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BELLTONES: Internet Filtering, School Faculty, and Trust: A Modest Proposal … Really!

By Mary Ann Bell - Posted May 1, 2016
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Maybe I should just let it go. I keep coming back to the same subject again and again. I’ve been writing and presenting to promote common-sense internet access in K–12 schools for more than 15 years.

I am happy to say in that time, access has gotten better in some respects and places, though in my opinion, change has been slow and far from enough.

Many schools and districts have become places where students and teachers can learn and share online, taking advantage of the resources for finding information and also for sharing information, ideas, and creations via social networking. An article I wrote last year showed considerable improvement in access for numerous schools.

At the same time, however, the problems persist, with little or no change happening in far too many places. This article is not about what is/is not blocked in schools. I wrote about that just last year. This article is about a much narrower problem, with a solution that, in my view, is very easily achieved. I am talking about affording trusted school faculty members the right to bypass or override internet filters with a password or other means. This can allow adults to seek the information they need and also make it possible for professionals to share information and applications with students in supervised settings.

When I went looking for articles specifically addressing on-campus access, I found very few. The American Library Association (ALA) and American Association of School Librarians (AASL) have staunchly spoken out for reasonable access to internet resources since the inception of Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). Two consistent noisemakers have been my friend Nancy Willard and me. Nancy is the person who got me concerned about this problem in the first place, back in the early 2000s.

Here is what Nancy has to say about providing on-campus override to internet filters: “In many schools, the override process is overly burdensome and the time delay interferes with the effective use of such material for educational purposes. Ideally, all district library media specialists, computer lab personnel and teachers who make significant use of the internet should have the authority to override the filter.” While I was working on this article, I was able to chat with her by email, and she thought a survey about internet bypass would be a good idea. She went on to say that in recent years, her main focus has been cyber-bullying, but she still sees internet access as a problem.

The dearth of articles for educators to use for the purpose of building a case to gain access has led me to write this article. To reach an actual resolution of this problem is ridiculously simple. All that is needed is for administrators to share the password for overriding the filter with trusted individuals on every school campus. Another option, less common, is to have one or several computers that are not filtered and are kept in offices. At one time, I had an unfiltered computer in my library office, and I would bring in one or several students on occasion to give them access to needed information.

Just how widespread is the problem of limited campus access? Following my usual modus operandi, I constructed a survey using Survey Monkey and shared it via listservs (LM_NET, or Librarians and Media Specialists’ Network, and TLC, Texas Library Connection), our student message board at Sam Houston State University, Facebook, and Twitter. My survey was very brief this time. After demographics questions were in place I just asked three questions:

1. Is this statement true or false: No one on your campus has the ability to override the internet filter. Permission must be requested from someone off-campus.

2. Multiple choice, with more than one answer OK: Filters can be overridden by whom? Options were principal, vice-principal, counselor, nurse, librarian, on-campus tech personnel, classroom teachers, or others (please specify).

3. I asked for success stories from people who had gained access and could share how they went about doing so in the hopes of providing direction and ideas to others.

I was gratified to have 149 participants from 30 states, but surprised when I saw from the numbers that nearly 70% of participants said there was no access on their campuses. I wondered if somehow my question had been misunderstood, because I expected the numbers to be considerably less. In the boxes provided for comments, lots of people told about blocked sites, which was not my question. It occurred to me that possibly people read the question incorrectly. So I put up a second survey with just two questions:

1. Is access blocked?

2. If there is access, to whom is it awarded?

I tried out a different survey tool for this query, called Obsurvey, and I went to great lengths to explain that I was only asking about the right to override the filter on campus. This time the results were even more discouraging, with 73% of respondents saying there was no such access. So there you have it. This simple act, which costs nothing and which requires no additional technology, has not been extended in nearly three-fourths of the campuses represented by respondents. Since my participants are likely to be tech savvy and from schools where some broadband internet use is present, I have to wonder if this percentage is lower than is actually true. My hope is that, surely, in some cases the access is not granted because “It’s always been that way” and people can get this changed simply by asking. The alternative is that there is a lot of work to be done to gain trust that should be already given between district and campus personnel.

If you want to petition for change, here are some reasons why it is problematical to withhold all campus access:

