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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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July202007

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

Filed under : Media Literacy, Policy, Social Networking, Video

Responses

May I quote from the Supreme Court decision on CIPA http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/02pdf/02-361.pdf:

“Assuming that such erroneous blocking presents constitutional difficulties, any such concerns are dispelled by the ease with which patrons may have the filtering software disabled.” (page 17 of the pdf)

And Kennedy’s concurrence: “If, on the request of an adult user, a librarian will un-block filtered material or disable the Internet software filter without significant delay, there is little to this case. The Government represents this is indeed the fact. Tr. of Oral Arg. 11; ante, at 12.” (page 23 of the pdf)

Kennedy further stated: “If some libraries do not have the capacity to unblock specific Web sites or to disable the filter or if it is shown that an adult user’s election to view constitutionally protected Internet material is burdened in some other substantial way, that would be the subject for an as-applied challenge, not the facial challenge made in this case.” (same page)

The reason for the reference to adults is that this is how the case argued. Students also have free speech rights, under Pico - but they are more limited. Still, schools cannot restrict access based on viewpoint discrimination - which is what many filters do.

I maintain that if school staff do not have the authority and ability to quickly and easily override the filterto access perfectly acceptable educationally related material online, the implementation of filtering in such a school is unconstitutional if the blocking is based on unacceptable viewpoint bias.

Further, I know of one filtering company, whose product is used in public schools, that has a close working relationship with a major conservative religious organization. I know of other products that are clearly blocking sites that students should be allowed to access by including them in categories with material that might be questionable - support sites for LGBTQ students in the same category as swinging and other sexual lifestyles and sites presenting non-traditional religion in the same category as cults.

The ACLU will not bring any cases challenging this because of COPA - the criminal law requiring adults sites to have age verification. The ACLU and other civil rights organizations have promoted filtering as a less restrictive alternative. Their promotion of filtering is one of the reasons for the mess schools are in. In the most recent trial on COPA, the ACLU presented research evidence of the effectiveness of filters. The US Government, unfortunately, did not bring a group of high school students into the court room to demonstrate what everyone knows - the only people the filters are effectively blocking in schools are the staff.

Nancy

As a teacher of preschool children who have seen teachers access the internet, expecially You Tube, have never experienced these restrictions. I am sure it is because of the content of what is being accessed, there are not many biased things we would be teaching in preschool. I have mainly seen things along the lines of different animals and thier habitations being accessed.
I can see how this would be a frustration to the teacher. But I think that not being able to access the needed information should not hinder the greatness or powerfulness of the lesson. To every road block there is a way around it. Creativity is a powerful tool when it comes to teaching.
No I am not advocating these blocks. But until something can be done, what can we do?

In retrospect, it was a grave disaster when school librarians, as a profession, failed to set standards for web filtering and demand control of the filters (or, if they tried, they’re pretty quiet about their attempt). We’re pretty much stuck as long as the filters are controlled by IT guys and unaccountable corporations.

Hi Andy…what I find so disturbing about this is that the adults are so media illiterate. This is almost like when people move from one country to another, then ask the kids to translate.

And it shouldn’t be that way.

A particluar techology laziness has set in with adults, which, in turn, has given young people the notion that most adults are “stupid” when it comes to the internet and that as a majority, they are more “mature” than previous generations. Yet I don’t think young people in this generation are any more mature than young people of a previous generation….they’re just more enthusiastic, and, as such, less lazy than many of the adults they encounter.

Andy, what happened to you in your presentation happens to teachers, esp. in the US, daily. It has happened to me countless times in my third grade classroom. As you reflected on your need to sing and dance for your audience, think about when this happens in classrooms, to teachers… thousands of times. Then think of the net effect for those teachers and those students.

Many more thoughts on this, but I’ll leave you with Tom Hoffman’s analogy where he writes about web filtering, “We’ve got a situation akin to letting the clerks in the purchasing department decide whether or not the books ordered by teachers and librarians are acceptable”

Filtering isn’t a solution because we don’t trust our computers to find the information we want - we search for it. Our algorithms for searches are written by other people who are harvesting a database of intentions - that we get the results we wish is becoming more and more a byproduct of the database of intentions: those who give the best results to those who search get the most users and the largest database of intentions.

And the database of intentions seems to demonstrate that there is a disparity between what is maintained as acceptable and what actually is acceptable.

In a library - well - as Nancy pointed out by legal precedent (nice stuff, Nancy!), there are some interesting things to consider. But at the end of the day, if I cannot find and share information at a library, well - what good is the library to me?

I agree that librarians should be involved in deciding filters, but I think the general public should have more say on that as well - which is what Nancy’s comment demonstrates is a Constitutional Right.

