This week in school we are reading about, thinking about and talking about internet filters in schools. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with filters. I know from past classes that many people are passionately on one side of this debate or the other, and I've found myself in the position of being the wishy-washy flip-flopper in the middle of the debate saying things like "Wow, that's an excellent point!" and "Yes, I totally see where you are coming from on this issue." That isn't to say that I don't have my own opinion on this one, it just highlights the fact that I think there are reasonable arguments on both sides of the debate and I'm not sure that there is one good answer that will work for every school and every library. With that bit of rambling out of the way, let's get into what I do think on this issue. In other words- read on, I'm going to basically debate myself.
Point 1. Filters keep our kids safe from dangerous websites and people and also keep them from visiting sites that are not school related.
Sure, I'll buy that line of thinking... but only to an extent. We want to keep our kids safe. This is a given. Keeping them from accessing sites that they really don't need to be on is a valid point. Do I want my students stumbling their way into some porn? Of course not. As a matter of fact I distinctly remember stumbling my way into particularly unsavory sites a time or two while looking for normal stuff. For instance, I took a guess at the website for Dick's Sporting Goods one time and was greeted by something drastically different then sporting goods. The same happened when I was trying to get to the White House website (who knew that going .com instead of .gov would make such a difference?). I also buy into the idea that limiting access to certain social media sites will allow students to use the library for work and not for updating their facebook status. Many school libraries include in their mission statement that they are there to support the curriculum and learning. There is an argument that can be made that allowing sites like facebook and twitter or even personal emails is a distraction from the mission of the library.
Point 2: Filters limit access to websites students need. Students need to learn to focus on their own, without filters to do it for them. This point is also known as "Everything I just said in point 1 is wrong"
In our reading this week one idea that was brought up was the idea that filters are "restrictive overkill". I think that this can certainly be true. For every site that we don't want them to get to, there are others that are blocked that are worthwhile and should be allowed. For instance, some filters block access to LGBTQ websites. By doing so not only are you restricting access to information that is valuable and pertinent, but you are also sending a very clear message that to be LGBTQ you are something that needs to be filtered out, something that must be kept away from the masses. That is a very powerful message and it's one that I wouldn't want my library to send out there. (read more about this issue here)
Regarding the focusing issue. Like I said, I get that there are sites that don't really need to be accessed during the school day. Still, aren't we really doing a disservice to our students by simply blocking these sites instead of teaching them how to manage their time and multitask? When they walk out the doors and head into the real world, either in jobs or at college, they will not always have filters to do the job for them. In a sense we are sending them out there totally unprepared for the real world.
Point 1... again.: But what about the school's liability? (aka "You're living in a dream world point 2")
Ahhh... liability. This is a huge chunk of what it boils down to isn't it? It's the all important "what if?" of filtering. What if something bad happens? What if the students have unfiltered access and are watching adult movies in the back corner of the library? What if one or two students is accessing their facebook account and they are bullying another student? What if this happens, what is the liability for the school?
I don't profess to know all the answers on this one, but it is something that school need to take into account when making decisions. If things happen on school property, using the schools computers, what are the ramifications? One way the school can limit the possible problem is to simply limit the access to the potential issues. Block the sites, keep the kids off them while they are in school, limit the opportunities for the issues to occur. It makes sense.
And back to Point 2: Why should you make those decisions? Who says those sites are inappropriate?
For me this is the clincher. Who makes these decisions? As a librarian, my job is to look at the resources and make a decision as to whether they are good or not. It's not to impose my personal views on anyone else. It's also not to limit the access to resources that students may need, for school work or for personal research. There is the argument that students can access these resources elsewhere, either at home or at the public library, but is a mistake to assume that all students have that option. For some, the school library might be their only chance to get on the internet. In a sense that makes us the great equalizer. Within our walls students are all the same. Who am I (or the tech staff or the administration) to say that our students don't need to access PFLAG or WebMD's breast cancer page? When we limit access to certain websites we are limiting access to knowledge and information and when we do that we are failing at our job as a library.
In short, this is a really controversial and heated topic. There are arguments to be made on both sides and I honestly don't think either side is 100% right. So what would I do?
Well to start I'd take a good hard look at my library, my school and my students. What are they using the library for, what age are they and what is their level of knowledge regarding internet safety? Then I'd propose a combination of internet filters (as required by CIPA in order to get funding) and internet safety education. After long discussions in other classes I began thinking about the best way to teach students safety and how to reduce the number of sites that are filtered. My suggestion was that at the lower grades filters remain somewhat strict and that internet safety be something that is taught throughout the year. As students learn more about internet safety and how to use the internet in a responsible manner filters would be reduced significantly. By high school only the absolute minimum would remain filtered out. I would imagine that adult sites would be restricted, but most everything else would be open. By this point, student will have years of internet safety under their belts and will have learned strategies for using the internet responsibly and also how to focus while doing online work. Do I think we definitely need filters in the high school? Not really, but I also understand that they are not likely to go away. So what I would strive to do is find away to get my students access to the best resources while preparing them to leave school and be responsible internet users.
I'm guessing that this won't be the last you hear from me this week on this issue. I'm still very much forming a final opinion on it all and over the course of the week I will get a chance to hear from all my classmates and I'll be taking all their thoughts into account. So check back here or catch up with me on Twitter as the internal debate over internet filters rages on.