Today I finished up the seventh E-rate seminar around the state of Oklahoma in series of ten workshops I’m leading. The following messages have been common in my web browser this week in the school districts who have hosted the seminars, prior to and following my presentation time…
Trying to access Twitter yesterday:
Trying to access Yahoo mail today:
Trying to access my digital curriculum website on PBwiki today:
Trying to access my blog site today:
As an aside, I noticed with a sarcastic spirit the grammatical error in the title bar of each of these browser windows. Rather than offering the challenge, “Your busted” these screens should read “You’re busted.” Apparently someone in an IT department needs a review the grammatical nuances of contractions.
Thankfully, I can access my Yahoo email and Twitter via my iPhone which is accessing the Internet via the cellular phone network outside the control of these local school districts.
When I opened the Skype application today on my laptop connected to the school’s network and it tried to login, the IP address assigned to the wireless access point I’m using was “quarantined” on the network. This was the screen I was shown when trying to subsequently visit a website:
The district I’m in today has a TippingPoint Intrusion Prevention System installed and configured which permits “quarantining” individual computer users in circumstances like this. If my computer was infected with malware (of course it is NOT since I’m using a Macintosh portable and there aren’t any viruses / worms / malware “in the wild” for Mac OS X computers– there are thousands “out there” for Windows-based systems) I would understand. Schools actually NEED the capability to track what is happening on their networks, and if a computer is infected with “bad stuff” the network administrators need to be able to identify/isolate which computer(s) are infected and then deny access to the Internet and the rest of the local area network for those computers.
Why should school districts and other organizations be able to do this, you ask? There are multiple reasons, but a prominent reason is that having malware infected computers running on your network can not only degrade available network bandwidth, it can also result in your organization’s entire range of IP addresses being “blacklisted” for sending mail. The result can be (and often is for schools) that ALL USERS on the organization’s computer network can receive email, but no one can SEND email because the address of the district’s SMTP server has been blacklisted. Getting removed from an email/spam blacklist can be a big hassle and take a long time. Websites like Spamhaus and Spamcop can help you identify whether or not your public IP address has been blacklisted, and suggest actions you can take to get your IP address (or IP range) removed from blacklists.
Let me be clear: I agree with the philosophy behind CIPA legislation in the United States and am glad schools and libraries receiving E-rate funding are required to have and enforce local policies for content filtering. There certainly ARE websites “out there” which should be blocked from access at school. Pornographic sites are a clear case in point.
The problem is, however, the technology tools which permit network administrators and school administrators to block access to pornography also permit them to block access to a much wider range of websites.
Why should my access to Twitter be blocked from school? Why should my access to ALL PBwiki websites be blocked? In some cases, the answer to this question is that school administrators are attempting to keep students ON TASK, rather than just away from inappropriate content. The ironic thing (which I have noted before) is that CIPA does not require school districts to block access to a specific blacklist of websites. No one tells the school district to block virtually all blog and many wiki websites. The local administration, or the organization paid to maintain the school’s content filter, makes that decision. In addition, there are inherent problems with parents and others pointing fingers of blame at school officials when their children intentionally try to access objectionable / offensive / inappropriate websites. School networks and discipline systems should support cultures of individual accountability, rather than cultures which attempt to prevent all potential “bad choices” by users of the network. That is “big brother” personified, and certainly not an environment supportive of the development of responsible, ethical, and self-reliant people.
In a purely analog world, censorship like this could be more visible. A book burning event was held in a public square, I think, to draw attention to the fact that the authorities not only philosophically opposed but physically opposed the reading of certain “banned works.”
In a digital world, censorship and content filtering like this is not as visible as a book burning event in the public square. The chilling effects of digital censorship on the sharing and communication of ideas can be just as severe, however.
