Opinion
Ed-Tech Policy Teacher Leaders Network

Mr. Administrator, Tear Down This Firewall!

By John Norton — November 10, 2010 11 min read

The issue of school systems controlling access to the Internet—and teachers complaining about it—is not new. Firewalls and content filters have irritated tech-savvy educators since the early days of blogs, wikis and streaming video. And those same virtual barriers have been defended by safety-sensitive IT directors and ever-cautious school attorneys since the first MySpace page pranked a teacher or revealed far too much about a student.

But two factors seem to be ratcheting up teachers’ long-standing pleas to ease restrictions on internet use in classrooms and computer labs: (1) increasingly, business and higher education leaders are asking why students aren’t better prepared to create and collaborate using online tools; and (2) more schools and districts are beginning to loosen internet restrictions, prompting other educators to ask: “If they can do it, why can’t we?”

Hoping to move the debate along, members of the Teacher Leaders Network recently had a very frank discussion of the topic in our 24/7/365 private chat room. Here’s a sample of what we had to say. (To honor our TLN confidentiality agreement, I’ve only used first names here.)

Our discussion began with a post by June, who used this attention-getting subject line: “School Firewalls—ARGHHHHH!”

OK, I’m going to take deep breaths and count to ten.

I’m involved in writing some STEM curriculum for middle schoolers with an engineering focus. Not surprisingly, the engineering design process includes “Communication” as one of its stages. Makes perfect sense. Engineers need to communicate.

The communications piece—developed with the help of teachers, doctors and engineers—includes plans for kids to stay in contact with experts via Skype and wikis. (Each STEM module is a week long and math and science classes work collaboratively to solve the challenge.)

But you can’t imagine how difficult it is to get a simple wiki or Skype call past the school system’s firewalls. Online experiences for kids are really limited. I agree that there are websites that kids should not be allowed to access. However, kids are going to be on a par with students from third-world countries with regard to technology if we keep on like this. We should be helping students learn the technology tools of their workforce, and teaching them how to use them appropriately and responsibly.

Is this “technology desert” an anomaly, or do any of you have this same experience?

Glenda replied to June:

Oh that it were an anomaly! I fought this fight in my district for years while I was a media specialist. IT people seemed to dislike media specialists more than anyone else and treated our suggestions and entreaties with nothing less than disdain. Now I’m in a classroom, and I still can’t use true Web 2.0 tools. Why is it that the IT policymakers are so far behind in understanding what technology can do for our students? And why are they such suspicious people who can think only of all the nasty ways the internet can be used? Methinks they doth protest too much.

Rachel, a teacher in the Midwest, has taken her concerns up the leadership chain:

This has been a huge issue in my district. Teachers can’t even get Diigo (a great tool that lets you comment on web articles and make your comments visible to others) to work because it uses a pop-up window to save the bookmarks. And all pop-ups are blocked in our system.

I’ve been lobbying for over a year with the members of our school board’s Tech Advisory Committee. (That’s after bashing my head against the wall with about a million upline supervisors, IT types and administrators.) I’m actually encouraged by my recent conversations, because what I’m saying makes sense to these committee members, many of whom are parents and business owners. They see very little “good” that is achieved by blocking things from the teachers.

I always point out that they trust me with our community’s kids but the policies don’t trust me to know a good website from a bad one. It does look pretty foolish then. I am making inroads, but it’s very time intensive and the clock doesn’t move fast enough for me.

I’ve actually been wondering about using my personal laptop to bring in stuff. It uses a 3G network to connect outside the school’s system. I think we’re big enough that no one will notice, and I can beg forgiveness when I find out that it isn’t allowed. We need these tools. The kids need these tools!

Steve, an elementary teacher, served on his district’s tech advisory committee for a number of years.

The problem I see is that these things get run by IT people, not technology integrationists (teachers). Blocking everything under the sun is a fairly straightforward task compared to creating curriculum for safe and effective internet usage. That’s too much for the IT types to wrap their brains around─and they get paid for their blocking prowess.

We were hiring a director of technology years ago, and I was advocating another look at a teacher for the position. “We don’t need a tech integrationist,” I was told acidly by a powerful board member. The consequence is we maintain thousands of computers devoid of an educational vision for their deployment.

Heather, a secondary English teacher, finds firewalls “just ridiculous.”

It is ludicrous to block certain sites from our use as teachers. Every year I use Taylor Mali’s slam poem, “Totally, Like, Whatever, You Know” for my Speech and English classes. It’s on YouTube and I have to beg the password every year.

I managed to get Twitter unblocked after I explained we could use it to communicate real time with other classes in the district to help send out encouragements and tips during our standardized test prep. I have also used it to communicate with a student “Twitter captain” in my classes, while I was out at a conference. To get it unblocked, I had to think ahead, pitching the idea to my Board of Ed, writing a letter of curriculum usage intent, and then when that was approved, getting on IT daily to actually make it happen.

I understand people’s trepidation about some of the social networking sites, but I’m not sure what’s gained by shutting down reality from our schools. After all, we can’t assess whether students are learning Internet literacy or responsibility if we don’t give them access to the pool to swim in. We also can’t expect students to think of school as a part of real life if we continue to create such big differences between the two.