Thank you Andy for sharing this experience. As a middle school classroom teacher, I have run into this situation over and over in my district, much to my dismay. It is an uphill battle on a daily basis, and changing the ways in which things are done seems impossible at times. Not only do librarians (who are classified, not certificated) not have the ability to change the filters, but the process required for teachers is an abonimation! We are required to print out (???) a form, fill it out with the website and the curricular/standards connection, have our site administrator sign it, send it in (via district mail) to the Information Management Systems depratment (IT) and wait for them to approve it sometime in the future. Add to that the fact that a supervisor in that department feels it is his duty to police teachers, and many valuable web resources, 2.0 or otherwise, are simply not availabloe for classroom use. I will surely use your experience to shed light on the lunacy of the situation with my district superintendent in hope that some change may be affected. Thanks again!

Your librarians should have done what high school students all over the country do: use a proxy server.

I can somewhat understand the need to filter some content, but the filter of anything web 2.0 in schools, in my opinion is denying children an education. Of course, it is easier for adults to block it than to teach it and it seems more responsible to block it than to work with students and watch what they’re doing.
There’s a generation that is is used to top down decision making that they’re stifling too many of the rest of us!

Hi Andy,

Here in Australia one state has blocked YouTube from schools and most use filtering software. My favourite positive example - that links to your point - is one school that lifts all filters once students enter the 4th grade. They realise that navigating the real Web is an important skill and responsible child welfare.

Regarding the filtering, sure there are proxies, but that mobile phone sitting in a student’s pocket serves as a great modem to by-pass any of the local filters. I also find that my phone connection is typically faster than what locals call “fraud band” down here.

Keep the great insights coming,

Tom —

As a librarian I am both dismayed and not at all amazed that Supreme Court justices would be so naive as to think that it would be easy for adults in authority like librarians and teachers to “turn on” blocked websites. As above the fray and worry of everyday life for ordinary people—privileged, protected, moneyed and catered-to as they are—they have little in common with those of us middle class folks slogging to work in schools and libraries each day, fighting bureaucracy trying to “protect” and police our actions. They don’t encounter it and they don’t know what it is like. Eventually you get tired of it all and go along to get along rather than constantly fight. And the children, the public and democracy suffers.

Andy, for future presentation, perhaps you would download the videos ahead of time? Although our high school staff and students are fortunate to not have to jump through the filter hoops, insufficient bandwidth is a greater obstacle.

As a teacher staff developer, I encourage educators to make use of services like http://zamzar.com to convert and download videos at home, to be integrated into their lessons as needed.

Thanks!

Unfortunately, downloading the videos doesn’t do them justice, because it takes them out of context. I wanted to show how they were being used, how people were commenting on them, how people were linking to them, etc. And it’s really hard to capture that level of online dynamism if you download them to your hard drive. The video is just a part of the story; it’s the community that makes them powerful, and you can’t download that.

Wouldn’t it be better and more cost effective to provide teachers with the necessary software to MONITOR kids online than to filter/block websites? If a kid runs into a roadblock trying to access something that is blocked, they WILL and DO figure out a way to bypass the filter. On the other hand, if I am monitoring all computers and see a student access something inappropriate, for example a gang website, and I approach them and ask them questions and expect them to respond- doesn’t that in itself require kids to be immediately responsible for thier actions? Doesn’t that teach them more about accountability and, consequently, create a stronger deterrent? Might I also find out that they have legitimate business there?
The problem is that teachers aren’t trusted with the information any more than kids are. I don’t mean that in a bitter and resentful way, but truly, in many cases, teachers must be allowed to live up to a high expectation. Just like our students, when we are told we can’t do something because the “district said so” we become frustrated that our curiosity and initiative are knocked down before we are able to explore things. We learn this early on in teacher school, but it so difficult to effectively put it into action- people will rise to your expectations, and if you make a long list of can’ts, the expectation is severely minimized.

A couple of observations come to mind.

Most of the frustrations seem to be centered around the implementation of filters and some seem to be against the idea of filters themselves; although I suspect some of the latter stems with frustrations with the former.

I can completely understand frustrations with implementations of filters; especially given the examples above. The decision making process for what is blocked and what is not blocked is, quite honestly, delegated in large part to the filtering companies. Considering the sheer number of sites, I am not sure I can recommend any other foundation as a start for what is filtered and what is not. The decision as to which categories to filter is too often controlled by the few in an organization and in some schools, people who are too far away from what happens in a classroom. Lastly, the decision-making process for adding/subtracting from what is filtered is too often overbearingly difficult. As one person stated, “Why bother?”

As to whether or not filtering is somewhat of a necessary evil, I think it is from the standpoint of protection for younger students who may be exposed to content through no intention of their own. Say what you will about increased supervision or monitoring, but I do not relish the conversation with parents of how I can justify the fact we do not take certain precautions.

