Sunday, October 11, 2009

Beyond the Blacklist

Internet filtering is a hot topic, highlighted by many bloggers recently during Banned Books Week. At my school last year, our tech staff implemented their solution to filtering: a whitelist. (I should be hearing audible gasps from across the internet as you read this.) Instead of blocking potentially harmful sites (which included anything "distracting" at this school), they argued it would save everybody time and trouble to just allow kids to use a hand-picked version of the web, and make it easy for teachers to request sites they wanted added to the whitelist.

To their credit, our tech staff did not make this change lightly or without involving the staff in the discussion. They assured us it would be okay: all *.gov and *.org TLDs would be on the whitelist (I'm not sure if they knew that anybody could get a *.org, no different than *.com), they were going to promote use of the Librarians' Internet Index, and new sites could be added by teacher request. Also, teachers' computers had totally unfiltered access to the web, so we wouldn't be inconvenienced by rules meant for students (which reduces teacher complaints/awareness). For students there would be no Facebook, no YouTube, and no Google. (The "no Google" policy didn't last long - the school provided a custom Google search several weeks after the whitelist was implemented after many complained. It still only searches the whitelist, however.)

The whitelist survived the rest of the school year and remains in place. It doesn't help that few staff members are what I would consider web2.0-savvy. (Some of our teachers had to be taught a couple years ago that spreadsheets could be scrolled left and right, not just up and down. Asking some to teach their classes how to edit Wikipedia would be like asking them to take their class on a field trip to the moon.) With predominantly tech-novice teachers, the whitelist will remain, available resources will be underutilized, and the information gap will grow. Students aren't allowed to use their mobile phones and the tech staff practically lives in fear that a student will bring a laptop into the building and want internet access. I'd like to believe this school is an exception to the norm, but it isn't. Restrictive access to information and technology tools leaves students and teachers to search for work-arounds, such as described by Dr. Alec Couros in his post, "Freedom Sticks For The Classroom."

We spend a lot of time trying to ensure our content is relevant to our students, but increasingly how we deliver content is what is losing relevance. Students understand how technology increases their power and access socially, and expect technology to increase their power and access educationally, too. Schools need to rethink their policies, such as described by Will Richardson in his post, "Don't, Don't, Don't vs. Do, Do, Do." So with less restrictive access, how do we encourage effective and productive uses of technology? We teach. We teach students how to search, how to judge the quality of information, how to avoid distraction, and how to give back to that great body of knowledge that is the internet.

To quote Ira Socol, "let's follow up 'Banned Books Week' with 'Banned Sites Year' - a commitment to replacing filtering with education and intelligent conversation." Get your tech staffs involved, and hope they adopt stances like St. Vrain Valley here in Colorado, as described by Bud Hunt in his post, "Would You Please Block?":
What we’ve decided is that we will no longer use the web filter as a classroom management tool. Blocking one distraction doesn’t solve the problem of students off task – it just encourages them to find another site to distract them. Students off task is not a technology problem – it’s a behavior problem. It is our intention that we help students to learn the appropriate on-task behaviors instead of assuming that we can use filters to manage student use. Rather than blocking sites on an ad hoc basis, we will instead be working with folks to help them through computer and lab management issues in a way that promotes student responsibility. We know that the best filters in a classroom or lab are the people in that lab – both the educational staff monitoring student computer use as well as the students themselves.
The internet is the greatest information resource in the history of the world, by far. Access to that resource is more abundant than ever, and people (including students) expect access. (Most students carry a device with them that gives them access, and we tell them to put those devices away.) If we aren't willing to move beyond the blacklist, we need to seriously reconsider what we believe the purpose of education to be. That's a big debate for another day, but I don't think any of us would agree education should be about the restriction of access.