By Kathy Baron
Not too long ago, a proposal to give some Nebraska students access to a digital library of books and magazines through the school district’s website was thwarted by a district official who objected to students seeing those archetypal photos of naked breasts in National Geographic.
While that may seem quaint, a new report from the American Library Association warns it’s emblematic of an overzealous and damaging crackdown on websites by school districts that are misinterpreting the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) of 2000.
“The over-filtering that occurs today affects not only what teachers can teach but also how they teach,” writes Kristen Batch in the ALA's report Fencing Out Knowledge, which examines the impact of CIPA 10 years after it was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. It also “creates barriers to learning and acquiring digital literacy skills that are vital for college and career readiness, as well as for full participation in 21st-century society.”
Batch doesn’t doubt that districts sincerely believe they’re protecting students, but says the law is based on an outmoded version of the Internet as a passive repository of printed information in a digital format.
“The most striking change between CIPA when it was passed and CIPA today is the way we use the Internet,” Batch said. “It’s not a magazine, we’re not just consumers, we’re creators, we’re users.”
Facebook, YouTube and Twitter didn’t exist when CIPA became law, but today millions of children use them to create online personas and interact with friends, strangers, even potential future employers. On Facebook alone, the typical teen has 300 "friends," according to a 2013 report by the Pew Research Internet Project. Yet, the most popular social media sites are also the most commonly blocked by schools.
The folly lies in the fact that most students have unfettered access to these forbidden sites through the phones in their pockets and backpacks, on their home computers and in many public libraries – often with no adult guidance. Batch says it’s a missed opportunity to teach students the critical skills they’ll need to discern the good from the bad.
“These critical thinking skills aren’t learned just by tinkering with technology, it has to be learned in context in a supportive environment,” said Batch. “Kids can learn and reflect, and it starts to shape behavior in terms of what’s appropriate on line.”
On the surface, CIPA is very clear about what schools and libraries must do to protect children from harmful material on the Internet. According to the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees compliance with the law, they must put technology protection measures in place that “block or filter Internet access to pictures that are: (a) obscene; (b) child pornography; or (c) harmful to minors.”
In practice, however, defining the three measures is up to each community, creating widely varied implementation from district to district and the sort of frustration that led U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in the 1964 Jacobellis v. Ohio case, to exclaim about obscenity, “I know it when I see it.”
The FCC could order a district that’s out of compliance to repay tens of thousands of dollars in federal discounts to defray the cost of connecting to the Internet through the E-rate program. Although that hasn’t happened yet, the threat contributes to some districts’ attitude that it’s better to be safe than sorry.
In the same Nebraska school district that blocked National Geographic magazine, neither students in an Advanced Placement government class, nor their teacher, could access websites containing the words China, Russia or Iran, making it a challenge to work on a project that required them to compare the different types of governments in those countries.
The only people who could override the filter were in the technology department, which didn’t answer to anyone in the curriculum division, explained a former school staff member, who didn’t want her name used, and their answer to any requests was usually no. This was especially troubling when, in the wake of an attempted suicide, a school counselor wasn’t able to download information on suicide for students who came to her for help.
When she asked the tech department to unblock the site, she was rebuffed. “Their view was that if the filter is blocking it, there’s no reason for you to see it,” the former staff member said.
The Nebraska district is in the midst of a sweeping philosophical and practical turnaround in filtering thanks to a newly elected – and much younger – school board, a new tech director and a new superintendent.
But the former staff member still wonders how the old policy impacted other students facing life-altering crises who hit a firewall while searching online for answers. How many dropped out of school or chose other risky behaviors because they couldn’t find any other options.
“I have to assume that that happened,” she said.
Filtering Out Equality
In their nascent days, filters were blunt instruments that worked by blocking any URL or website containing certain keywords: sex, drugs, guns. That’s still the gist of the operating system, but tech advances enable districts to be more nuanced about what gets blocked and for whom, and they’re taking advantage of that flexibility.
Between 2010 and 2013, the number of teachers who said Internet blocking was an obstacle in their classrooms fell from 45 to 32 percent, according to surveys by the nonprofit education group, Project Tomorrow.
When John Krull took over as Internet technology officer in Oakland Unified School District last summer, he said teachers’ biggest complaints were about not having access to the websites they needed. Because the district has a sophisticated filter, Krull implemented a teacher login system that lets staff override some blocked sites. He’s working on a similar system for students that would grant varying degrees of access depending on grade level.
But a more troubling concern raised in the ALA report is over unequal Internet access based on economic levels. Over-filtering in schools is creating two classes of students, Batch argues, by putting low-income students at an educational disadvantage because they’re less likely to have Internet access at home.
“That’s really the gap; that students that have their own Internet connections at home have exposure, but those students who rely on Internet access at school, they are not getting access to the same sites that they should be,” said Batch.
In a survey released last year by the Pew Research Internet Project, nearly three times as many teachers of low-income students than those with middle- and high-income students said this lack of access was a “major challenge” in their ability “to incorporate more digital tools into their teaching.”
The disparities will become more problematic as school implement Common Core State Standards, which require teachers to embed technology throughout the curriculum and not treat it as a separate subject.
Under the new standards, it’s expected that students will learn to “employ technology thoughtfully to enhance their reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language use. They tailor their searches online to acquire useful information efficiently, and they integrate what they learn using technology with what they learn offline. They are familiar with the strengths and limitations of various technological tools and mediums and can select and use those best suited to their communication goals.”
Finding the Right Balance
Complying with CIPA is a time-consuming and expensive unfunded federal mandate. Filters can cost anywhere from $3-to-$40 per student, depending on the size and needs of the district, and like any software program, they require regular updates and training to make sure everyone knows how to use them.
But eliminating filters isn’t the answer to debugging the problems with CIPA. For starters, there is no movement afoot to change law, let alone overturn it, according to FCC officials.
What’s more, even people who believe in full access to the Internet agree that there have to be protections in place for children.
“There’s not a right or wrong; it’s a lot about community values and it’s a tough thing because the Internet can be a dangerous place,” said Denise Atkinson-Shorey, an IT consultant and former librarian.
Wearing just her hat as an IT consultant, Atkinson-Shorey would rather that districts didn’t have to deal with the expense and bother of filters and could put that money and time into resources to directly improve education. Since that’s not going to happen anytime soon, she says there should be an ongoing conversation to review the impact of CIPA.
The need to improve communication about the issues that CIPA addresses is the “overarching” outcome of the ALA report. Once teachers, parents, administrators and students start talking about the good and bad consequences of the law, the hope is they can begin to develop some guidelines and resources for school districts and communities.
“It’s not if you have a filter or not, it’s really about to what degree do you filter, how do you filter?” said Atkinson-Shorey.