Online Safety Law Seen as Teaching Barrier

By Katie Ash — December 16, 2009 2 min read
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I’ve spent the better part of this morning reading about the use of Internet filters in K-12 schools and the frustrations they create for educators who would like to incorporate Web 2.0 tools, such as blogs and wikis, into the classroom. And the one point that many teachers come back to is the Children’s Internet Protection Act, or CIPA. Most schools point to CIPA as the reason why filters are necessary, since the law specifies that in order to be eligible fund from the E-rate--which is a federal program that helps make telecommunications services more affordable for schools and libraries--schools must institute Internet-safety measures.

The full text of the law is available here, but the part that has to do specifically with filters says the following:

Schools and libraries subject to CIPA may not receive the discounts offered by the E-rate program unless they certify that they have an Internet safety policy that includes technology protection measures. The protection measures must block or filter Internet access to pictures that are: (a) obscene, (b) child pornography, or (c) harmful to minors (for computers that are accessed by minors).

It doesn’t seem like many of the Web 2.0 tools teachers would like to use fall into that category. But as Davina Pruitt-Mentle pointed out in a conversation I recently had with her while I was reporting a story for Education Week Digital Directions, “it’s a lot easier to block or filter to meet those requirements” than it is to weed through content on a case-by-case basis. Pruitt-Mentle is the director of educational technology policy, research and outreach for the University of Maryland.

In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Justin Reich, a former high school teacher and a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes that filters are especially skilled at blocking out one group of Internet users at schools: teachers. Students, he says, know how to get around the filters, while teachers have no idea how to go about accessing blocked material online. Filters stop teachers from accessing educational materials like “historical newsreels on Google Video, citizen reporting from blogs on Blogger, or opportunities for international dialogue through instant messaging services such as Meebo,” says Reich.

Some school officials, however, have taken a less-is-more perspective on CIPA, arguing that it does not require a sweeping ban on Internet content. Teaching students to navigate around potentially inappropriate content, some experts told Edweek for this article earlier this year, is the best defense to protect students against the inevitable risks in using the Web.

In the piece, Rebecca Randall, the vice president for outreach for Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that provides free class materials and parent education programs to districts on Internet safety, argues that “the best filters we can provide to kids are the ones we build in their brains.”

What do you think? What does your school do to comply with CIPA? Is blocking and filtering content a good way to keep students safe, or is it overkill? Weigh in in the comments section below.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.