It’s late 2015 and we’re still overblocking the Internet

It’s late 2015, we’re still overblocking the Internet, and the blame is on us as administrators…

Save the internet sign

I read a post recently that stressed yet again how access to the wide range of the Internet is an equity issue. Like library and textbook censorship, not only does blocking video services, social media, online interactive content, and other Web resources restrict students’ intellectual freedom, it also prohibits them from engaging in powerful conversations and learning opportunities (and, incidentally, also sends messages to your most technology-fluent educators that you’re outdated). One of my doctoral students’ dissertations at the University of Minnesota, for instance, found that overzealous school filtering prohibited student access to online content essential for satisfying state Social Studies and Health curricular standards. The equity concerns are most egregious for students who lack Internet access at home because school may be their primary option for learning what it means to be an empowered, active online citizen. 

There are numerous reasons why we overblock the Internet. Sometimes it’s simple confusion around what actually must be filtered. There are a lot myths out there and even our best technology support personnel may lack understandings of what must be blocked versus what does not. Other times it’s because our technology support folks are more interested in controlling bandwidth or the ‘integrity of the network’ rather than figuring out ways to empower students and staff. And many times it’s because of our own administrative fear, need for control, lack of knowledge, or unwillingness to educate ourselves and our communities. I have the good fortune to interact with schools all around the world. I hear time and time again from students and teachers that the primary reasons that they can’t access important content online are because of overly simplistic filtering software (hint: you have other options), technology coordinators’ prioritization of security over learning, and administrators’ fears and/or unwillingness to treat filtering concerns as educational, not technology, issues. Superintendents and principals should be actively leading ongoing conversations about what is filtered and why, particularly since we know that our most technology-successful schools are ones that filter less, not more. Administrator mindset and leadership are critical here. Given the necessity of the Internet in our lives and the need to teach students digital empowerment and citizenship, the emphasis should be on opening up rather than closing down.

Hopefully we all realize by now that our environment of mobile devices connected to the Internet constitutes the dominant information landscape of our time. Teaching students to be literate within that landscape is one of the primary tasks – and challenges – of our time. But we don’t get there by overblocking the Web. And we don’t get there by abrogating our responsibilities as instructional leaders.

I maintain a collection of Internet filtering and blocking resources that hopefully will be useful to you, including 27 Internet safety talking points for you and your community. Will you work to open up to your students the most powerful learning environment we humans have ever created?

Image credit: Save the Internet Net Neutrality protest, Steve Rhodes

14 Responses to “It’s late 2015 and we’re still overblocking the Internet”

  1. Good morning,

    You mentioned an interesting point when you said that “our most technology-successful schools are ones that filter less.” I clicked on the link and read the article that you hyperlinked to that statement and I’m not sure how I feel about it.

    The bandwidth concern is a legitimate concern. In addition to a shift in mindset, you also need a shift in funds. Have you come across any thing that suggests how districts can raise the funds to update/replace the current technology infrastructure. I find that to be the real issue as opposed to the philosophy dilemma.

    • Unfortunately, in many places the philosophy dilemma continues to be alive and well, partly because administrators aren’t sparking the kinds of educational conversations that we should be having about what gets filtered/blocked and what doesn’t. The decisions are just left to IT personnel and/or software providers.

      Funding is tight. No easy answers here. Schools and districts never seem to have enough bandwidth. Government sources, local bonds and referenda, reallocation of funds from other sources, dedicated technology money streams, donations and local fundraisers, etc. – many school leaders are trying everything they can to raise money for essential technology infrastructure.

    • Hi Nateil,
      I, too, headed over to the site about the “Empowerment of Social Media” and found some eye-opening discussion points that I had never considered. For instance, McLeod states that “adult fears and concerns about loss of control often trump empowerment opportunities for students.” I never considered how our own biases can affect how we permit (and limit) our students’ access to content in school. If we are trying to teach students how to be responsible consumers of information, how can we do that if we are constantly censoring for them? I also like how some districts are taking a liberal approach to technology, modeling to teachers how to use it in new and creative ways without requiring that they use it. This puts less pressure on those who are not as tech-saavy or comfortable with technology. Something I need a little clarity on is how tech-liberal schools view misuse should be handled. Durflinger, the superintendent from Van Meter, Iowa says that he “[encourages] teachers to take risks.” He “supports mistakes.” What does this mean? If teachers are the responsible adults in the building who have the sense to know what is and is not appropriate, what kind of activities are we talking about??

      I appreciate your take on the bandwidth issue. My school (thankfully!) has sufficient infrastructure, but if it didn’t I could imagine that also being an issue.

  2. I think without an educator in the IT loop, it will continue to be the prevailing norm to protect the network. That’s IT’s job, and unless someone tells them that they need to do it differently, they’ll continue with the best way they know how.

    Even with new curricula that talk about rich media applications, the tendency continues to be to block first and ask questions later.

    Unless and until teachers push for more openness on the school networks, the IT crew will continue to believe that everything is humming along nicely.

    I also believe that parents have a role in advocating for educational opportunities for their students. If division offices and IT staff started hearing from parents that they were unhappy with the filtering system, that might provoke change.

