Do Internet Filters Undermine the Teaching of 21st Century Citizenship?
We all know that Internet filtering policies have the best interest of students in mind. But what are we sacrificing when we don’t allow educators to override filters at their own professional discretion? It’s something I’ve asked myself over the years, but I’d never had to confront it head-on as I did this week while participating in an educational workshop at the JFK Library in Boston.
Before I go any further, please forgive me if I come across as snarkier than usual; I’m writing this while stranded at Boston’s Logan Airport, wondering if my flight home, already three hours late, will even get off the ground. But my extended time at the airport, despite the incessant playing of Foreigner’s “I Wanna Know What Love Is” every 45 minutes, has given me some time to reflect on the reason I came to Boston and what ensued during my visit.
A few months ago, I was invited by the JFK Presidential Library to give a speech to a group of educators, historians and media professionals participating in their annual summer educational institute. This year’s institute is focusing on the history of journalism, and my job was to talk about (what else) the impact of Web 2.0 on the media. I’ve posted my presentation, Beyond the Fourth Page, online if you want to check it out.
(Side note: If you’re wondering why the presentation was called “Beyond the Fourth Page,” it’s a reference to the first independent US newspaper, Publick Occurences, published in 1690. It was a terrible newspaper - xenophobic and anti-Catholic, just for starters - and it only got printed once before authorities shut it down. But the publisher did something surprisingly Web 2.0ish - he left the fourth page totally blank, so readers could jot down comments and other news, then pass it along to another reader. So in that sense, he was 300+ years ahead of his time. But I digress….)
If you look at the powerpoint, one thing you’ll notice is that I focus heavily on the impact of YouTube and other websites that allow the public to share their own multimedia content as contributions to civic discourse. The slides included various examples of the impact of user-generated video on media and politics, including the video where then-Senator George Allen referred to a young Indian man as “Macaca,” as well as the parody of the famous Macintosh “1984” TV ad, retooled to lampoon Hillary Clinton as Big Brother.
The point of these examples and others was to engage the teachers in a conversation over the relationship between media literacy and the meaning of citizenship in the 21st century. It’s a topic that I’ve been thinking about for a few years now, going back to when the Partnership for 21st Century Skills was attempting to draft a comprehensive definition of technology literacy that went beyond basic IT skills. During the consultation phase of that project, I encouraged them to think of 21st century skills as a means to a particular end - 21st century citizenship.
By that, I don’t mean citizenship in terms of who has the right to vote. Instead, I was thinking of what’s sometimes referred to as active citizenship. This is the idea that we all have a role to play in improving the quality of life in our communities, whether through public service, charity, volunteering, civic participation, etc. We all possess the potential for creating valuable civic capital through our own good deeds, so the more we can do in our communities, the better off they’ll become.
Historically, many of us who have embraced this notion of active citizenship have done it in traditional ways - participating in local politics, raising money for charities we care about, creating petitions or community groups to seek some sort of policy change, writing letters to the editor, etc. Increasingly, though, activities such as these are taking place online. The Internet, and Web 2.0 tools in particular, make it easier than ever for people to make a difference and become civically engaged. And as an equal-opportunity mass distribution channel, the Net lets all of us reach a potentially enormous audience, whether to influence others or rally people in support of our civic causes.
But you can’t do any of this without certain skills. If you lack the technical skills to utilize these communications tools, you can’t participate online and catalyze civic influence. And if you lack the media literacy skills to understand how other people are creating content or what their underlying motivations are, you face the possibility of being manipulated. As Spiderman learned again and again, with great power comes great responsibility. The Internet is a powerful tool, and if you don’t learn how to use it effectively, you yourself may end up being used.
So with this thinking in mind, I was looking forward to giving these educators a civic tour of cyberspace, including YouTube and several social networking sites. But when I clicked the link to the “macaca” video, a message appeared on my screen, informing me I was trying to access content that has been deemed “inappropriate.”
The room went totally silent for a moment, then erupted in laughter. Here we were, a group of educators participating in a professional development seminar trying to discuss the role that Web 2.0 sites can play in civic education - at a presidential library, no less - and we were denied access to the information and tools we needed to have that discussion. My hosts at the library did their best to override the filters, but no one could figure out how to do it. I literally had to pantomime some of the video clips to give them a sense of what I was going to show them - and obviously, I couldn’t do any of them justice. One teacher then offered a tip to the group: if you ever get blocked, ask your students for help - they can show you a number of ways to get around the filter and access YouTube.
I never thought I would hear that - a teacher openly advocating to her colleagues that they should ask their students for best practices on how to violate school policies. But I can’t say I’m surprised. Many advocates of filtering policies insist than an educator may ask to have a site unblocked when it needs to be used in the classroom. But very few teachers have the ability to either get this done promptly by the filter’s administrators, or the authority to do it themselves. They can’t teach what they’re trying to teach. Here endeth the lesson.
We’re at a momentous time in the history of American politics. The Internet is playing a bigger role than ever when it comes to civic discourse. Those people with the access and skills to embrace social media can now participate in ways that America’s founders never would have dreamed of. But for educators who aren’t trusted to use their professional judgment, an important opportunity to teach their students about 21st century citizenship is being squandered. -andy