The 21st-Century School Censors Showdown

How much Internet filtering is too much?

Freedom of speech and an unrestrained exchange of ideas is fabulous in theory, but not so easy to practice in every venue. (Photo: graphiclunarkid/ Creative Commons)

In 1885 the Concord Public Library in Massachusetts banned Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because of its “coarse language.”

More than 125 years later, the debate among educators and parents over censorship and intellectual freedom is shifting from books to websites.                    

Schools typically use filtering software to keep violent and pornographic content off their computers. But many campuses also restrict sites that, some claim, have educational value.

For instance, New York City’s Department of Education blocked Google Images for what it called “objectionable content,” but later lifted the ban.

Maybe they could add beer pong to the curriculum, so that [students] would have yet another advantage when they go to college.

In June, the Pinellas County School Board in Florida voted to prevent teachers from communicating with students via Facebook or Twitter, even about school-related matters. A similar state law was recently blocked by a judge in Missouri.

As the list of restrictions grows to include National Geographic, Flickr, YouTube and Skype, some educators wonder if censorship has gone too far.

BANNED SITES DAY

Last month, the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) designated September 28, 2011, as Banned Websites Awareness Day.

AASL President Carl Harvey tells TakePart that “to raise awareness of the overly restrictive blocking of legitimate educational websites and academically useful social networking tools in schools and school libraries, AASL has designated one day during Banned Books Week as Banned Websites Awareness Day. AASL is asking school librarians and other educators to promote an awareness of how overly restrictive filtering affects student learning.”   

Michelle Luhtala, department chair of the New Canaan High School library in New Canaan, Connecticut, is an advocate for incorporating social networking, participatory media and digital citizenship into the curriculum. 

She tells TakePart that technology integration is critical to the educational process:

“We are a free-range media school. Students are allowed to use their devices for teaching and learning. We do filter porn, but beyond that, we’re open. In order to raise lifelong learners, it’s important for them to understand that the division between social life, teaching, and learning is murky. Learning doesn’t end at 3 p.m., and it shouldn’t feel separate from students’ other life. That’s how you breed curiosity and critical thinking. It’s helped us to create better 21st-century learners, and to really hone those skills, even though some of it is social. It’s great those things are meshed. That makes learning fun for them.”

Luhtala’s school unblocked Facebook in 2006. Many of the students were bypassing the proxy server and logging on anyway. Administrators waited to see if anything bad would happen. Nothing did. “It actually started to be really helpful,” she explains.

For instance, when New Canaan suffered ongoing power outages following Hurricane Irene, the decision was made at 9:30 p.m. to delay the opening of the school. The principal called Luhtala and said: “Hey, can you get the word out to the kids through Facebook?” Luhtala, friends with 500 students, was able to spread the message to everyone. Not a single student showed up the next morning. “That’s a very powerful medium of communication,” she says.

Teaching students how to maintain online profiles and use digital media responsibly are critical skills, explains Luhtala, and kids should be able to share their knowledge with the world in a supervised setting.  

“Ninety percent of Americans who use social media expect businesses to have a social media presence,” she adds. “It’s an embedded part of our society. It’s really important for kids to learn how to use these tools for productivity and learning. Social media is a critical piece of how we communicate.”

KEEPING UP WITH THE TIMES

Luhtala suggests that school districts aren’t necessarily more stringent than they used to be. In many cases, restrictive filtering policies were put in place before educators understood social media, and those guidelines were simply never updated.

“Some of the policies are driven by antiquated filter systems that don’t even have separate check offs for different grade levels,” she says. “I’ve talked to a lot of filter vendors, and apparently, it’s not very expensive to upgrade your filter system to include those features.”

Luhtala cites The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You by Eli Pariser as justification for why students should combine social media with educational activities. 

“What’s happening with social media is the more things you click on, the more it guides your search results in major search engines like Google and Yahoo,” she explains. “If two different people search for Egypt, one might get a lot of political content, and the other might get a lot of travel information. It’s done beyond your control. If you’re using your social media only for fluff, then your information bubble becomes very fluff driven. You won’t have the same depth of content when you do research. This needs to become part of the conversation about filtering.”

Michael, a 17-year-old student at New Canaan High School, tells TakePart why he appreciates the access to technology offered by his school.

“We have such great opportunities here where we’re able to use all this media,” he says. “Teachers use different sites such as Facebook to link students to each other, and it definitely helps with cohesion outside the classroom. Being able to talk in a group over a project, and share information, links, and photos, is really helpful.”

VOCAL OBJECTORS

Though many educators agree with Luhtala about the benefits of incorporating participatory media into the curriculum, others think the idea is ridiculous.

A librarian who blogs for LibraryJournal.com objected to Banned Sites Day, claiming that school isn’t the place for students to engage in social networking.

“[I]t’s not like these kids aren’t getting their share of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube when they’re out of school,” she wrote.

“If anything, schools should be reducing the distractions of the real world so that students might be able to concentrate on learning how to do all the things they won’t be doing incessantly with their friends as soon as school ends. It’s like taking a class in how to watch television or how to smoke pot. Maybe they could add beer pong to the curriculum, so that [students] would have yet another advantage when they go to college.” 

How much censorship is too much remains an ongoing debate.  Do more restrictions protect kids, or interfere with the educational process? What do you think?


Photo courtesy of graphiclunarkid/Creative Commons via Flickr

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