Sunday, February 1, 2009

Filter or Not to Filter: The Need for 21st Century Librarians Continues to Rise

This week's hot topic is filtering in school districts. If you are new to the filtering conversation, take a moment to visit the School Library Journal for a quick lesson on web filtering.While some schools are able to access valuable teaching resources, other schools are throwing up their hands in frustration as they find that they are being blocked from accessing Teacher Tube, Youtube, Flickr, and Second Life. In the US, reported that Bess and Cyberpatrol are blocking students accessing congressional candidate's websites to complete their assignment of a school-wide vote for congress. I can almost hear Social Studies teachers across the nation banging their heads against the wall.

So why, in this age of pro-technology, are districts installing and maintaining filters that are blocking access to educational sites? Here's a brief overview of the arguments for both sides:

Pro Filtering
* protect students from accessing inapropriate and harmful content
* protect school districts from litigation if a student accesses inapropriate content during school hours
* protects school computers from harmful viruses and spyware

Con Filtering
* prevents students and teachers alike from accessing educational resources
* prevents students and teachers alike from accessing Web 2.0 tools for classroom use
* prevents students and teachers alike from accessing social networking sites for classroom use
* sends strong message to students that they are not trusted to navigate the internet safely
* inadvertently encourages students to use proxies to bypass web filters to access useful sites

The fact is this issue of web filters is entrenched in reactionary consequences. Educators didn't touch this issue until their school districts began blocking. The multitude of articles and letters didn't start flowing until the blocks came down. On the flip-side, school districts didn't consult educators before engaging the web filters. Chances are, they consulted with their IT and perhaps lawyers to see what COULD happen and they reacted. Reaction vs reaction. Both sides now feel as if their backs are against the wall and that is not a strong start to coming to a mutual agreement.
What is my stand on this? Well, like any 21st century librarian, I see this as an opportunity to step up and shout out, "Hello? Can I suggest a middle ground here??". I am not alone in thinking this, there is an army of us! As Joyce Valenza points out, teacher-librarians are here to "teach students about their own digital footprints, about safety in new landscapes"(Valenza, 2007).
First of all, both sides need to realize that "abstinence from technology is a losing battle to not teach technology use responsibly is neglecting the charge of universal education" (Knezek,Villano, 2008). Filters do provide front line protection against the many malicious viruses, spyware, and pornographic websites out there. Educators do not want a classroom Google search to yeild innappropriate content while they are doing a classroom project. Web filters protect students from the most dangerous sites out there. Unfortunately, as Stephanie Vardavas(President, Friends of the Library) writes, "filters aren't good at assessing content, they're good at applying rules". This is where teacher-librarians fit in!! We are already working with students so that they can access quality resources for their projects whether it be online databases or print materials. Who better to extend that critical thinking exercise into something that protects them from the dangers of cyber space?

Education is a constantly evolving entity and all educators must strive to keep up to meet the needs their learners in this everchanging landscape. Filtering may seem like a reasonable preventitive for schools to protect their students but what are we protecting them from if we restrict the use of many powerful sites and tools that the internet affords us? Students are accessing these sites anyway and under minimal supervision (if any) Stephen Abram states it very well when he wrote, " This to me is like teaching traffic safety to kindergarteners by banning roads" (Abram, 2007).

In my school library I have a shelf dedicated to Heath and Career Planning. On this shelf I have curriculum guides for A.I.D.S. prevention, nicotine and other drug prevention, self-esteem, family planning, why wouldn't I have curriculum guides for safe online navigation and protecting yourself from online predators? It seems to fit.

One final plea before I end my rant, even if your district not currently blocking useful websites, please take a proactive approach and find out who makes these decisions in your school district and what policies are in place and how you can create open dialogue between the IT department and your fellow educators before someone or something happens to cause this knee-jerk reaction to tighten filters to the point of rendering all of your newly acquired technology useless!

Below you will find a few links to useful sites and articles that will help you make an informed choice about web filtering. In the meantime, I wish you safe internet travels!

Justifying Social Tools What Are We Protecting Them From?
Digital Kids: Kids Outsmart Web Filters

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