Why do schools filter the Internet?
Over the years, many staff members have asked me why we filter the Internet. In some cases it was perceived that the IT department blocked websites as “big brother,” a way to track what sites staff members were visiting. In others, it was that staff and students just couldn’t be trusted to browse the Internet. Regardless of the perception, the truth is simple; if nothing more, school internet filtering is done to stay eligible for federal funding.
The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), a federal law enacted in 2000, requires that schools and public libraries who are participating in federally funded programs (eRate/ LSTA grants) certify that they are using Internet filtering technology to prevent children from accessing inappropriate content. Some private schools that do not take advantage of these programs choose to operate without a filter in place. Most public schools, however, do apply for federal eRate dollars for their Internet access and are therefore required to use a filter.
Who determines what sites are blocked or unblocked?
The internet landscape is constantly changing. With the rate at which new pages are appearing (approximately 7.3 million daily), there are organizations whose sole purpose is to classify new websites based on their content. So, for many sites, the block status is determined by algorithms that evaluate the site’s content and categorize the site accordingly. Content filtering companies such as Lightspeed, Watchguard, and Barracuda subscribe to one of these services and receive daily, updated website lists which they use to determine what sites their software will block. The IT department at your local school typically isn’t responsible for the initial blocked or unblocked status of a given site.
What about YouTube, Twitter, and other social media sites?
As I stated above, most district’s have control over whether or not a site is accessible within the school buildings. There are quite a few factors that must be considered when determining the policy on sites like YouTube. School and community culture, students’ awareness of digital citizenship, and technology access to name a few. With all of that being said, my personal opinion is that it comes down to how the district administration views technology’s role in education. Do they understand that students of today learn differently than we did when we were growing up? Kids look to sites like YouTube for more than just entertainment. They learn from these sites by listening to their peers describe the problem at hand and then watching them solve that problem in their own unique way.
Let’s look at this same issue from when we were growing up. I think back to a staple of 80’s pop culture: The Karate Kid. Two thirds of the way through, the Karate master and teacher, Mr. Miyagi, can be seen practicing a special “crane” kick on the beach. Daniel, the student, watches on from a distance. He later uses that same kick to defeat the bad guy in the championship match of the Karate tournament, earning a first place trophy, respect from the bullies, and the girl in the end. What a classic movie! Here’s the lesson though. I remember how many times I went out in the back yard and secretly practiced that crane kick. You know you did too! Standing on one leg with your arms out at your sides (trying to look cool) was already hard to start with. When you add in the fact that there were no instructions in the movie on how to perform the legendary move; it became almost impossible to truly get it right. I don’t know about you, but I tried often, failed just as often, and eventually moved on to greater things like creating a time traveling Delorian using the family Toyota. Now imagine that YouTube had existed in 1984. I would have watched every video I could find detailing how to pull off a perfect crane kick. Wouldn’t you? That’s the difference between kids now and when we were in school Students have access to an ever expanding world of information. Why would you ever want to limit their access to that, especially at the institution where they go to learn?!!
I’m not suggesting that you remove the content filter entirely, but the days of blocking sites like YouTube and Twitter are gone. Sure, like many social media sites, there is some inappropriate material at times but both of those services offer such an incredible amount of high quality content that blocking them seems ridiculous. Besides, even if you choose to block sites like that, your student population will simply use their smart phones to access it anyway. When I look at unblocking a site, I ask myself “What’s the potential for educational value in this site?” Assuming the site can provide that educational value and that it isn’t related to pornography, gambling, illegal activities, or hate speech, I’ll typically unblock it. Our district uses GoGuardian for content filtering at school as well as at home. Its about as good as you can get when ensuring that our students can get to the content they need, but not access the less than desirable stuff.
Even with advanced search technologies and content filtering algorithms, no Internet filter is 100% accurate. There are times when inappropriate material will slip through. When that happens, as long as the IT department is notified, the offending site will be blocked. There are also cases where a harmless site will received a blocked status. In these cases, it is up to your district to determine what to do with sites, which from an educational point of view may have been incorrectly blocked. In most cases, a request to unblock a site is sent to the IT department. The site is reviewed by IT as well as the curriculum department to validate the educational value. If the site is approved, it is then white listed in the filter so that it can be accessed.
Where can I learn more?
If you Google this topic, you’ll find about 18.9 million results. Here are a few sites that I found to be helpful:
- FCC guide to Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA)
- State by State Internet Filter Laws
- What is eRate?
- MindShift article
- Barracuda Case Study: Berea City Schools