  • Tight filters with no bypass cause students to see their teachers and use of computers at school as irrelevant. A 2005 Pew Internet & American Life study highlighted the fact that teens at that time relied on out of school internet access for their educational and personal use and felt that school use was futile because of lack of access and inadequate equipment. One survey respondent contacted me personally, pleading for articles that she could use in building a case for her to have access via bypass. She finds it very discouraging to have to inform her high school students that the information they need is unavailable due to the filters. Because of tight filters and the lack of expertise by some teachers, studies show many teens feel their school hours are wasted when it comes to technology, unless they have figured out how to bypass the filters. The fact that often the students can get to the internet when their teachers don’t know how to or are unwilling to break rules to do so just adds fuel to the fire.
  • Teachers deserve to be treated as professionals. This should go without saying, but sadly this is lacking far too often. Denying teachers any more access to the internet than is accorded to students is paternal and, in some cases, insulting. This is particularly true in schools where there is just one filter setting for all users, K–12. That means that teachers are not trusted with any more access than kindergarteners.
  • It is not instructionally sound. Educational lingo and tech trends come and go, but we all can agree that there is great value to the “teachable moment.” If a student needs information for a report, a project, or just for his own edification, and his teacher or librarian has to ask permission to get to the needed site, which, by the way, is a completely appropriate one, it is frustrating and stultifying. The moment is lost. The teacher is frustrated, and the student sees one more reason why school is not the place to get needed information.
  • Limiting student access at schools places a greater burden on low-income students than on their more-affluent peers. A few years back, there was a lot of concern about a possible gender gap in technology instruction, where girls were less likely than boys to be provided with chances to use computers in activities of interest to them. If such a gap existed, it has long ago been rectified. Today’s gap is economic and, by extension, racial. Poor kids are far less likely to have internet access at home or elsewhere close to where they live and go to school. These students are thus more greatly stymied when it come to getting information they need and want via the internet. Kristin Batch writes about this issue in the recent American Library Association study called “Fencing Out Knowledge,” saying this is “putting low-income students at an educational disadvantage because they’re less likely to have internet access at home.”
  • Finally, it is a safety issue. Suppose a rumor is going around via social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc. Suppose that rumor involves a developing situation that is immediate. I was once actually at a school where such a scenario occurred. Students were going to stage a walkout over dress code and had a day, class period, and time set up. Our principal got wind of the plan and made an announcement that effectively defused the situation. Suppose a student has been making pronouncements that cause friends to be worried he or she might harm himself. Do we really want the school counselor to be blocked from checking on this? A recent KQED article describes such a situation: “This was especially troubling when, in the wake of an attempted suicide, a school counselor wasn’t able to download information on suicide for students who came to her for help.” What if the situation is one involving cyber-bullying? Kids at a school know all about it, but faculty is blocked from investigating.

What can you do if your district or school is not allowing campus professionals to bypass the filters? Here are some steps I recommend:

  • Ask! I encounter teachers and librarians who resign themselves to untenable restrictions because “That’s the way it’s always been done.” Times have changed. Technology has made the internet more important than ever. Many textbooks recommend that students extend their studies by using online resources. I hope that as a result of having some facts in hand and a plan to suggest, a simple request may bring about positive results.
  • Go through appropriate committees. Most schools and districts have technology committees. Attend meetings, or, better yet, join such a committee. Work through that group to gain access.
  • Go through proper administrative channels. You should go through the chain of command/authority in your district. In my situation, I would never address a concern to our provost without going through the dean, unless that person was the problem.
  • If other efforts fail, parents can be involved. Many administrators will bend to parental pressure before acquiescing to teacher requests.
  • Stress the fact that having access is a safety issue. This concern trumps all others in that most administrators, above all else, want to avoid situations where student safety is at risk.
  • Be sure you have your ducks in a row before mobilizing. I learned that I could often get positive results if I approached my principal with a problem and had a possible solution at the ready. The main reason I am writing this article is to provide a resource to use when seeking this common-sense, no-cost, simple way to help students and campus professionals.
  • In my survey, I asked for success stories from individuals who have seen a positive change at their schools. Here are some direct quotes:
  • “Break the rules.” This was one person’s suggestion, and I think it’s a “solution” that some faculty use. If you do a search for “bypass internet filters” you will find a plethora of options for free downloads to do just that. Students on any junior or senior high school campus are already getting to the open internet and will gladly do so in order to get information for an assignment either with or without teacher complicity. I am not recommending this, rather pointing out that it is being done—and likely at your school.
  • “We asked for more openness for years, and specified that teachers should be treated as professionals who know what is appropriate for instruction. Three years ago a new Technology Director came on board and began to re-do our filter. Within 1 year, teachers and staff has almost unlimited access.” First of all, being persistent can pay off. Second, it makes sense to develop a relationship right at the first and express needs and ideas with a new director.
  • “I have had to ask for my library aide to have access to the filter bypass, but when I explained why, the technology department did not hesitate to give her the access so she can work in my absence or work with a small group of students. Also in the past we only got two hours using the bypass and had to log back in. This year, we get an entire day of access with one login. This is helpful in the library when teaching a full day of classes. I can imagine it is helpful at the secondary level, when you teach multiple classes in one day.” This sounds like another case where being persistent did pay off.
  • “I think the key to our success is the district Tech Director is an educator first and a really good guy.” If you have good people who are supporting your work, it is important to let them know how much you appreciate them!

Those in control of internet access are keenly aware of the need to supervise online searching. Giving carte blanche access to all faculty and staff on all campuses may not be deemed acceptable. One qualifier for bypass might well be need. Librarians need to help students with research; counselors need to be able to look up pertinent information; administrators need to be able to see what’s happening with students’ social networking use if it affects safety. Another consideration might be expertise. It is reasonable to expect those teachers granted bypass permission to undergo staff development in order to prepare them for the added responsibility. My hope is that this article can help bridge the gap between those holding the power to bypass internet filters and those with reasonable and responsible arguments for gaining access.

HELPFUL SITES

Batch, K. (June 2014). “Fencing Out Knowledge: Impact of the Children’s Internet Protection Act 10 Years Later,” American Library Association; connect.ala.org/files/cipa_report.pdf; accessed March 14, 2016.

Bell, M. (March 2016). Internet Filter Override Rights K–12 Campuses Spring 2016. Survey Monkey; surveymonkey.com/results/SM-BHDTS3TW; accessed March 9, 2016.

KQED News (June 26, 2014). MindShift: “What’s the Impact of Overzealous Internet Filtering in Schools?”; ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2014/06/26/whats-the-impact-of-overzealous-internet-filtering-in-schools; accessed March 4, 2015.

Willard, N. (September 2003). “Can You Override Your School Filter?” District Administration; districtadministration.com/article/can-you-override-your-internet-filter; accessed March 4, 2016.


 
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