built, computer labs should be placed in high-traffic areas with big windows that enable staff members to easily monitor activity. Schools also need to use classroom management software that allows a staff member at one computer to monitor the screen activity of all students in a lab or classroom.

These are big tasks, but schools can't shy away from them. The Internet is an integral and growing part of our lives and, to prepare our children for the future, schools must help students wisely and safely use the Web. The millions of stimulus dollars to be spent on modernizing classrooms won't transform learning if students can't participate in the online forums that are reshaping the economy, journalism, government and society. If government has any helpful role to play in making school Web surfing safer, it should fund the development of online safety curricula and research into effective supervision software and strategies. Requiring more filtering would throw more resources at a failed approach. Another emerging and misguided strategy is requiring certain Web sites, such as social networks, to use age verification software; evading these new obstacles won't be much harder than evading filters.

Our students are at risk of making bad decisions online, and our knee-high fences won't help. Filters stifle teaching innovations and don't effectively keep students safe. If you don't believe me, I can refer you to 187,000 kids who will set you straight.

The writer, a former high school teacher, is a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-director of

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