Saturday, January 31, 2009

Random Thoughts from the Dark Side - Filtering Digital Education

For a while I was on the fence again. I couldn't decide which side of the filters debate I stood on. Are filters really bad, evil, horrible things that spell out "censorship" if played backwards? Or, are they a common-sense safety issue, much like asking your child to put their helmet on before they go for a bike ride? After much thought I've decided I'm against the over-use of filters. I feel that a little filtering should be in place, especially for very young learners, but that no filter is ever going to replace sound teaching. And any filter that stands in the way of teaching and learning, is a dangerous thing.

The Dark Side of Filtering - Enter Darth Filterer

I have moments of concern about the false sense of security that filters create. I am suspicious of the fear-mongering that educators are forced to endure when it comes to their
student's safety. And, I shake my head at the notion of protecting adolescents from themselves (as if MySpace and Facebook were some sort of Lord of the Flies scenario waiting to happen.)
If I were artistic, I might ink out a little cartoon of a line-up of kids leaving a school, covered from head to toe in bubble wrap. Their eyes have blinders on, and their ears are stuffed with cotton. The heading might read, "Since the filters couldn't go with them...."

In this weeks readings, one statement stood out above the rest (most likely because I had never heard anyone approach filtering in this way before). Stephen Abram's suggests, in his article,
Justifying the Social Tools: Improving the Conversation (2007), that we should really question what is being blocked and why:

"Those folks who choose to block social networking sites for good reasons should be required to make those reasons explicit and to prove how their approach encourages good learning results and doesn't over-reach. I've seen too many
instant messaging sites banned for vague or unsupportable reasons such as viruses or stalkers."
I agree that it is important to question what learning opportunities are being compromised by the sites that are blocked. But, I wonder who will argue against excuses such as virus prevention and threat of stalkers? It is like a trump card held by the powers that be, and it seems the only counter-argument strong enough to challenge over-zealous blocking is to argue that filtering itself is unsafe.

Mary Ann Bell argues this exact point in I'm Mad and I'm Not Gonna Take it Anymore (2008). Bell says, "[n]ot allowing access can be dangerous, as it keeps us from teaching kids to be safe and smart online when they are on their own" (p.3). Also, educators seldom state that the real dangers on the Net happen to kids outside of school. Filtering in school, then, seems more about educators wearing the blinders instead of the students. If the issues don't come up in the classroom, then maybe they don't exist - or, if they don't come up, then we won't have to deal with them. To me this approach screams of negligence at the highest level.

Students worlds are different then when we were in school, but the big scary issues have always been there (sexual predators, bullies, etc.). We can't hide our heads in the sand when it comes to these issues, and blocking them out is like closing the door to the skeletons in our societal closet and denying they exist. To me, it is imperative that we are open and honest with students, that we discuss safe on-line behaviour frequently. That we invite students into the discussions about their own on-line safety, instead of having the fight for them with regards to safe or unsafe filtering.

The Annoying Side of Filtering - My Light Saber Won't Work!

The school division I worked for last year had very strict filtering levels in place. I felt like I was constantly running up against roadblocks in my teaching. I was told that if I wanted a site unblocked, I had to apply for a tech request to lift the block. This seems easy enough to do, but when you are juggling all that has to be juggled in the ordinary day to day of teaching in a school library, that extra step becomes a nuisance. Needing to send a tech request in for a 3 minute video to be unblocked seemed ludicrous and a waste of everyone's time.

I found it very frustrating to work in this overly-filtered environment where many Web 2.0 tools could not be used or viewed. I resented the fact that the "higher ups" didn't have enough faith in my own professional judgment to either:

  1. Unblock sites myself that I needed for educational purposes.
  2. Have someone at my school remove the block.
  3. Be trusted to direct students to safe, educational, curriculum-related sites.

Further Random Thoughts

  • Internet filters, are like coffee filters. You want the grit taken out, but the flavour to remain.
  • Filters "protect" our children only so far. Parents need to be taught practical tips for raising Internet safe kids. I think teacher librarians can play a vital role in educating parents about the risks of on-line interactions (it takes a global village...)
  • Acceptable Use Policies are like field trip forms saying you give permission for your child to be taken out into the world for educational purposes - but a signed piece of paper doesn't ensure that your child won't sprain an ankle in the real world, or come across questionable content in the virtual one.
  • Acceptable Use Policies need to be written in an accessible manner. I wonder what would happen if students were asked to write them? We need to make sure that teachers, parents, and children understand what they are signing, so it doesn't just become another piece of paper.
  • There are a lot of gatekeepers doing what's supposedly best for kids. . . .but I have to question: is someone getting rich off of this? Have we been manipulated to believe our kids are in danger on the Net? Have school boards been manipulated by filter software companies to believe filters will protect them from irate parents ready to sue them for exposing their child to the evils of the net? Where are these irate parents?
  • Why bother to invest in new technology if all we're really comfortable with is word processing? Why not bring back the typewriter?
  • The safety issue shouldn't be about exposure - but lack of experience in dealing with exposure.

Final Thoughts, and One Anecdote - Trust in the Force

I truly believe students can rise to the occassion of social responsibility as they grow and learn with Web 2.0 technologies. Reactionary blocking based on fear of the darker side of the web must be questioned. I recently observed a Facebook group directing hatred towards a student by other students. It would do little good for educators to swoop in and block access to such a site (after all, educators can't block home computers, and it is unlikely that the group was started within the school walls). What actually happened was that another student from the same town (now away at university) stepped in and said the site was very uncool and wrong. I don't know if the students who started the site were humbled or not, but hopefully they will think twice before doing it again. I think in such a situation we can not act alone as educators - this is a community issue (on-line and off). Parents, teachers, and students themselves need to find their way in this new world. We need moral codes of conduct that transcend the walls of the school, and filters simply can't do that.

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