When I first started working at Natomas Charter School our filtering situation was, well awful. As I have shared in other posts, we were so locked down you couldn’t even to get to Amazon to order a book. YouTube? Forget about it! Every teacher had their own crazy, convoluted plan for downloading YouTube videos at home and transporting them to school. Today, nearly everything is open and has been for about two years. We maintain two levels of filtering – one for staff and one for students. On the staff networks pretty much everything is open (aside from obvious material we need to filter and frankly don’t want at work like pornography). Our student networks are a bit more restricted, but this has more to do with classroom management and community perceptions than anything else. Overall, our goal is to create a network which filters out as much of the junk as possible, while also creating a learning environment that can quickly adapt to the fast-paced changes of instructional technology and provide our students with amazing, real-world multimedia and digital resources.
If you’ve followed this blog then you know that I am fortunate to be able to share the work we’re doing at Natomas Charter through a variety of venues including CETPA, CUE, or the National Writing Project. Whether I’m speaking to an audience, hosting visitors at school, or sharing ideas on Twitter it is amazing how quickly filtering (actually, frustration with the way in which their networks are filtered) comes up. Regardless of where you work I am a firm believer that filtering should be reasonable and balanced. Of course we want to protect network resources and avoid having students stumble into adult material when using the web. At the same time though we have to keep things open enough that teachers and students can easily access the educational resources they need in an environment which is constantly innovating. When sharing our story with folks, I find myself constantly repeating the same message.
Filter Not a Wall
First of all, it is a filter – not a wall. Similar to how spring time gnats always make it through my screened windows things will get through your school’s filter. A filter should never be thought of as the ultimate tool for preventing students and staff from accessing unwanted material by anyone – teachers, staff, students, parents, the IT department. Whether it’s a questionable Super Bowl commercial popping up before a video or students researching plants and stumbling across someone “wearing” ferns things will happen and your filter will probably be working perfectly fine. The way to avoid these uncomfortable, yet teachable moments is to preview content and use tools that allow you to target resources to your students like QuietTube, AdBlock for Chrome, SafeShare, Google Custom Search Engine, or databases provided by your librarian.
Living in the Grey
Occasionally I hear comments from teachers like “My IT department says we are required by law to block YouTube, Facebook, etc.” Um, no it doesn’t and you don’t even have to believe me. Check out this 2011 article from MindShift interviewing then Department of Education’s Director of Education Technology, Karen Cator, dispelling myths about blocked websites in schools. Here is the real deal. The laws that lead to schools needing to make filtering decisions (CIPA, mainly) are grey, not as granular as many believe, and may not even apply to your school. As a result, filtering decisions really need to be collaborative decisions made with a focus on teaching and learning with teachers, administrators, parents, and teachers in the room, reflecting the norms and values of the community. They should never be left up to just one individual and constantly communicated throughout your organization. And having worked in multiple IT departments, your technical staff will thank you for not having to make these decisions all alone.
Focus on Behaviors
One of my fellow IT Directors recently asked me, “With more open filters aren’t you worried kids will use your network to try to access inappropriate material?” Smirking I responded, “No, because we strive to create engaging lessons and our teachers monitor what’s happening in the classroom. Frankly, if the kids wanted to access inappropriate websites they would just use their 4G-enabled smart phones.” Every school needs clear, device-agnostic expectations and consequences that focus on behaviors. If a kid brings a Playboy magazine to school or tries to access the site on their phone the consequences should be the same regardless of the tool that was used. Similarly, if an employee is wasting time reading magazine or surfing Facebook the consequences should be clear and focused on the behavior that is the problem. Filters will never change behaviors, only clear consequences and expectations will.
Kids Will Make Mistakes
News alert – kids sometimes make poor choices. Perhaps it is just the middle school teacher in me, but I kind of expect kids will make mistakes and school is the place where I want that to occur. Back up and re-read that sentence. I know that idea freaks some people out, but school is the place where mistakes should happen, rather than waiting until they are 18, on their own, and trying to figure things out. The world is not filtered. It is wide open. For example, how many of you are running filtering software on your home Internet connection? Since we focus on behaviors and expectations while creating a secure, yet usable network, we have established a learning environment where kids are not only safe but supported and mentored should they make a poor choice.
Sometimes I wonder if I am the only crazy person who thinks this way, but then I head back to my IT Department or talk to my Executive Director and realize I am not alone. Tonight I also hung out with Bud Hunt, Dean Shareski, and Mike Gras and realize that our philosophy isn’t isolated to Natomas Charter School. Also, Andrew Schwab wrote an amazing, related post just last week. There are educators and community leaders throughout the United States who are creating safe and dynamic learning environments for their teachers and students. My hope is that you will use this post and all of the links above as a tool for starting the conversation with your school and technology leaders.