So what we do now is say, “I know you can’t go watch that award-winning speech while we’re here at school, but when you get home, go on YouTube and watch it there.” Is this teaching them how to make wise decisions or protecting them? No. Is this offering one more reason why school is not applicable to real life? Yes.

Patrick, a technology teacher working on a doctorate in administration, took a different view.

I agree with many teachers’ concerns, but it’s also important to understand the other perspective. Schools are responsible for students “door to door” (from home to school, and back home) and for any school-sponsored activity, especially on school computers.

Think about any visitor entering a school building: they sign in, etc. Employees go through a criminal background check. Every field trip requires forms and waivers. Schools are responsible for student safety, so we play it safe. When you are an administrator, you don’t think about the 99% things going right, you think about the possible 1% that could go wrong.

Real example: A student is using the library computers during lunch. She is on a web-based chat with an adult (we don’t know who) from another state. She is supposed to be doing school work, but his activity is not school related. She has been taught Internet safety but she is not following directions. She’s opened an unauthorized browser window and she’s being a kid. What if that adult is someone who has “other” intentions or is a predator? If she is on a school computer, we are responsible.

If you are an admin or the tech person, you don’t take chances. Yes, you could say it’s the system’s responsibility to teach safety, and we do that in district-controlled software and closed social environments. But, just like we don’t let anyone in our school and trust that our students will do the right things with unmonitored strangers, we have to be careful about outside Internet contact.

And teachers? They are a funny bunch. Fantasy football during the school day. Watching the World Cup online during classes. Watching shows on their networks. Contracting Facebook viruses on work computers. Coming up with all sorts of strange toolbars they are not suppose to download and install. Yes, they are supposed to be using work computers for work, but.....

We have found viruses that some teachers inadvertently downloaded that install porn on their computer. If it wasn’t for smart tech people, what do you think would happen to such a teacher as they tried to explain why they didn’t really download porn on that computer? Firewalls protect schools, students, and teachers -- just as we control public access of real people in our real buildings.

Heather replied:

Patrick, you’re right about the why the rules exist, and I understand the point of view of administration based on the “heaven forbid” scenarios. There just simply has to be a compromise, though. For one, I think teachers should have open access, regardless of the risk of careless downloading or unprofessional decisions.

First off, teachers need training on the downloading perils. For another, there need to be consequences for teachers who use the computers inappropriately. Big, ugly ones. But to block innovation from those who are supposed to be teaching it goes too far, plays to the lowest common denominator, and disrespects teachers as a class.

We need to start an era of greater comfort with technology by loosening the reins on those who are supposed to be the responsible parties. Teaching students, in any subject, begins with modeling, but if we are not able to have access to the tools to model with, then we can’t even begin the lesson. We cannot on the one hand yell at schools for not preparing our students and yet tie the hand that helps them do so.

One of the things that I am organizing in my district is a parent tech institute to help address the fact that so many students are the only ones at home with any computer knowledge at all. Should we limit what we offer at school because parents (for many reasons) cannot or won’t do their jobs of overseeing/insisting on good online behavior? In my district, we know it’s a problem and see the school as a way to help educate parents, giving them enough computer knowledge to enforce tech standards at home.

Patrick then shifted some of the responsibility to web software developers.

IT people do seem draconian at times, and ultimately it is instructional folks who should be making the instructional decisions. At the same time, policy decisions are made from the legal point of view, not an instructional or learning perspective. This is difficult but necessary.

However, I’m also encouraged that many of Web 2.0 sites are now taking into account the needs of school districts, offering the option of privacy, providing student accounts/logins that do not require student e-mail, and creating teacher controls for monitoring that make it easier for us to adopt their software and feel safe with the decision.

It’s a slow process, getting this all worked out, but ultimately it’s necessary to ensure safety for all and long-term progress. Because we want innovative uses for technology to continue, and not be stopped because some teacher or student did something inappropriate that would cause the program or activity to be halted or re-examined.

Bill helped us wrap up our chat with a story of how he’s using Web 2.0 tools in his untethered, independent-school classroom.

For so many things, educators gradually transfer more and more responsibility to our students (and for that matter, for those of us who are parents, to our own children) as they grow older, on the grounds that they will need the skills to take care of themselves once they’re off at college and/or out in the world and we are no longer there to protect them. Legal issues notwithstanding, I just don’t understand (at least not yet) why we wouldn’t take this approach with social media in particular and technology in general.

My school doesn’t block anything. I wish people who advocate the blocking of social media could have witnessed my foundations of language and culture class Skyping with Jose, a middle school teacher in inner city Washington Heights/NYC, about their textbook writing project─could hear them asking him questions they had about writing and publishing, reacting to the thoughtful and carefully considered responses he gave, the warm tone of his voice, his smile, and laughter. Their excitement and level of engagement were off the charts.

Meanwhile, my humanities class is making plans to hold an online debate via Skype with The Children’s Storefront school in Harlem, forming four-person teams uniting the two schools. They are making videos to introduce themselves, and will be using wikis to share research and plan their speeches. How much less rich would these kids’ learning experiences be without these tools?

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