Students Complain About Being Shut Out of the Internet

Project Tomorrow has just released the results of its Speak Up 2010 survey that asked over 300,000 students (and 43,000 parents, 35,000 teachers, and 3,500 administrators) about their thoughts on technology and learning in the classroom. The results confirm what many of us already know: Children have access to a wide variety of technologies, both at home and at school.

Take for example, these statistics comparing 6th graders today with those from just five years ago. In 2005, half of the 6th graders surveyed said they own a cellphone. Today, that same statistic holds true, but now an additional one-third say they own a smart phone. Almost 73% say they own an MP3 player, compared to just a third in 2005. Half of all 6th graders take tests online and three times as many have taken an online class as did in 2005.

Almost half of 6th grade girls and over a third of 6th grade boys say they regularly update their social networking profiles - up over 125% from five years ago. This, despite the fact that most 6th graders are not old enough to legally register on many of these sites.

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But here is the statistic I found particularly striking. In 2005, the 6th graders complained that the Internet at their school was too slow. Today, their number one complaint is that school filters and firewalls block the websites they need to do their school work. It wasn't just the main complaint of 6th graders -- 71% of high school students and 62% of middle school students said that greater access to the Internet was the number one thing their school could do to make it easier to use technology.

Of course, removing filters and blocks at school is easier said than done. CIPA, the Children's Internet Protection Act, requires that schools and libraries receiving federal E-rate funding have protective measures in place when it comes to students' Internet access. But there's often a gap between the mandate for and the practice of filtering and blocking.

CIPA requires institutions have an Internet safety policy that addresses blocking or filtering access to images that are obscene, child pornography or harmful to minors (for computers that are accessed by minors). It requires a method for monitoring (not tracking) activities.

CIPA, along with the other regulations that are frequently invoked in discussions of blocking (namely FERPA and COPPA, both of which address data privacy), is meant to protect children online. But as teacher-educator Tom Whitby argues in a blog post, "World's Simplest Online Safety Policy," these regulations "were not created to keep students stuck in the past, educated in a disconnected school environment that shares little resemblance to the real world for which we should be preparing our children. These acts do not say we can’t publish online student’s names, videos, work, pictures, etc. They do not prevent us from using social media, YouTube, email, or any of those things that may be blocked in many school districts. An important goal of education is to strive for creation and publication of content by students. In today’s world technology and the Internet are an essential components of that process."

Based on the results from the Speak Up 2010 survey, students seem to realize that, even if schools and districts are reluctant to do so. As students' access to Internet -- for better or worse -- may be unrestricted at home, they are increasingly frustrated to find the tools they use the most are unavailable at school. Not surprisingly, many students also listed restrictions on cellphones as a major barrier to their technology usage at school. And while cellphones offer a lot of things (including, of course, access to teens' favorite communication platform, text-messaging), a data plan also means that a student can have access to sites that a school may block on its network.

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Blocking and banning, Whitby argues, are just the "easy way out," and schools need to do more to help teach kids how to behave and search responsibly online. How can schools navigate what seem to be very challenging waters, balancing the demands of students for more open access and fears from adults that they're not ready for it?

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