I am in what has become a pretty common situation for school districts: mounting pressure from the community both inside and outside the schools to block social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook. Our district pays a pretty penny for sophisticated Internet filtering software and, being in a liberal community, takes a low-key approach to filtering content. A committee met to determine what categories to block with the goal of blocking only the most harmful content (pornography, violence, etc). As the administrator of the filter, I constantly receive requests to block sites that teachers find student in, not because the content of the sites themselves is bad, but because the teachers are frustrated with the students being off task in these “other” sites rather than working on the class assignment. Thus, keeping the students engaged in class has gone from being a classroom management issue to a technology problem.
There are a few inherent problems with this logic:
- Simply blocking these sites without directly addressing the greater problem at hand places our students in greater danger than does allowing them access to the sites in the first place. Let’s take MySpace as an example. The rationale I have been given for blocking this site is that the content is inappropriate for a school environment and that participation in the site places students in danger from Internet predators. Stephen Downes writes:
Is our best response, though, to kick the kids off MySpace? My first reaction seems to be that we are punishing the kids for the actions of the badly behaved adults.After all, if a grown man came to a school playground and started swearing and drinking and making lewd remarks, we would react by removing the adult, not by preventing children from accessing the park
- Students are far more savvy and determined than we adults are. If there is a way around an obstacle, you can be sure that at least one student is going to try to find it. This is absolutely the case with our Internet filter. Part of my struggle over the past year is that by all accounts, MySpace is blocked, but students are finding ways to get there in spite of the filter. As soon as we find a solution to one of their work-arounds, they find another. Last week, it took all of 45 minutes from the time we patched one hole, only to have a middle school student find another. My point is that blocking the site only increases the student interest in getting to the site, because now it is taboo, which makes it more exciting. This brings me back to point number 1 – we need to have the conversation with our students about online ethics and Internet best behaviour.
Bottom line: we need to equip our students with the tools to practice online vigilance by teaching them to be critical of the information they access and the information they provide online. This requires direct instruction and conversation from teachers, technology facilitators, and media specialists. It should be the job of these educators to address this problem, not the IT dept!