Head in the Sand

I was following a discussion on a mailing list today about the various internet blocking and filtering policies that different schools implement. Someone said their school was revising their fitering/blocking policy and wanted to know what others were doing. From the replies I saw, it seems that many schools are still running scared of what their kids might do on the web, and still block access to useful services like YouTube and Flickr, and pretent things like Facebook and Twitter don’t exist. Seems that even after 10 years, Web 2.0 is still a scary bogieman to many schools.

I’m curious to know why, in the schools that do block access to certain sites (and it sounds like it tends to be mainly social media sites), what educational reason is given.  I’m just trying to look at the other way for a moment and instead of assuming that sites should be blocked unless a case it made to unblock them, why we never seem to do it the other way around. Is there really any reliable research to support the idea that we block first and ask questions later?  In schools that block, what are the educational arguments given for why that blocking takes place?

The usual reason is “duty of care”. The idea that we need to be doing everything we can to protect our students from every possible harm. I’m more concerned about the other kind of harm. The kind caused by overprotective shielding from the real world.

I took a Year 6 class the other day and was teaching them some “Googling skills” and ways to find information quickly online.  We had an impromptu game of Google Trivia, where I was asking them quiz-style questions and they were trying to find the answers as quickly as possible.  At one point I simply said “Look up your own name”.  To the great surprise of many of them (about half the class) they DID find themselves online – mentions of their name in sporting results, school newsletter articles, family businesses, local newspapers stories, etc.  ALL of them were surprised and NONE of them had any idea that there was information about them to be found online (ie, they didn’t put the information online themselves).

It led into a really interesting discussion (and an idea that drives the access policy we implement at my school)… it’s not a question of IF you can be found online, it’s just a question of WHAT will it say about you.  There is no question that these students will end up with a digital footprint/tattoo as they grow older, and the “body of evidence” that defines their online existence will continue to grow as they get older.   This will happen whether they consciously do it or not… Does anyone seriously believe it won’t? So there is a fairly strong compulsion (in my opinion anyway) that we need to educate children to create and manage their digital presence/persona/footprint so that it says the right kinds of things about them. Putting our head in the sand and pretending that places like Facebook with it’s 600 million inhabitants, or Twitter with over 200 million users, can simply be ignored because there might be some risk involved is a massive failure of duty of care because we are neglecting to responsibly educate our kids in the very worlds they inhabit.

Blocking access to the social networks, and pretending these things will just go away if we ignore them, is foolhardy at best and dangerous at worst. I’m actually looking forward to the first class action suit against an education system for knowingly restricting students’ access to environments that are a core part of growing up in a digital world.  It’s not the “stranger danger” of the online world we need to be concerned about. It’s the culture of fear and uncertainly that we propagate by not allowing our kids to play responsibly in that world.

Image: ‘As seen on Halsted Mt

CC BY 4.0 Head in the Sand by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

11 Replies to “Head in the Sand”

  1. Hi Chris

    An excellent article, which I hope you don’t mind, I mentioned in a Blog post of my own on this issue to some extent, something inspired by this post. http://bit.ly/g2aayg is the link to my post, but I do enjoy your slant on educational technology, keep up all the good work.

  2. Chris,

    You hit it right on with this one. My school has blocked facebook, youtube, teachertube and various other sites because “there may be inappropriate posts for kids or preditors might find kids through these sites.” This was a topic of discussion this week among teachers. The answer is to educate the students and parents about how to appropriate use these and other sites, not ban them from them. I have parents who won’t allow their children to use educational sites because they may click on something they don’t need to see. Education is the answer! They can not hide their kids from the world.

  3. Chris

    This is an ongoing problem/issue in schools. As an ex-IT Manager in a school setting I fought hard for the open web to be enabled and the use of social media (and the web in general) to be an educational issue not a technological issue.

    A comment continually made by one of my techs was that ‘prohibition has never worked’ and it didn’t. students are always pushing the boundaries are there are some who can always find ways around proxy servers, filters, etc.

    The main argument I pushed was that if bullying, inappropriate language and images/drawings were created and passed around in pen and paper, would those items be banned from the classroom?

  4. Our entire state-wide education network has blocked Google Docs on the grounds that it is a ‘personal network storage tool’ that could be used to save files ‘outside of the secured network’. It has been brought up for debate many times, and ultimately rejected. I might add that this is for staff & students alike.


    1. That is just completely insane. What is wrong with storing files “outside the secured network”? Don’t USB memory sticks do the same thing? Doesn’t email? Doesn’t a portable hard drive?

      WTF is wrong with these people…?

  5. Given the increasing adoption of smart phones I also wonder just how meaningful it is to block access via the school network. The school network is no longer the only way they can gain access to these sites. So you end up with a system that doesn’t stop access to “bad stuff” (they just use their phones or work around it), does stop access to some “good stuff” and costs the schools more to implement than not having a filter.

