Dispelling Myths About Blocked Websites in Schools

| September 20, 2011 | 5 Comments
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Larry Gonzalez

I’m at a small gathering of education journalists, policymakers and school leaders today, and in attendance is the Department of Education’s Director of Education Technology, Karen Cator.

Cator told me that teachers continue to thank her for outlining these important clarifications about schools blocking access to Web sites. For those who haven’t seen the original article, which followed an article about surprising blocked Web sites, here it is again.

Cator parsed the rules of the Childrens Internet Protection Act, and provided guidance for teachers on how to proceed when it comes to interpreting the rules. To that end, here are six surprising rules that educators, administrators, parents and students might not know about website filtering in schools.

  1. Accessing YouTube is not violating CIPA rules. “Absolutely it’s not circumventing the rules,” Cator says. “The rule is to block inappropriate sites. All sorts of YouTube videos are helpful in explaining complex concepts or telling a story, or for hearing an expert or an authentic voice — they present learning opportunities that are really helpful.”
  2. Websites don’t have to be blocked for teachers. “Some of the comments I saw online had to do with teachers wondering why they can’t access these sites,” she says. “They absolutely can. There’s nothing that says that sites have to be blocked for adults.”
  3. Broad filters are not helpful. “What we have had is what I consider brute force technologies that shut down wide swaths of the Internet, like all of YouTube, for example. Or they may shut down anything that has anything to do with social media, or anything that is a game,” she said. “These broad filters aren’t actually very helpful, because we need much more nuanced filtering.”
  4. Schools will not lose E-rate funding by unblocking appropriate sites. Cator said she’s never heard of a school losing E-rate funding due to allowing appropriate sites blocked by filters. See the excerpt below from the National Education Technology Plan, approved by officials who dictate E-rate rules.
  5. Kids need to be taught how to be responsible digital citizens. “[We need to] address the topic at school or home in the form of education,” Cator says. “How do we educate this generation of young people to be safe online, to be secure online, to protect their personal information, to understand privacy, and how that all plays out when they’re in an online space?”
  6. Teachers should be trusted. “If the technology fails us and filters something appropriate and useful, and if teachers in their professional judgment think it’s appropriate, they should be able to show it,” she said. “Teachers need to impose their professional judgment on materials that are available to their students.”

Here’s the full transcript of my Q&A with Karen Cator.

Q. Please describe what CIPA does and does not mandate.

A. CIPA does require that any school that funds Internet access or their internal network connections with E-rate has to implement filters to block students’ access to content that could be harmful to minors.

The best way of thinking about this whole topic is in terms of “rules, tools and schools.”
There are rules in place for a good reason. CIPA does require that we block or filter inappropriate sites, but if sites are found that are deemed appropriate they can be unblocked. So having the process in place for unblocking sites is definitely important.

Q. Is it illegal for teachers to access these sites, too?

A. These sites don’t have to be blocked for teachers. Some of the comments I saw online had to do with teachers wondering why they can’t access these sites. They absolutely can. There’s nothing that says that sites have to be blocked for adults.

Rules are in place to attempt to protect minors form inappropriate materials. We also need school-based rules –  usually in the form of acceptable use policies that students sign that say, “I will use this computer or access the Internet, and I agree to abide by rules in my school.” Sometimes it will say that if you come across something inappropriate that you shut it down immediately and tell an adult.

 

The second way to address this topic is by thinking about tools. These are technology tools that are put in place to filter sites that are inappropriate. These filters are getting better and better. What we have had is what I consider brute force technologies that shut down wide swaths of the Internet, like all of YouTube, for example. Or they may shut down anything that has anything to do with social media, or anything that is a game. These broad filters aren’t actually very helpful, because we need much more nuanced filtering. Better filters would be incredibly helpful.

The third way to address the topic is at school or home in the form of education.
How do we educate this generation of young people to be safe online, to be secure online, to protect their personal information, to understand privacy, and how that all plays out when they’re in an online space. We also want students to be nice to each other, and not to engage in bullying, in an online space where their voice is amplified and persistent. We want students to grow up to be good digital citizen.

So there are rules that are in place, the technology tools in the form of more intelligent filters, and then it is an absolute necessity to provide good digital education for this generation of students. And that requires providing professional development for adults working with these students.

Q. Just to be clear, are schools or teachers circumventing rules if they show YouTube videos or other blocked sites to students?

A. Absolutely it’s not circumventing the rules. The rule is to block inappropriate sites. If the technology fails us and filters something appropriate and useful, and if teachers in their professional judgment think it’s appropriate, they should be able to show it. Teachers need to impose their professional judgment on materials that are available to their students.

