Should provincial Ministries of Education create web filtering standards for schools?

January 25, 2009

YES! (with a twist)

Ministries of Education should provide guidelines for internet filtering, ensuring the safety and integrity of school networks, and here’s the twist . . . as long as it doesn’t interfere with teachers and students achieving the outcomes which are also directed by Ministries.

It’s naive to suggest that there should be no filtering of school networks.  In Manitoba, Manitoba Education Research & Learning Information Networks (MERLIN) provides Provincial Technology Standards including hardware and software infrastructures. My understanding is that the most vile, malicious threats and illegal websites are first filtered by MERLIN to maintain the integrity and safety of school networks.

School divisions/schools are then allowed to assign further filtering and security measures, and this in my current understanding, is where the biggest problems begin. I believe the Ministry should provide clear direction that restricts  further attempts to filter the web.

Ministries of Education provide curriculum guides and standards documents for integrating technology in education including this one implemented in Manitoba:

literacywithict

The framework is based on the inquiry process, which is also emphasized in subject curriculum documents.

The continuum also provides examples of some of the tools that student could use to achieve the outcomes  such as blogs, wikis, threaded discussions, video and podcasts.

One of the Student outcomes listed on the continuum is students are expected to apply “guidelines for ethical and responsible use of ICT”.

Ministries of Education create curriculum and support documents like the one above, and they should also set the filtering standards that will ensure the suggested  activities are do-able in schools.

Let’s take a look at some of the problems that can and do fester in schools caused by local control of filtering:

  • Information Systems personnel and technicians are often left to decide what will and will not be blocked instead of educators.
  • There is a tendency to become over-reactive to situations in the news involving cyberbullying or internet predators, resulting in ever-increasing tightening of security on networks.
  • Some sites that are accessible one day become inaccessible the next without warning or explanation.
  • Resources available on YouTube like The Swiss Spaghetti Harvest , recommended for lessons on media literacy on the Manitoba Education Literacy with ICT Blog, are unavailable for many students. (insufficient bandwidth has been cited for the reason – but I thought I’d just throw this one out there because I suspect some will continue to block YouTube for other reasons even after bandwidth to schools increases.)
  • Exemplary educational tools like VoiceThread or PicLits that require students to upload images are blocked for student use, and teachers only realize this after the students are already seated at computers and ready to work. Already-overburdened-teachers throw up their hands and stop using the internet in their practice altogether.
  • Social networking sites and the new collaborative web 2.0 tools are almost always blocked because it’s impossible to block the possibility that students will either create or come across inappropriate content.
  • Educational technology staff in each division spend valuable time to set up alternative division-sponsored and monitored blogs, wikis, on-line educational games, discussion forums and even social networking sites which may not be as authentic, desirable or engaging. These measures also lead to inequity of access for students between school divisions depending on the size and expertise of the educational technology staffs.
  • Students attempting to research their carefully planned, deep-thinking inquiry projects are continually frustrated by blocked content – especially if their topic involves controversial topics like drug use or teenage pregnancy, which are often the nature of topics that they’re most interested in learning more about.
  • Teachers of young students may feel it’s okay to leave students unsupervised online, or feel it’s not necessary to  guide the student’s choice of on-line activity because they think the filter is going to filter out all inappropriate material anyway (even though we know this is not possible!)

And the scariest part is that overly-restrictive filters in schools are paradoxically unsafe and dangerous. Because inappropriate websites and social networking are blocked at school, teachers don’t feel the need, urgency, and more importantly, have the authentic real-life learning situations in which to teach and reinforce the strategies needed to participate ethically, responsibly and safely online.

Who will guide our young and youth when they’re out of class and online? Some parents may know how to do this, but what about the parents and their children who don’t know the dangers and risks or strategies to deal with them effectively?

Local control over filtering has resulted in issues of freedom of access, intellectual freedom, censorship and equity. The IFLA/UNESCO Internet Manifesto Guidelines identify filtering as a barrier, and that “the use of filtering software on public access Internet terminals is a clear obstruction of users’ freedom of access to online information” (p. 20) and that “intellectual freedom is the right of every individual both to hold and express opinions and to seek and receive information; it is the basis of democracy; and it is at the core of library service” (p. 14).

Ministries of Education should maintain the least restrictive filtering measures and at the same time:

  • Provide direction that is much more enlightening, pro-active and protective of student’s rights to access to information and equity.
  • Provide direction to make sure that each school not only creates Acceptable Use Policies that students and parents sign, but make sure they’re taught and reviewed at least twice a year in an age-appropriate way.
  • Recommend and provide training using resources such as the Media Awareness Network Resources for Teachers or the  “Kids in the Know” safety program.
  • Make sure students know how to recognize and respond to instances of cyberbullying. Recommend teachers follow: http://twitter.com/nocyberbullies for trends and solutions.
  • Make sure students know how to recognize the common lures and lines used by internet predators and what to do if confronted with them.
  • Make sure students understand the difference between what kinds of images and information are appropriate in an educational setting, and know how to respond when encountered with inappropriate images and information.
  • Make sure students can recognize the difference between bias and bigotry online, and the most appropriate way to respond to it. What better way to do this than to examine the insidiously racist website: http://www.martinlutherking.org and examine the techniques used to lure followers?  Yet this site is most often blocked for student examination at school. Will they just assume its a reliable site when they come across it out-of-school?

I’m a concerned Teacher-librarian, and I know all teachers don’t agree with me. I suspect many parents don’t agree either. I don’t know what’s being said in principal and superintendent councils, or at the Ministries of Education on this topic, but I’d love to know.

If our Ministries of Education don’t provide clear direction so that necessary resources are available to teachers and students to achieve mandated student outcomes, or the platform to ensure the safe, ethical and responsible use of technology be taught and reinforced, then who will?

My intent is to create opportunity for continued discussion, clarification and understanding.  Do you think Ministries of Education should create least restrictive web filtering standards for schools and why or why not?

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