There are good reasons for network administrators to be concerned with infiltration of their networks and computer hardware (computer desktops, laptops as well as servers) with various forms of malware. There are also overwhelming reasons for network administrators to be proactive and vigilant in protecting/securing networks from a variety of “threats” originating both outside and inside the network. Sadly, most school districts with which I work now predominantly use the most security-vulnerable and problem-ridden operating systems in the world, rather than more secure and much cheaper alternatives. Because they have grown into a situation where they are dependent on highly vulnerable computer systems, more draconian steps are necessary to provide for network security.
We’re in a vicious cycle. It is odd that in the late 1990s, before I had residential high speed Internet access, I dreaded dial-up connections at home and much-preferred a higher-speed connection to the Internet at school. Now, School networks are often so locked down they are essentially useless to me as a knowledge worker needing to access and share information with a variety of applications and websites. Today, I yearn to escape the School environment and instead gain access to the Internet from my home high speed connection or from (in the case of an out-of-town trip like I’m on today) a local hotel room’s Internet service.
I’m struck by the idea that when I am constrained in my ability to access and share information, in the ways I have described in this post, I feel less human. I am not myself. It is as if my arm or my leg has been cut off, and my ambulatory and physically interactive capacities have been forcibly restricted.
Few people like to be constrained in such ways. I’m reminded of a photograph I took last week just north of Atoka, Oklahoma, as I drove from Durant to Mcalister. There is a medium-sized prison located just to the west side of the highway. This was the entrance:
A considerable amount of barbed wire and electrified fencing insured that prisoners did not leave on their own accord.
Prisons personify the idea of controlling human behavior. Yet I am struck by the similarities between many of our schools today in the United States, and the prisons where we ostensibly send criminals to be “corrected.” (I would assume that is why the state department responsible for the prison system is called the “department of corrections” rather than “the department of punishment.”)
When I am in a school with a stringent Internet content filtering policy, often more restrictive than that of communist
China, I can’t “move at the speed of creativity.” In fact, it often feels like I can’t move at all. It ALMOST feels like I’m in a prison.
If our schools look and feel like prisons (and certainly I’m not the first person to make this observation) that should serve as a wake-up call. I don’t really want to visit a prison, and I certainly don’t want to stay in one for long periods of time. Yet if we are forcing our students to remain in our schools for 13 years of compulsory, “free” education, but we are restricting them by cutting off their virtual arms and legs, is it any wonder dropout rates are so high and reported rates of boredom in schools are as well?
I know I’m idealistic, and I won’t make excuses for that. I continue to believe that school should be a place where students and teachers LOVE to be, rather than DREAD and FEAR. We are so far away from this ideal in many public schools today, not only because of network content filtering but more importantly because of punitive, high-stakes testing, it really saddens me to my core.
To what degree are the leaders in your school acting more like prison guards than they are acting like educators– in the sense Seymour Papert means when he writes of “true teachers?” I’ve seen a fair number of prison guards working in schools but masquerading as teachers and administrators, supervising students who seem to be there just to “do their time” and take their required tests. This situation is part of the reason I’m starting to think we should change mandatory school attendance laws in our nation and make public schooling optional. If kids didn’t have to be in school, but could choose to come, maybe more legislators, school board members, school administrators, teachers and parents would get serious about supporting creative, innovative learning environments rather than authoritarian, fear-ridden ones where the “inmates” are much more excited to leave rather than remain in the learning environment.
BTW, since I couldn’t access my blog from the school district today, I actually had to return to the parking lot of the hotel where I stayed last night on my drive home, to access their wireless Internet and upload this blog post. I had to leave the restrictive environment of the School, and return to the empowering environment of the outside world. That gives me quite a bit of new food for thought and action.
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- How to use your iPad and iPhone / iPad Touch with an External Display / Projector - 2010
- A hazard of moderating comments on a popular YouTube video - 2009
- Many more K-12 Online Conference Teasers - 2007
- Mike Lawrence on DOPA - 2006
- British teachers support instructional autonomy - 2006
- Nontraditional peer review - 2006
- Deep tagging video - 2006
- Our need for more dialog in the face of fear - 2006
- Blog Search Tools - 2005