All sorts of YouTube videos are helpful in explaining complex concepts or telling a story, or for hearing an expert or an authentic voice — they present learning opportunities that are really helpful.

If a filtering system is not intelligent enough to sort sites out, then the teacher is the next best one to do so. If a site is blocked for a teacher, then the I.T. person can unblock it if that’s the way the network is set up.

From the DOE’s National Education Technology Plan:

Balancing Connectivity and Student Safety on the Internet

E-Rate is a federal program that supports connectivity in elementary and secondary schools and libraries by providing discounts on Internet access, telecommunications services, internal network connections, and basic maintenance. Schools, school districts, and consortia can receive discounts on these services ranging from 20 to 90 percent depending on their level of poverty and geographic location.

Schools’ eligibility for E-Rate money is contingent on compliance with several federal laws designed to ensure student privacy and safety on the Internet. The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires any school that funds Internet access or internal network connections with E-Rate money to implement filters that block students’ access to content that may be harmful to minors, including obscenity and pornography. CIPA also requires schools receiving E-Rate discounts to teach online safety to students and to monitor their online activities.

Ensuring student safety on the Internet is a critical concern, but many filters designed to protect students also block access to legitimate learning content and such tools as blogs, wikis, and social networks that have the potential to support student learning and engagement. More flexible, intelligent filtering systems can give teachers (to whom CIPA restrictions do not apply) access to educationally valuable content. On the other end of the spectrum, some schools and districts filter students’ online activities with proxy servers that meet CIPA requirements but are easy to get around, minimizing their utility for managing and monitoring students’ online activity.

CIPA also has posed challenges to accessing school networks through students’ own cell phones, laptop computers, and other Internet access devices to support learning activities when schools cannot afford to purchase devices for each student. Applying CIPA-required network filters to a variety of student-owned devices is a technical challenge that may take schools months or years to implement. However, districts such as Florida’s Escambia County Schools have created technical solutions and accompanying acceptable use policies (AUPs) that comply with CIPA regulations, allowing Web-based learning on student devices to run on networks supported by federal E-Rate funding.

Source: Universal Service Administrative Company 2008.

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  • http://edsurge.com mattwbowman

    A strong filter (that blocks most of YouTube) is, imo, absolutely the right thing to do in middle school, where maturity generally hasn’t caught up with hormones yet. (Right now the administration at the k-8 blended school where I work is dealing with this question.) However,  teachers should have the power to “whitelist” whatever sites they choose on the spot–no approval necessary, no waiting. They should have immediate access to whatever technical admin privileges is required. Teachers, though, need to be savvy and recognize just how much the Internet any given site might open up. Kids will find all loopholes. Yes, we need to teach them to browse responsibly, but they need some training wheels at first. You don’t teach a kid to swim by throwing him into a sharktank.

    • bobv

      I mostly agree with what you are saying but I would add the following. A teacher with the power to whitelist on the spot with no waiting is absolutely responsible for that. If their judgement is impaired by their judgement then the hammer falling should strike them hard.

    • mainsensei

      i have (on more than one occassion) been ambushed by inappropriate comments on YouTube videos. There are some odd birds out there that enjoy sabotaging innocuous sites with vulgar posts. While the videos themselves are great, it’s the uncontrolled, random element that poses a problem. Same thing happened on Vine. Someone wrote a fabulous article about how to use it in the classroom. I test ran it by my 12 y.o. son. Within 10 minutes he accidentally stumbled across a video of a mentally disabled teen being abused by his “mother.” Makes me very wary of introducing unfiltered tech in the classroom.

  • http://www.lightspeedsystems.com Amy Bennett

    I appreciated this article very much when it first appeared. What Cator calls nuanced filtering we’ve called smarter filtering: differentiated policies for teachers or different age students; safe access to YouTube videos; ways to safely integrate collaboration and social media into the classroom; teacher overrides and other features. We’ve released a guide, Web Filtering in Today’s Schools, which attempts to get IT and educators discussing these issues and collaborating to create balanced web filtering policies. You can get it here: http://www.lightspeedsystems.com/landing/web-filtering-best-practices.aspx

  • amon

    “Just to be clear, are schools or teachers circumventing rules if they show YouTube videos or other blocked sites to students?”

    Unfortunately if your school blocks it, it is circumventing rules. Part of it is the Law, but the other reasons i have found school block websites is productivity. They are blocked, just like in many workplaces. Is it fair, no, but its not the law its a school rule.