Filtering is Bad for Education by Ted Nellen

Filtering is Bad for Education

SUBHEAD: Filtering Gets in the Way

by Ted Nellen

written for Technology & Learning Nov 1998.

NOTE: This article was written for Nov 98 publication. A chat occurred between me and some students from Indiana University, on February 16, 2000, after they had read the article.

Filtering software sends the wrong message. It tells kids we do not trust them, that they can't make their own decisions, and that the computer knows what is good or bad for them. Filters also tell communities that their schools aren't safe and that the workers in the schools are incompetent.
In a properly supervised classroom, one does not need a filter. The teacher should be the filter as he or she moves about the room interacting with the students. By arranging computer classrooms so that the teacher can see all monitors, one goes a long way to eliminate those rare problems that are caused by students willingly seeking inappropriate materials on the Net.
I say "rare" because it is my experience that pornography is an adult thing and it is private. Pornography is usually viewed in the privacy of one's home or office. We know pornography sells well in print, yet we don't see folks viewing these magazines in public. Children, even adolescents, are usually embarrassed by it. If they should choose to view pornography, why would they do so in a supervised, public setting such as the classroom or school media center?
A major goal I have as an educator is to teach my students responsibility. One of the tools my school uses to nurture such responsibility is the AUP (Acceptable Use Policy)--the contract between the student and the school that outlines appropriate behavior on the Internet. By expecting the best of students, and holding them to their word, we are teaching many positive lessons.
Rather than helping, filtering software provides a challenge for teachers and students to get around. In New York City, we have to teach AIDS lessons. I use the Internet to do that since it provides the most recent information. When the New York City Board of Education first installed filtering software on our machines, I tested it with the links from my online AIDS lesson. Not one site came up. This meant that the filtering software worked. It also meant that I couldn't teach my AIDS lesson as mandated by the same group that put the filters on my computers. I was told I could use the print literature the board provides to teach my AIDS lessons. In other words, I can hand out the stuff on paper, but I can't view it on the Net. This makes no sense. We are a school that hands out condoms and teaches sex education but we can't use up-to-date online information to support what we are teaching.
Too many filtering tools block educationally valuable sites that happen to contain forbidden words, sites that talk about abstaining from sex, or even those that present important information about breast cancer. In order to get around the filters, the teacher must often locate all of the sites that are needed and ask a systems manager to adjust the filter so those sites get through. One problem with this is that part of what we want students to learn when researching is to follow links and discover for themselves. Furthermore, we can not expect teachers to have the time to follow every link to every site a student might find useful.
Nor should we hand the responsibility for previewing content to an outside censor. My question: who exactly are the people designating the forbidden sites? Are they members of my community? What the developers of the filtering software deem inappropriate may not be to me and my community. If we hand so much power to filtering agents, from the companies or at the district level what's to stop them from censoring more than the pornography? Perhaps political ideas will be next.
And why focus our efforts on filtering the Internet when so many other media are more problematic? Within walking distance of most schools is a candy store that contains inappropriate magazines. Advertisers use sex to sell. Many kids get out of school just in time to get home to an unsupervised home where they can watch soap operas. Filtering the Internet is like trying to bail a boat out with a sieve. I believe an inappropriate amount of energy is being spent on controlling the Internet and not enough on teaching children and adults to use it correctly.
No, filtering is not helpful. I find it a menace and a nuisance. It turns educators into cops, kids into criminals, and filtering agents into censors. Proper education, supervision, and trust are the best filters. If filtering software is to be used, perhaps it should be limited to places of business since they are the ones that record the highest access of unauthorized sites.