Complete access to the Internet? Filtered access? No access? Where does your school district stand on the issue of Internet access for students? In a story last week, The Debate Over Internet Safety, Education World examined differing points of view on the issue of Internet access for students. This week, we continue the discussion. You'll hear from educators whose students are given total freedom on the Internet and from those who are making filtered access work. And you'll learn about some of the tools available for teaching students to surf safely -- tools that will help you, your school, and your community support whatever Internet access decision has been made.
In community after community, individuals or groups have sent out the alarm: Allow students Internet access and you've given them a free ticket to all varieties of pornography, vulgarity, and mayhem!
Such was the case last year in Massachusetts. An incident at the Boston Public Library spurred a leading state senator to consider legislation that would require school districts to submit plans to detail how they would protect students from access to inappropriate Web sites.
Many in the community were concerned.
"This will present another hurdle in an already difficult endeavor to get all schools on the Internet," said Melanie Goldman, an investigator with the National School Network (NSN) in Cambridge.
Goldman put out a call to teachers and school administrators who had dealt with the issue of guiding students in the appropriate use of the Internet. Goldman's call generated many responses -- responses from administrators, teachers, principals, parents, a lawyer, and a student. You'll hear from some of those respondents later in this story...
"Teaching students to surf safely and responsibly should begin in kindergarten," says Tammy Payton, a teacher at West Loogootee (Ind.) Elementary School. A couple summers ago, Payton piloted a curriculum that taught the basics of Internet safety to kindergartners and first-graders. For two weeks that summer, 26 students showed up each day in their best surfing duds! The kids published a delightful project, Surfing for ABCs, on the school's Web site.
Read an Education World story about the project, Searching the Web Is as Easy as ABC!)
Payton's summertime lesson plan covered everything students needed to know about the Internet and Internet safety. (Her lesson plan, Surfing Safely on the Internet, is available on the Web for anyone to use or adapt.) The plan includes a simple activity using books from the school library and yarn to help students understand what the Internet is. It also includes a link to Payton's Seven Rules for Surfing Safely on the Internet.
Payton has also recently developed a "Surfing the Web: It's as Easy as ABC" slide show that illustrates a simple way for introducing the Internet, covers the rules for online safety, and gets kids involved in thinking critically about the sites they visit.
"I've used this outline with my first-graders as well as for explaining to other teachers what the Internet is," says Payton. "Other people have written to tell me they've used this lesson for training their teachers and students. The slide show includes safety rules that you should discuss with your students as well as a simple lesson format to follow."
So, does Payton allow her first graders complete freedom on the Internet? No, she doesn't. She restricts their surfing to a handful of search engines designed for youngsters, including one she created called Kids' Educational Sites to See. As teachers at West Loogootee find new -- safe -- Web sites that connect to their curricula, those sites are added to the search engine. And that search engine is available for anyone to use.
"The Internet can be a safe, informative place for a child to discover the world around them," says Payton. "Teach children to use appropriate search tools that are designed for their use and those search tools will open the WWW to them in a safe and fun way."
Among the other search tools that Payton recommends for use with young surfers are:
[For additional resources, see Additional Sites for Teaching Kids to Surf Safely at the end of this article.]
The concern over access to inappropriate Internet material has compelled many schools to "filter" their computers' access to the Internet. Some schools install firewalls on their computer systems; others install filtering software -- such as Bess, CyberPatrol, Surfwatch, Net Nanny, and WebSense -- on individual computers. The result is the same. Both methods check Web sites for key words and phrases that might indicate inappropriate content.
Some people have expressed concerns about how firewalls slow down Internet access and make it difficult to use some Internet technology such as videoconferencing and audio transmission.
Schools in Seattle have the option of installing the Bess filtering program on computers. The filter can be updated at any time; questionable sites can be added.
"I am very grateful for the filter because inappropriate use is a major concern for parents and staff in the building," says library staff worker Nicole Winard.*
Liz Whitaker, coordinator for instructional technology in the Tucson Unified School District, agrees that filters can work in some schools. Her district uses WebSense to block pornography, sexually explicit materials, and adult recreation. "We believe this is a mirror of the print world," says Whitaker. "In the state of Arizona, children under the age of 18 are not allowed to go into adult bookstores, so we've created a similar situation on the Internet. So far, it seems to be working."*
"The Internet is fast becoming a substitute for reference materials and even textbooks," Whitaker told Education World. "It is important that we take a reasonable approach to its use, so we don't encourage parents to withdraw students from access to the Internet's valuable learning materials."
Schools in the Chappaqua (N.Y.) Central School District "agonized over whether to use filtering or not prior to making their Internet connection," Michael Greenfield told Education World. Greenfield is the information technology coordinator for the District.
School administrators considered filtering a "no brainer," as it protected the district from liability claims, Greenfield says. The plan was implemented without much resistance because of careful planning. Greenfield selected software that allowed flexibility (limited or filtered access for students and non-filtered for faculty). He "educated" the administration and faculty about how the technology worked, its purposes and its flaws, and he worked closely with committees to craft an Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) that coincided with the filters and attempted to educate the students about the purpose for the proxy.
