Messages like this one might be common at your school and in your classroom.
This was displayed today in my computer’s web browser when I tried to visit the website Flickr, which is included on the website whitelist we distribute to schools in advance of our Celebrate Oklahoma Voices workshop. Several things about this Internet filtering “block” message are worth noting.
First of all, the technology director in the school holding our workshop had specifically whitelisted flickr.com the day before, on Monday. Yet today, on Tuesday, the site was mysteriously blocked again. I guess the district’s Internet content filtering could be considered, “highly aggressive.”
Second of all, the webpage title of this “blocked” message was:
The English Wiktionary definitions for “busted” which apply in this case are:
Caught in the act of doing something one shouldn’t do.
Caught and arrested for committing a crime.
The normative message from this content filtering page is: You have committed a grevious error. You are in the wrong. You should be ashamed of yourself.
Perhaps we could go even farther. Is part of the message: Accessing websites not approved by our school district’s Internet provider is a big game, and for your last attempt we give you a score of ZERO?! You failed, you’re busted!
Internet content filtering is not game. It’s not funny, and I resent being shown a message which implies I’m a criminal when I’m only trying to visit a website which provides access to millions of educationally valuable, copyright-friendly images for teachers and students to use.
The third comment I’ll make about this “blocked” page is the message at the bottom. The assumption inherent in this offering of “alternative websites” (Google, Yahoo, CNN and Fox News) is that the only reasons a learner at the school would be using the Internet is to either search for information or read the news. These are CONSUMPTIVE activities. This supposedly “helpful” set of links on the block page (which I’m sure is viewed hundreds if not thousands of times over the course of a school year by students as well as teachers) completely misses the point that the Internet can be used, is being used, and SHOULD be used by learners for serious work CREATING and SHARING content on websites which power creative productivity. A mindset persists in schools and many businesses that “real work” on the computer is done only in Microsoft Office, and “the Internet” is used just to “look stuff up” and read the news. This perspective is sorely out of date.
Draconian content filtering in our schools makes me angry. I don’t get angry often. I am well aware that our hostile network computing environment has necessitated firewalls and layered security approaches to protecting organizational network resources. There are “lots of bad guys” out there exploiting vulnerable computer systems and networks, and it’s important to have IT staff (supported by saavy vendors) who can and do help stand at the virtual gates of the organization and fend off would-be attackers.
The levels of severe, out-of-balance content filtering in our schools, which in many cases make all blogs, all wikis, and virtually all “interactive” websites blocked / banned / prohibited are incompatible with the values of a free society. We need to go beyond simply “unmasking the digital truth.” We need a well-planned and designed, coordinated social action campaign to promote balanced content filtering in our schools. We need this campaign to highlight the vendors and others who, like all too many political figures in our era, fan the flames of fear for their own financial and/or political advantage. Threats to network security are real in our schools, but so are the threats to freedom of information access and freedom of expression.
We need a campaign which can create incentives for service providers who filter the Internet to promote Internet accountability. We need to stop treating content filtering as “THE solution” to objectionable Internet content. Basic levels of filtering are needed and mandated by federal E-Rate law in the United States (for E-Rate recipients) but draconian content filtering is NOT. We need a campaign to celebrate, reward, and highlight companies which support BALANCED approaches to content filtering, not approaches which would make the central committee of the People’s Republic of China proud and happy.
One of the teachers in our workshop today, when asked the question, “What instructions: guidelines do you give students NOW about getting photos to use in a video project?” responded:
Pictures must come from a legal website. No obscene pictures.
When I asked the teacher how he defined “a legal website,” he said it was a website which students were able to access because the district’s content filter allowed them to view it.
Let’s deconstruct this comment, because the assumptions here are a BIG problem. This teacher assumed that EVERY website which was NOT blocked by the content filter was OK. That somehow, the school’s Internet filter was acting as an all-knowing, uber-grandmother figure, granting permission and giving blessing to any site which was NOT blocked / on a blacklist. I regret to suggest this perception is common. I lament this perception, as well as its normality in schools.
Folks, WE are the filter. Our minds are the filter. Legality and ethics are not defined by the whim’s of an Internet service provider, a tech director who decides to block or unblock websites, or for that matter by a company which decides today “certain applications” are cardinal sins to own and use but tomorrow become authorized in “their online store.”
We make ethical decisions and judgements based on values, not based on the whims of organizations or individuals. I tried to make this point in our workshop today and my discussions with this particular teacher, but I don’t think I made much headway. The perceptions that “if the filter doesn’t block it, it’s OK for the kids to use in a video project” as well as the belief that “it’s not my job to make decisions about right and wrong online, since our content filter does that for us” are both erroneous and depressing at multiple levels.
We’ve got so much work to do when it comes to digital literacy and digital citizenship.
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- Photos from #mobile2012 in Phoenix, Arizona - 2012
- Education as a Superstructure by Graham Brown-Martin - 2012
- iGeography by Jenny Ashby (Workflows for Learning with iPads) - 2012
- Combining 21st Century Skills, Project Based Learning, and iPads - 2012
- Collaboration in Hand with iPads by Tony Vincent - 2012
- Why I'm delaying a Netbook purchase till June - 2009
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