What To Do If Your School Bans Useful Websites

Today is Banned Website Awareness Day, and all across the country, educators are doing their part to raise awareness of how overly restrictive blocking of educational websites affects student learning.

The dialogue around filtering must also include bring-your-own-device policies, appropriate use of social media in schools, and overall responsible use of technology in school. Each of these issues plays an important part in the equation that influences school policy around filtering websites. For example, do students and teachers use social media sites like Edmodo or even Facebook for class purposes? Are educational videos on YouTube part of teachers' curriculum? In large school districts, does it make sense to have individual school policies? Are students allowed to use their cell phones?

Part of the investigation into what filtering policies to put in place revolves around understanding current rules and regulations -- and that's the problem, according to Michelle Luhtala, a librarian at New Cannan High School and one of the primary organizers of Banned Websites Awareness Day.

"People believe the rules are far more restrictive than they really are," she said. "Most people are working off of policies that predate 2003, and so much has happened since then, and continues to happen."

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In a recent survey of nearly 700 teachers, principals, and school librarians, conducted by MMS Education and co-sponsored by edWeb.net and MCH Strategic Data, 55% of respondents said they had somewhat restrictive policies of access to Web 2.0 tools (social media sites) for teachers, and 23% said they had very restrictive policies. And when it came to students, 44% said they had somewhat restrictive policies of access, and 47% said they had very restrictive policies.

Most of the blocked sites are either social media sites, or have some element of public sharing of information, and that's where school administrators need to be more flexible, Luhtala said. "Administration more than teachers need to open their minds to the value and potential of social networking for educational use," wrote a survey respondent. "CIPA needs to be spelled out more specifically or made clearer to IT in education so that filters are not blocking sites unnecessarily."

In the meantime, what should educators do when they try to access a site in school that's blocked by the school's filter? Luhtala offers the following advice.

  1. PRESENT FACTS. Direct people to the Department of Education's suggestions in this article (posted below). "This is a really valuable resource for tech directors who aren’t well informed about the details of legal aspects," Luhtala said. "Sometimes IT directors tell other IT directors who say, 'Just do what the lawyers say,' and it becomes a giant case of the game Telephone. The DOE is the ultimate authority, so this article forces them to look at their agenda and policies."
  2. CONSIDER SMART POLICIES. Study CoSN's Guide for Acceptable Use Policies for filtering and other issues, and their recent report Making Progress: Rethinking State and School District Policies Concerning Mobile Technologies and Social Media, which clearly states, "Before steps are taken to impose limits on the use of social media and mobile technologies in schools, policymakers and educators need to consider the consequences for learning that such restrictions would produce... Such action should carefully consider the advantages of social media for learning and that these guidelines for responsible use bring media into mentored environments where they can be safely explored and shared."
  3. CREATE A DIALOGUE. Start a conversation with people who manage the filtering system. "A lot of policies have been in place for 10 years or more," Luhtala said. "Sometimes they assume products are inherently bad, but if they understand that they can be tools for learning, they can see constructive purposes."
  4. GET AN EARLY ADOPTER ON BOARD AND TAKE BABY STEPS. Collaborate with an innovator, and see if you can work on a project that includes a site you want unblocked. Get parent and school authorization to try out the pilot project and document the process along the way in order to share best practices. Try it out for five weeks and see how it goes.
  5. USE AND SHARE RESOURCES. Read the American Association of School Librarian's Essential Resources site and add your own resources to help others spread the message and educate other educators.
  6. WADE INTO SOCIAL MEDIA. For those who have yet to start using social media with students, Luhtala suggests "take steps to try to understand what all the fuss is about." But that will take time and training, as one survey respondent pointed out. "I believe it offers us potential opportunities to further engage our students. However, in order to maximize this potential we must provide teachers and students with additional trainings," the anonymous respondent wrote in the survey.

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When you're ready to take action, here are the list of myths dispelled directly by the Department of Education's Technology Director Karen Cator:

  • Accessing YouTube is not violating CIPA rules. “Absolutely it’s not circumventing the rules,” Cator says. “The rule is to block inappropriate sites. All sorts of YouTube videos are helpful in explaining complex concepts or telling a story, or for hearing an expert or an authentic voice — they present learning opportunities that are really helpful.”
  • Websites don’t have to be blocked for teachers. “Some of the comments I saw online had to do with teachers wondering why they can’t access these sites,” she says. “They absolutely can. There’s nothing that says that sites have to be blocked for adults.”
  • Broad filters are not helpful. “What we have had is what I consider brute force technologies that shut down wide swaths of the Internet, like all of YouTube, for example. Or they may shut down anything that has anything to do with social media, or anything that is a game,” she said. “These broad filters aren’t actually very helpful, because we need much more nuanced filtering.”
  • Schools will not lose E-rate funding by unblocking appropriate sites. Cator said she’s never heard of a school losing E-rate funding due to allowing appropriate sites blocked by filters. See the excerpt below from the National Education Technology Plan, approved by officials who dictate E-rate rules.
  • Kids need to be taught how to be responsible digital citizens. “[We need to] address the topic at school or home in the form of education,” Cator says. “How do we educate this generation of young people to be safe online, to be secure online, to protect their personal information, to understand privacy, and how that all plays out when they’re in an online space?”
  • Teachers should be trusted. “If the technology fails us and filters something appropriate and useful, and if teachers in their professional judgment think it’s appropriate, they should be able to show it,” she said. “Teachers need to impose their professional judgment on materials that are available to their students.”