    I wonder if the economic rationale will be the push required for schools to seriously consider dropping the filter.

    1. The great irony is that not only can students simply connect to the outside world using their own portable 3G devices, phones, etc, but most of the students own these devices in the first place because their parents gave these devices to them!

      So if I understand this right, we are blocking kids from accessing materials and services on the open web because we are worried about what their parents might think, while these same kids access the material directly using devices that their parents provided them with. Insane.

      The reaons for the block and filters are to protect children from risk, danger and pedophiles. I’ve said it before, but if you want to protect children from the greatest risks of pedophilia, abuse and danger, then, according to the statistics of where this happens, keep them away from male family members and don’t let them attend anything run by the catholic church. I’m sorry if that offends people, but the likelihood of being abused as an altar boy is significantly greater than being abused by some random stranger from Facebook.

      But why lets facts get in the way? Think of how many people would be out of a job and how many companies would not be able to sell you their online nanny programs if we based our decisions on actual facts.

  6. Hi Chris,
    I was at the ACEL Emerging Leaders conference in Sydney on Monday and this topic came up a lot. The teachers I spoke to were very keen to explore ways to reduce filtering as they saw these tools as great ways of engaging kids in learning- which was really positive to hear. At the same time, they are all battling with huge cyber-safety issues and many teachers felt that while educating them was a good start, the scope and extent of the problems they were facing made them reluctant to lift filtering altogether- of Facebook in particular. They felt the legal ramifications of cyber bullying taking place in the school and in their classes threatening. Teachers and schools navigate legal minefields. I can understand their concerns. My background is primary teaching and I would be concerned if my young students were viewing inappropriate content inadvertently- and on Youtube, for example, it is all too common. Just browse through the list of comments on most videos. I’m playing devil’s advocate here because I would love to see the filters dropped, but I do think teachers have a duty of care to students. We don’t let kids use bunsen burners in lower primary. Is this a similar case? Until a student can demonstrate they have the maturity and capacity to use tools that potentially expose them to risks, their access should perhaps be moderated carefully?
    By the way, you’re blog’s an interesting read- keep it up.

    1. Hi Tracy,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. You raise some good issues, and I’m glad you play devils advocate on this, because we do need to explore the issue I think. I have to say that I don’t see cyber safety and cyber bullying as big issues, although I can only speak from personal experience. I’m not saying these problems don’t exist, but I am saying that in my experience they don’t exist to any degree that restricting all access in in any way a measured or appropriate response. In my opinion, limiting access to most things for all students is a completely disproportionate response to a fairly minor problem.

      I actually wish we would remove the term “cyberbullying” from the language we use. It’s bullying. Bullying via a computer is the same thing as bullying in the playground or on the bus going home or around the back of the toilets after school. I realise that bullying via digital means, cellphone and email, etc, is potentially able to be done more anonymously and at different times of day, but the fundamental issue of kids not being nice to other kids is not a technology problem, it’s a social problem. I wish we would see that for what it is, and address it as a social problem. Closing access to the tools of potential “cyberbullying” does nothing to address the real problem and just drives it into other areas that are much harder to police.

      I think the thing that gets up my nose about it the most is that most schools who block and restrict access to digital tools on the basis that they MIGHT facilitate cyberbullying have never actually tried to lift those restrictions to see what happens. It’s mostly entirely done as a reaction to a problem that they have never actually tested to find out whether it is in fact a problem.

      I do agree with you about the comment threads on YouTube though… for anyone wondering just how low the human race can sink, there is certainly plenty of fodder in the YouTube comments to feed their research! People really can be stupid. I find it interesting to compare the quality of comments on most blogs versus the comments on YouTube… I’m not sure what that says about people, but I’m sure there’s a thesis in it! 😉

      And I’m just wondering… why DON’T we let kids use bunsen burners?


    2. Tracey, the bunsen analogy is good. I did, as it happens, teach my kids to light stoves, suppress a kitchen fire and exit a burning house in their early primary years, but I’m not surprised that their school didn’t, because it took serious planning and precautions.

      I did find it instructive to consider Jess Slaughter’s trouble. “she said she used her webcam merely as a way to vent.” http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504083_162-20011349-504083.html

      1. Would harm have been reduced if she had posted from school with peer and teacher presence? If so, teachers should seek to expand technology access at school.

      2. Would parents have held the school liable if she had been using their facilities to post her rants? If so, principals are required to reduce technology access at school.

  7. Great post and discussion Chris. You’re preaching to the converted, so, having heard the ‘other side’ many times, I had a go at being the Devil’s Advocate, over on http://russellwaldron.edublogs.org/2011/03/10/what-the-head-in-the-sand-thinks-about-filters/

    I think the bottom line is, if we are going to block access to the Net, we should carefully consider the meaning of excluding the school from an important part of a child’s identity-formation and social development. We should be reluctant to do that.

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