Shifting from “Blocking” to “Watching”

When schools first established on-ramps for the information superhighway, the common wisdom was that “filters would protect children as they use the Internet.” I never bought into that myth. My position has always been that the best filtering software sits under the hardware that rides on top of the shoulders. Just in case you are wondering about my long-standing perspective on filtering, here is my testimony before a National Research Council committee addressing risks to young people from online pornography.

I do acknowledge that filters are necessary for school Internet systems. But they have to be managed appropriately so that they do not interfere with effective instruction or school safety. It is inappropriate for schools to place heavy reliance on filtering. Filters will not prevent accidental access and “porn traps.” It must be recognized that there are many ways that students can find to bypass the filter. Look here for some insight on bypassing. Further, just because a site might be considered non-harmful for a students does not mean that site is educational. Filtering companies are not blocking based on instructional objectives.
To manage filters appropriately requires that librarian and curriculum experts make the decisions about appropriate blocking of categories related to subject matter. They are the district’s experts in assessing the appropriateness of material for children. Technical staff must address issues of security and bandwidth. CIPA requires only that pornographic images be blocked – everything else is at the district discretion.

It is important to assess whether the filtering company is blocking based on viewpoint discrimination. Potentially controversial topics to investigate include sites addressing sexual orientation and non-traditional religion. Restricting access to all such sites based on viewpoint discrimination would constitute a violation of civil rights laws and the constitution.

The constitutionality of the Children’s Internet Protection Act was upheld only because it was demonstrated that filters can be quickly and easily overridden to provide access to inappropriately blocked sites. It is very important that districts review products based on how easily such products can manage overrides. Districts must also set up a process whereby such overrides can be easily and quickly accomplished, with assurances of accountability. It should be possible to achieve an override within minutes of a request from a teacher who has already reviewed the site or a staff member who is investigating a safe school concern.

A teacher who was developed a lesson at home and finds when delivering this lesson to students that an important site is blocked should be able to have the filter immediately overridden to provide access this site so that there is no interference with student learning. A student working on a class assignment who thinks there is important information on a blocked site, should only have to wait a short time for the librarian or a teacher to have the opportunity to override the filter and review the site to determine its appropriateness. Most importantly, all safe school personnel must have the ability and authority to override the filter to investigate reports of online material that could raise concerns about student well-being or school safety. Filter overrides are recorded. Any staff member who misuses the authority to override the filter should face appropriate consequences.

Given the recognition of the limitations of filtering, it is essential to look for alternatives to effectively manage student Internet use. Schools must ensure that use of the Internet in school is for educational purposes. This includes class work, extra-credit projects, approved work-completion activities, and approved personal research and use. “Internet recess” (entertainment and non-educational personal use) should be discouraged as an inappropriate use of school resources. Internet recess is the time when students are most likely to engage in misuse.

Effective professional development and curriculum planning are necessary to support this educational use. Districts should also provide technology tools that allow teachers to quickly and easily create lesson plans with links to the appropriate sites. This technology should also allow the teacher to “white list” certain sites and limit student access to only those sites. This “white list” technology is especially critical in elementary school. Districts should allow access to Web 2.0 social network, blog, and wiki technologies that are appropriate for educational use and have systems to ensure effective review and monitoring.

It is also essential that student use be effectively supervised by staff. Staff should understand their obligations to supervise. But staff cannot be expected to be able to see what is on every monitor at all times. This is where technical monitoring can play a very effective role.

It is necessary to shift from a technical blocking-based strategy to a monitoring-based strategy to more effectively manage student internet use. The greater the chance that student (or staff) misuse will be detected and result in a consequence, the greater the deterrence of such misuse.

There are two technical monitoring approaches. The use of remote access monitoring systems should be considered essential for every school. A remote access monitoring system allows a staff member to remotely detect what is on the screens of other computers in a lab, classroom, or building. Simply increasing the potential that misuse will be detected by someone at a distance and will result in a consequence will deter most student misuse.

Intelligent content analysis monitoring systems routinely review all Internet use traffic and provide reports to authorized administrators on suspected misuse. These systems capture all suspect activity and allow for human review to determine whether or not such use was indeed inappropriate. Any district that has implemented a 1:1 laptop program or similar expansive use of technology should have such technology in place.

(Putting on my lawyer “hat.”) Why all of the fuss? We are just trying to stop kids from accessing porn, right? No, wrong. Accessing porn is the least of a school’s worries. Some young people are engaging in cyberbullying. Some are engaging in risky, irresponsible, or harmful online sexual behavior. Some are connecting up with unsafe communities, including those that encourage self-cutting and anorexia, or dangerous groups, such as hate groups or gangs. Some are using the Internet to engage in illegal activities, like drug sales or hacking.

Do schools have the legal responsibility to address these concerns? Yes. Schools must take reasonable precautions to prevent harmful activity that could lead to student injury. Is reliance on filtering a reasonable precaution? No. Schools need to restrict Internet use to educational activities and engage in effective supervision and technical monitoring.

What about student and staff privacy? School Internet systems are not private purpose systems. They are limited purpose systems. Use of these systems by students and staff should be for educational activities only. The degree of privacy that should be expected when engaging in educational activities at school is extremely limited.

When students join the workforce, they will likely be using Internet systems at their place of employment. These systems are also limited purpose systems. Many employers are monitoring all employee Internet use. So Internet use monitoring is something all students should understand is to be expected on certain Internet use systems. They must learn to guide their activities responsible in accord with the purpose of the system.

In January (hopefully) I will have a new Slides-N-Audio presentation available for professional development entitled Effective Internet Use Management in a Web 2.0 World. This will be available through my CSRIU web site.


One response to “Shifting from “Blocking” to “Watching”

  1. Pingback: The Irony of Mandatory Filtering in China vs. the U.S. — Technology Liberation Front

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