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BELLTONES: Trumpeting About Internet Filtering

By Mary Ann Bell - Posted Nov 1, 2014
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I first became concerned about internet filtering around 1999 when it impacted my job as a junior high school librarian. I was lucky to work in a district that did not employ filtering until the law made it mandatory. Once I left my job for one as a professor of library science, I continued to be concerned, especially since I heard more and more complaints from students in our program about how filters were hampering their ability to get the information they needed for themselves, their colleagues, and their students.

I first went public with my concerns in 2006, when I wrote a column for this publication about filtering. Back then I liked to call internet filtering the “elephant in the room” that no one was able to do anything about. Since then I have written articles, presented at conferences, and taught M.L.S. students about the detrimental effects of overly restrictive filters. One of my articles was selected to be shared with every librarian in Australia. Another, which appeared in School Library Journal, led to a book chapter and more invitations to present.

Through the years I have kept hoping to learn that things are better for K–12 students and educators. Today I believe there are improvements, but the problems persist. There have been times when I have felt like a voice in the wilderness with my ongoing pleas for safe but smart access. It is heartening to learn that there are others who are currently sharing my concerns. The American Library Association conducted a yearlong study in 2013, called “Fencing Out Knowledge,” about filtering and associated problems. I like the fence analogy, which was often used by Barry Bishop, former director of library services for Spring Branch ISD, Texas. A great friend and leader, Barry exhorted decision makers to use filtering as gateway to knowledge rather than as a fence to keep out information. The ALA study carries forward this message, which puts me in very good company. I am returning to the elephant theme in this article to “trumpet” about the ongoing online filtering issues.

My first task in revisiting the issue was to ask for input from colleagues using listservs,
Facebook, and Twitter.

Even though I conducted the survey in the summer, when so many folks are off enjoying a little down time, I still had a great response from more than 160 people. I asked the same questions I have asked in past years, with a few updates, in order to have continuity and consistency. There has definitely been improvement in a number of areas, but the problems persist. Results can be viewed here:

I offer an overview of my findings in this article and will delve deeper into some of the problems I consider particularly concerning in a future column.

Since I have been conducting similar surveys during the last 6 years, I decided that it would be illuminating to see how things have changed with internet filtering and Web 2.0 access. This will be my focus now. There is a great deal of additional information I hope to explore in future articles, but this overview is a good launching point for further exploration.

Respondents to my surveys were school librarians and technology specialists. They were generous with comments as well as yes/no questions. I asked about several specific resources and access. Participants were to answer “Yes” or “No” to the following statements. In each case, the numbers following the declarations are percentages, first from 2006, then from 2014:

A quick look at each statement followed by percentages of positive responses does show improvement across the board. This is good! I am glad that things are getting better. A second look back, though, suggests we still have a ways to go. Taking each statement in order from before ...

* About blogs … Really? When there are so many very safe environments where students can express themselves and share their thoughts, almost 40% of respondents do not have such access? Why not?

* Regarding social bookmarking, color me naïve, but I do not see bookmarking sites as a high-risk behavior. It is a great way for all users to mark things for future use anywhere from any computer. Yet again we see around 40% reporting blocks.

* As to Wikipedia, it is a great search starter and often even the best authority on topics such as pop culture. It’s great to see that more than 90% of participants report they can use this resource. Granted it should be closely evaluated before being used as a “serious” source to quote, and this should certainly be taught. Am I being cynical if I wonder whether the reason for high access here is that some administrators may see Wikipedia as a free substitute for a paid database?

* The same suspicion raises its head with the next resource, online document creation sites such as Google Docs. I am in complete agreement that using these sites is a smart and economic choice. But it does seem ironic that dollars and cents may seem to talk louder than benefits to students when deciding which sites
to unblock.

* Search tools continue to be troubling to filtering fans. Google Images continues to be blocked even although it has a safe setting. The best filter is a responsible adult who is working with and monitoring students. If educators step up and take responsibility for their students’ online behavior, problems can be
diminished without heavy blocking.

* I was pleasantly surprised with the last two categories. There are many options now for safe email, and it is encouraging to see that positive responses have doubled in the last 6 years.

* Another silver lining to the filtering cloud is that educational games are almost universally recognized as appropriate for student use. It was not so long ago that my grad students would sadly report they could not even use Starfall with their students.

While it does bode well to see access is increasing, the challenges are not over. Those who are lagging behind need to campaign for more commonsense parameters. Maybe this article can prove useful for the ambitious teacher or librarian who wants to build a case for more access.

There was one other question, included in both surveys, which I have not yet shared. It was actually the first question after demographics, but I wanted to save it for last because it serves as a good summation of the situation in general. Here is that statement:

* I am satisfied with the internet access, including Web 2.0 access, at my school.

In 2006, 29% of respondents agreed with this standard. By 2014, almost half – 46% – were satisfied.

Again I would submit that while it is nice to see improvement, reasonable internet access is still lacking for well beyond half the people who took part in my survey. What are reasons why access does not meet expectations?

Two common problems reported are that equipment is outdated or bandwidth is lacking. This is a dramatic example from a school that is woefully underequipped to work with students online: “Our wireless allows only 15 devices in the entire building, making it difficult to log on using my phone, or iPad.” While most schools’ infrastructures are better than that, many comments mentioned that it is not possible to get an entire class of students online at one time. In schools where one to one tablets are being phased in, the ability to get online is exacerbated by the increased demand.

This is a typical statement: “I am not satisfied and I am quite frustrated. The internet connectivity in the library is unpredictable. This issue has, on various occasions, interfered with the use of Web 2.0 tools and the implementation of 21st-century library lessons and staff development.”

Other participants still find that blocked sites cause them headaches. Here is one representative comment: “Many sites are blocked and I’m not sure of the district’s reasoning. Instagram is not blocked but Pinterest is. Tumblr is not blocked but Facebook is. Students (especially in grades 4-5 in my school) are accessing these sites at home. How can I teach them to use them responsibly if I can’t access them at school?”

Some people find a lack of day-to-day consistency frustrating: “One day the filter lets you go to a site so you plan an awesome interactive lesson. When you go to teach the lesson, the site is all of a sudden blocked.”

All this makes it clear that providing students with meaningful and creative use of online resources continues to be a goal rather than a current status in many schools. We all know the problems with school funding these days, and this affects the age of equipment and the amount of bandwidth available. Beyond this, far too many districts are still mired in filtering quagmires. It is hard to bring about improvement in funding. Without getting into specific politics, I would urge all educators to vote for candidates who support schools and demonstrate that they will listen to those of us on the front lines in
public schools.

As for the filters themselves, we need to continue to press for increased access for both teachers and students. Reluctant leaders need to be informed about schools that are relinquishing the old fear-based Draconian filtering. It is ironic and counterproductive in these times of funding cuts that many schools still block excellent free resources that are available online. It is high time for administrators to familiarize themselves with tools that are innocuous and beneficial and see to it that they are readily available at their
districts and schools.

One reason I continue to write on this topic, in addition to keeping information current, is that I am in a position to speak out without fear of retribution. I want to take advantage of my bully pulpit to strongly urge those who supervise filtering in districts and schools to consider themselves gatekeepers rather than fence builders, and allow in every possible resource. I am going to keep on trumpeting!

Contact Mary Ann at

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