Banning Websites at Schools Not Always the Right Choice

Supervising what kids in school can and cannot see on the Internet is of course sensible, but when is too much filtering a bad thing? Some believe that banning certain websites can deprive children access to useful and relevant information. Others feel that some sites, mostly notably social media, should be allowed and even utilized as learning tools. Are these arguments valid?

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Censorship Taken Too Far?

According to 2009 records released by OpenDNS, a Web filtering company, the top ten websites banned at schools and businesses include Facebook, YouTube, MySpace and ESPN.com. Some, like Playboy.com and AdultFriendFinder.com, are understandable, but for the most part some seem fairly innocuous. In a more recent report, MindShift, an education website devoted to news regarding policies, research and technology trends, listed National Geographic and Skype as among those that are banned.

In many cases what is happening is that in filtering certain sites other and often more useful sites also end up getting blocked, much to the dismay of teachers and even parents. These include Flickr, file-sharing sites like Dropbox that can be used to send assignments between teachers and students, the collaborative site Glogster and blogging platforms that could allow teachers and students to participate in discussions and information sharing.

The MindShift and OpenDNS lists do not take into account school-by-school bans. For instance, in June 2011 the Department of Education in New York City blocked Google Images because of 'objectionable content' (the department later allowed individual schools to decide if they wanted to allow students access to the site). In some areas, such as Stamford, Connecticut, schools can decide individually to block sites beyond the filter list supplied by the district.

Social Media as Educational Tools

Should this virtual 'book burning' be allowed?

One of those who say 'no' is Michelle Luhtala, chair of the library department for New Canaan High School in Connecticut and founder of Banned Sites Day, a national effort to make people aware of these restrictions and to draw attention to freedom of information. Luhtala compares website restrictions to book banning. While she agrees that things like pornography should be blocked, Luhtala feels that teachers and students should have access to social media sites for instructional purposes. 'Teaching with social media shows students how to responsibly use those platforms,' she told USA Today in July.

Eric Sheninger, principal of New Milford High School in New Jersey, is a staunch advocate for the use of social media in the classroom. Referring to cellphones as 'mobile learning devices', Sheninger clearly sees the power and the usefulness of the Internet as a way to engage students. 'They're connected, they're creating, they're discussing, they're collaborating,' he recently told USA Today. The American Library Association has spoken out in favor of allowing children to access social media, saying that banning social networking sites 'does not teach safe behavior' and that in place of restriction, children should be taught by schools to use these sites 'responsibly, ethically and safely.'

Karen Cator, director of education technology for the U.S. Department of Education, acknowledges that while filtering is necessary, it's not always beneficial. In April, she told MindShift: 'The filtering programs we have are fairly rudimentary. We need more intelligent filtering programs, safer search environments, smarter technologies so that people aren't just shutting down large swaths of the Internet. There's a lot on YouTube, for example, that could be safe and really instructive, but since it's just in one bucket, a lot of schools just shut down YouTube.'

Working Around the (Road)Blocks

As more and more teachers and administrators become aware of just how useful social media sites are in an educational context, some are finding ways to work around the imposed filters.

Some simply bypass the Internet filters in place in their schools. Or, the students themselves do so. There are teachers who allow students to access these sites via mobile devices. San Francisco middle school teacher Emma Dunbar told MindShift in April 2011 that she accesses YouTube and iTunes through her own iPhone to get by the school filters. In doing so, she doesn't 'even check on my district supplied computer anymore.'

Will many schools eventually relent and allow social media and other potentially beneficial sites to be accessed by students? It's hard to say, but some believe that the benefits outweigh the risks. And maybe with enough pressure, bans on some sites could be lifted. Recently, when the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations complained of illegal censorship, the Missouri Research & Education Network (MOREnet), supplier of filtering software to 100 school districts, agreed to de-activate a feature that currently blocks non-sexual lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender content.

What it comes down to, it seems, is that students should be given every learning opportunity available, and there are many such opportunities on the Internet. It might take some tweaking of filtering software, but it's something schools should address. After all, as Cator points out, 'The Internet is not going away.'

Read more about New Milford High School Principal Eric Sheninger, who emphasizes the importance of innovative technology and social media in education.

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