Lastly, in relationships to libraries, filtering is quite a different animal (which makes Pico difficult to apply). Librarians conduct the process of selection and would not simply allow any and all materials into their libraries. Selection is totally absent and unmanageable when considering student access to the Internet (and I am not saying we should). The Internet decentralizes the role of “gatekeeper” if you will from the few to the many. But, when applying the First Amendment and intellectual freedom to Internet resources, it is important to separate the analogy of school libraries to some extend due to the lack of selection.

What makes this more difficult is the volatile nature of content due to the ease of publishing these days (ie Youtube, Myspace, …) Even those sites do not have the personnel to manage their own content fast enough. If we continue with the school library analogy, it is like reviewing a great book, but after you it on the shelf, the words and images inside the book change completely and keep changing daily. With sites like Youtube, there is great content, and some content which I would guess a school librarian would never select to place on his/her shelves.

My question is, what would be the ideal situation? What practical advice would you have for me? As an administrator, I have certain responsibilities. I need to ensure our compliance with CIPA if I want to continue to receive funds, and I need to make sure (at least I think I do) that our children have some level of protection from exposure too. I’d love to make accessible all of the sites with ever-changing content, but at times that bumps up against the need to protect minors. In our district, I’ve used a committee of professionals to help with the decisions, but the decisions are getting to be more difficult than they were 7 years ago when content was easier to distinctly draw lines around. I see this continuing to be more challenging.

Interesting, but sad, this happens at our school all the time.

As the school’s tech rep, I cannot change the filter, students get by it all the time, I have installed software that lets me monitor their surfing from my computer, I can even turn my monitor around and watch it from across the room when I cannot see some of the students’ monitors as I walk around the room. This is far more effective than the filters, I can take a screen shot, lock the computer up, and call the student to my desk for a discussion. Yet, I had to sneak purchase of the software past central office staff.

Yet, as the web changes, we can’t officially change as the people in charge are truly “tech incompetent”, they have no clue as to what is out there and no desire to learn.

I may be in the minority, but I feel that it is an essential 21st century skill for students to learn to navigate an unfiltered Internet by the time they graduate from high school. I do believe in filtering in elementary and middle school, but I feel that by the time a student is a senior in high school they should be given the opportunity to use the Internet wisely on their own with teacher monitoring. Too much filtering in high schools creates a frustrating atmosphere and encourages the use of web proxies. Many schools go overboard and sites like Google images which students have come to rely on are blocked. I confiscated a five-page list with hundreds of proxies on it from one of my students this year and there are new proxy sites coming out every day. If one proxy doesn’t work, they can just go to the next one. You could spend all your time preventing students from using proxies instead of teaching them essential 21st century skills.

I believe Susan is right here. I share the opinion that, by the time high school is over for a given student, they must know how to navigate information on their own - unfiltered.

Anything less is leading sheep to slaughter. Everyone needs to understand the perils of the minefield even if that means briefly exposing high school students and faculty to unwelcome content.

The Web 2.0 spin is unnecessary and really not much more than noise. The technological waters we are swimming in are exponentially getting more sophisticated every day. For schools and students it is time to swim or be marginalized in the world as it is.

The issue is not freedom of speech but feeding the need of 21st century citizens to process large volumes of information and not be paralyzed by it. Connectivity to the virtual world is a new inalienable right that needs to be recognized as such.

Frank Krasicki
http://region19.blogspot.com

Wow! As I am reading this post, I can not believe that our educational system is coming to this. Yes, there are some things that should be blocked in our schools, and yes, things that shouldn’t be blocked are getting blocked. But, our society is so technologically advanced that someone needs to realize that we are moving towards doing a lot of things on the web where our children’s education is concerned. Denying them access to certain things could, one day, be detrimental to their learning.

Andy,
A friend sent me your post because she knows that I’ve been going through the same issues now for 3 years or more……recently I almost saw success with the filters on the teacher level. My last hurdle was a presentation to an assistant superintendent with some IT folks present….was a small meeting in a tiny conference room…..and when it was my turn to share some Web2.0 tools, I proudly walked over to the computer attached to the projector and went straight to the You Tube presentation about “The Computer is using You”…..and it was BLOCKED! I was sunk…..it is also important to note that no students were present near or in the room as I was in the district office……so I went to my next site which was my personal blog, attempting to show an example and only the written portion came up on the screen with all my pictures blocked because they were linked to Flickr(I might add that my personal blog is about quilting, very benign content)….I looked really foolish standing there trying to improvise. At this point I realized the fight was over. And anyone who knows me will tell you I’m very persistent. I know this issue is causing consternation across the country and educators and IT folks are concerned about “the risk” and about CIPA and trying their best to keep students safe. I hope there is a school district somewhere, soon, who can share the answer so the rest of us can follow. Kills me to say that because I’d rather lead, but I’ve given this my best shot and I did not succeed. Your post, though, gives me some solace that I am not alone!
Carol

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