    • I work in educational technology & it’s amazing how often when working with our main IT group that I have to stop them and remind them that we are not a business. We’re an educational institution and the students are the priority. They get so caught up in things like protecting the network that they forget how their decisions impact education.

  3. You neglected to mention that many schools require a certain level of filtering if they participate in E-Rate which requires that you abide by CIPA compliancy. Its not that many schools want to, its that they have to by law.

    • If you check out the links to both the myths and Internet filtering and blocking resources in my post, I think you’ll find that CIPA is rarely an issue in reality… (says the guy with the law degree)

  4. I agree with you, Scott, and I’m sad to think schools are still restricting access to the Internet like the olden days. We block fewer and fewer things here every year, and the world hasn’t ended. I’d like to think education has improved, and I’m certain teacher and student agency have.

  5. I believe another reason for the filtering is due to the Administration not being up to speed on how the internet can help aid education. They are stuck in the past, and believe what worked in the past can work now. Therefore, they see no real reason not to filter content. Maybe if Administrators knew the power of the internet, they would not filter as much.

  6. Very interesting article! Being in school during the early MySpace & Facebook days was interesting. I would watch as these filters were installed and access to these two sites were among the first to go. Now I don’t think blocking social media does any good for students. Social Media has become a huge resource for current events & is usually quoted by major news outlets during breaking news. Blocking access to these sources just hurts students. Plus, most students have their own device and can pull up the Facebook or Twitter apps whenever they like so this type of filtering only hurts the students who don’t have access to their own device.

  7. What an interesting post! Thank you for sharing. I also find it interesting that there is a lot of website blocking that takes place in schools. I am a future educator and I understand that administrators and teachers alike might be hesitant to give their students free reign of the internet at school because it could potentially lead to students being exposed to inappropriate or inaccurate information. However, I also think it is important to recognize that the majority of students have access to all parts of the Internet via their phones or at home. One thing that struck me about your post is that “our most technology-successful schools are ones that filer less, not more.” I think that these schools are taking on the task of teaching their students to be literate on the web, which is something you also mentioned as a necessity. The Internet has been around for awhile and as teachers we can help our students learn how to use it responsibly. There are tools such as the Wayback Machine and EasyWhois that students should be introduced to in order to check the credibility of the websites they are using. These tools allow people to see the history and owners of websites, helping students sift through information and find credible sources. As we know, there are many websites out there that are inaccurate. It is our job to make sure students are approaching the Internet with a skeptical eye and learning how to find credible information. If we are constantly censoring the information and sources they are allowed to use, then we are doing this work for them. If students learn how to be literate on the Internet at school, they are more likely to use these skills at home and when browsing the web at home. Let’s give our students full access to the scary world that is the Internet and give them the tools to navigate through it successfully. Thank you for your post!


  8. The major dilemma in our school is NO internet. The blocker doesn’t simply limit but restricts all technology within the walls of the school. This has led to great frustrations -not only for our students but parents and teachers. The sad reality is in an effort to restrict, guide, protect and control our students, many of our families are leaving the public school to home school. Wouldn’t it be wiser to teach them wisdom in using technology?

  9. The instructional side of education RARELY has any grasp of the real world ramifications of what they ask for -or outright demand- nor do they even TRY to think first. The IT side then has to try to explain to them that the website “they have worked on at home for 3 months! And MUST be used now because its CRITICAL to their curriculum!” is blocked because they made it on a free site that is full of porn! Or viruses! one of the worst offenders used by teachers: wix actively seeks out teachers while never mentioning ‘oh, yeah, we’re also full of porn’. Surprise! we’ve dealt with this numerous times. Or social media which is absolutely NOT educational! When students have access to it at school they play on it and don’t work and all the other problems that go with it. Same with teachers. 75%, yes, 75% of our bandwidth is consumed by teachers on facebook! Playing, commenting, NOT ONE Educational thing is being done on it. Oh, but it’s ‘necessary’ for them to ‘teach’. Total BS. Since facebook was allowed for staff MORE schools lost accreditation because the teachers aren’t teaching they’re goofing off! This Berkley 1960’s flower child mentality of instruction is NO HELP to anyone.
    And let’s not forget internet predators. When facebook was allowed on the BYOD network several students connected with internet predators while at school! Yay! That made the most wonderful headlines in the news channels. Parents screaming how the technology staff is not protecting the students! Yes, because no matter what, when things hit the fan, the TECH Dept takes the fall NOT instruction! “How could you let this happen!” “How could you let the students have access to those sites!” Thanks instructional dept for screwing us again! Maybe if Instruction bothered to come up with an EFFECTIVE plan that detailed how to educate the kids and supervise them then strict filtering wouldn’t be so necessary. But until then, stop blaming the technology dept for internet restrictions because the instructional dept doesn’t do its job!

  10. Thanks for the comment. The many thousands of educators who are using social media, online sites, apps, and other digital learning tools in successful, productive ways with children belie many of your claims. I do agree that the learning side of school systems should be working together with the IT support side. But IT shouldn’t get to make educational decisions, the instructional team should. And that starts with the superintendent and the other formal instructional leaders in the system.

    Hoping that others in your school system see the learning possibilities of the digital tools that you’re supposed to be supporting…

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