Instant Or Filtered?
This post started life as a quick comment for the Education2020 wiki about internet filtering in schools. As you will notice, it got a bit longer so I decided to post it here as well!
In case you don’t know, the Education2020 unconference is being organised by Ian Stuart and Andy Wallis of Islay High School to discuss the future shape of education. The best definition of what it represents actually came from John Connell on his blog:
“If you want to attend an informal, congenial, stimulating event in an amazing location with brilliant and insightful people (including you, of course), then pop along to the Education2020 UNCONFERENCE wiki and get your name on the list.
Not only will you be able to enjoy a great educational debate and discussion, you will also be travelling to one of the most beautiful places in Scotland.
And please don’t feel either that you must have an abiding interest in all-things-techie (if it were that kind of event, I for one would not have signed up) or, indeed, that you need to be an educationist. The focus will be very much on education, but every perspective is important, whether parent, teacher, academic, education manager, or just an interested observer from whatever quarter!
There is a current conversation going on on the wiki about the role of internet filtering in schools. This is something I feel we are getting profoundly wrong, here’s why:
It’s very easy to make sweeping statements about internet filtering in schools, and goodness knows I’ve certainly done so myself, but the issue is one worthy of some serious consideration and discussion. In doing so, I think we need to consider the reasons why we have filtering in the first place, and then look at how the current approach could be improved.
Reasons for Filtering
There are a number of reasons why filtering is deployed. In schools, we filter the internet because we are, as Ben Plouviez has pointed out, supposedly providing “protection for kids”. This sounds like a reasonable premise, after all, there is no shortage of unsavoury content on the internet and a school is not a suitable place for it. However, this argument for filtering is based on the assumption that the filtering actually works… and anyone who works in a school knows that the pupils are more than capable of using proxies to circumvent any measures put in place by the school or authority. The irony is that if a member of staff used a proxy to access a site like YouTube for educational use, they’d be liable for disciplinary action and so they make a ‘responsible’ decision to not to.
Of course, more and more pupils are turning their backs on the school for internet access anyway. The rise of mobile phones with internet access has taken care of that. Why use a crippled school computer when you can access the whole of the internet on your phone, download whatever content you wish, and then distribute it by Bluetooth?
Having said that, I still stongly support the use of filtering to weed out wholly inappropriate content, but this has to be applied sensibly and not in the somewhat cavalier fashion that it is at the moment.
The second reason we filter is to protect the school’s networks from ‘attacks’. What I find interesting about this reason is that, like the ‘protecting the kids’ argument, it is plausible, but I question whether the sites that are being blocked are likely to be the source of attacks on the network. Judging by recent news reports, we would appear to be more at risk of security breaches because of flaws in the browsers we use. Rather than being involved in constantly trying to find more sites to block, I think the technician’s time could more effectively used by making more of a concerted effort to make sure that the browsers and operating systems are kept up-to-date. Being honest, I have long held the belief that if a pupil was intent on bringing down a schol network, he or she is much more likely to bring in something malicious on a pen-drive. In a sense, filtering is, again, an ineffectual tool given its stated purpose.
Impact of Filtering
We live in a world where, as conscientious teachers, we spend a lot of time cultivating friendships and professional relationships with a view to being the best educators we can be. This has always been the case. What has changed is the methods we use to do this, namely, the internet. Since becoming an active learner in a connected world, I can say that I have discussed and thought about education to a much greater depth than I have ever done before. I pick up ideas and knowledge from educators around the world and not just those I meet at an In-Service Training day. And most of this has been done ‘off-the-clock’ because many of the tools I would wish to deploy are filtered out. As an example, one of the most powerful of all the tools I use has got to be Twitter. When I am on Twitter, I am never more than 140 characters away from an answer. In school, I am reliant on my own resources and thoughts…
Filtering means denying access to some of the most fantastic and free lesson resources in the world: need to see what Barack Obama thinks about the economy for a Modern Studies or Business class? — go to YouTube. Need to share data for a science project? — fire up Google Spreadsheets. Need a fantastic site with flash-based Maths games for a cover lesson in a hurry? — ask a question on Twitter… except, of course, you can’t because these are just some of the sites and tools that are actively discouraged in schools.
By taking a blanket-ban approach to filtering, we are denying teachers and pupils access to tools and knowledge they could and should be using. We are also being neglectful in our duty to ensure they know how to use these tools safely and responsibly, after all, how can we model good practice if we, the responsible adults, are denied access? What message does this send out to the pupils — especially if (as noted above) they have their own access to the internet sitting in their pocket?
Put simply, filtering is preventing real learning taking place. Thanks to Karl Fisch, we know just how connected our world is and we know how important it is to be life-long learners. The Education2020 wiki and unconference are an attempt to start coming to terms with what education (as opposed to technology) will be like in 2020, but we need to re-evaluate filtering and start taking a new approach to how we ensure that children are safe on the internet.
One Step Forward — The Tipping Point:
I think there is a strong case for saying that the reason many teachers do not wish to use the new tools is ignorance. They have heard that YouTube/Twitter/Wikis are bad/evil/pits of depravity, and so they have no place in schools. We have to change this opinion, but to do so, we need to support our colleagues and give them a more realistic idea of these tools. Rather than merely complain, I believe the time has come to be more proactive about how educators use the internet in an educational setting. One really important way we could do this is by having access to (and even producing) guides to some of the most common tools from an educator’s point-of-view. Yes, there are already plenty of guides out there for the tools, but remarkably few address the filtering aspect of them… they assume you have already have access to the tools.
Take, for example, a tool like YouTube.
In its favour YouTube has:
- plenty of content,
- many excellent examples to illustrate a variety of school subjects,
- pupils are familiar with it,
- you have the ability to create channels that a class can subscribe to,
- the ability to highlight worked answers,
- more and more ‘official channels’ such as the BBC, the Queen, EUTube, National Geographic… the list goes on and on.
The negatives of YouTube include the fact that:
- there is inappropriate content on it,
- the comments on videos can be vile,
- there are issues with copyright material.
Pre-select your YouTube videos (think of it as lesson preparation!) and make sure you can sign in to YouTube. This will allow you to set the access levels of the videos you are presented with. The reality is that you really have to try to encounter inappropriate material. Something that is not really likely to happen in a class.
There are tools to block the comments, and, realistically, you are unlikely to be scrolling down to the comments in class anyway.
Use the copyright issues as a learning point. Make a lesson out of them. There are plenty of resources that will give you reasons why this form of copyright theft is wrong… but don’t forget that there are also some very persuasive arguments for saying that these are examples of ‘fair use’.
As a classroom teacher I wish to do the best for my pupils. I want them to become curious travellers with the skills to learn anywhere and everywhere. I want them to create and grow their own Personal Learning Networks just as I have done over the past three years. Unfortunately, the current attitudes towards filtering and how it is applied in schools means that I am balked at every turn, and I am not alone in this. I am hearing more and more teachers within my own school and across the world saying exactly the same thing: Let us use the internet to make our teaching better… and trust us to do so responsibly.
Filtering does have a place in schools, but when it is preventing learning, it needs to be changed.