"In two years, we have worked out some of the kinks in the system and our procedures," says Greenfield. "Since the software reports back to me when a student repeatedly tries to enter a prohibited site I can check to see if the student was trying to access what the district deems appropriate (i.e. human biology, gay/lesbian, alternative lifestyle) Web sites that are related to the curriculum, student activities, or clubs; or inappropriate Web sites that aren't sanctioned. Blocked sites that are appropriate are added to a list and students are given access without repercussions. Students who attempt to access inappropriate materials are disciplined according to the school code and our AUP."
"On the other hand, the proxy software has proven to be a barrier to legitimate studies by students researching information that is sensitive and personal such as homosexuality or teenage pregnancy," adds Greenfield.
"All in all, filtering is now an accepted part of our district's computer network and students generally understand the connection between our system and the district's mission," says Greenfield. "Two years ago I probably would have leaned more to the philosophy of open access and teaching the students ethical and appropriate use of the Internet [but] it wouldn't be the best choice for this school district."
The bottom line, many who use filters point out, is that using an Internet filter doesn't guarantee that inappropriate material won't get through. That's why students need to be taught how to respond to sites that are meant for adults.
One of the first tools of Internet exploration that Tammy Payton teaches her first-graders about is the back button. Students practice using the back button to "back out" from the page they are on to the previous page.
"I explain to my students that the Internet is like a huge bookstore or library," says Tammy Payton. Within bookstores and libraries there are sections that are only for adults, Payton explains. The books there would have no interest to children. If students walked into an adult section instead of the children's section at a public library or at Barnes and Noble they would probably realize it quickly, turn right around, and walk out.
Likewise, "If students come to a Web site that's for adults, they should back out of the site and tell an adult about what they found," Payton adds. "'There are thousands of sites created with children in mind,' I tell them. 'Find those sites that are created for you.'"
Even with filtering software, the day is bound to come when a student will find an inappropriate site -- often unintentionally. Many have found that mis-typing a URL can lead to unwanted information. (If you don't offend easily, just try typing the URL www.whitehouse.com instead of the intended www.whitehouse.gov -- an easy mistake to make!)
"Recently we came across a site with vulgarities," Beth Candy, a K-8 Internet instructor at Christ the King School in Philadelphia, told Education World. "This caused quite a stir. But I explained to the students that running across such things on the Internet is akin to hearing the same things at the mall. Our reactions should be just as our parents and teachers have instructed us: Ignore it, get away from it, and don't repeat it."
And, of course, there's the perennial concern about filtering Internet content: Filters block out lots of "good stuff." For example, many filters will block out sites with the consecutive letters s-e-x, but that also means the filter might block out a site headlined "Asexual Reproduction in Brazilian Nematodes" or a site about Mars exploration that has a URL with the letters "marsexpl" (because the URL contains those letters in sequence). Until filtering software is capable of making the same subtle distinctions the human mind can make, good sites will be blocked out!
"Our tack is to teach proper usage, not censor it [the Internet]."*
Those are the words of one educator, words that are echoed in many schools and the majority of public libraries.
Bettie Lake, a technology teacher in the Phoenix Elementary School District, agrees. Lake instructs teachers to explain to students that the Internet is an uncensored resource that must be used appropriately. Students wouldn't want to lose access to such a unique resource, Lake adds.
"Just as certain reading materials and language are inappropriate at school, so is visiting Web sites that don't meet the needs of an assignment," Lake told Education World. "If students happen upon a "bad" site, they are to report it to the instructor who will notify Technology Services to put the address on a 'no access' list that is stored on the firewall. If students knowingly go to such a site, their access to the Internet is denied for 2-3 weeks and a note is sent home to the parents advising them of our actions."
"So far, this policy has worked," says Lake. "This approach is also easy for teachers to use because it reflects how they approach the use of bad language and other student behavior that is inappropriate."
"[Students] need to recognize that every situation has a right and wrong way of dealing with it," adds Lake. "One of our goals is to teach students to be critical evaluators of information. Using the Internet appropriately is part of that skill."
Students at the Accelerated Learning Laboratory (Worcester, Mass.) sign a computer contract which states the lab's guidelines. That contract, which includes a "no game playing" rule, is clearly posted by all computers. "Encountering problems at first is hard," says ALL's Valerie Landry, "however, once a set of procedures is in place and consequences are enforced it is only a matter of time before students use the computers correctly."*
And there's always that down arrow at the end of the Internet screen's URL window, Landry adds. Students learn that a teacher can just click on that arrow at any time and see a "history" of the sites any student has visited!
The acceptable use policy (AUP) at P.W. Kaeser High School in the Northwest Territory (Canada) is signed by students and parents. The policy includes a zero-tolerance clause. Students can lose computer privileges for the year if they intentionally access inappropriate sites.
"We recognize that a student may stumble across an offensive site," says Kaeser's Claude Doucette, "but they are responsible enough to get out of it immediately."*
In addition, students at Kaeser come in with a sheet that has the subject/topic written at the top, indicating to staff that they are working on curriculum-related searches.
The AUP for Internet access at Rock Bridge High School (Columbia, Mo.) states that computers are for classroom assignments and exploration; printing is for classroom assignments only; and any games, chat features, and obscene or inappropriate language or images may not be accessed on school computers.
"It isn't perfect," says Nancy Miller, "but students know they risk being banned from use of school computers for violating the policy. And because they are required to produce so much class work with programs they can only access here, either on the Net or through our building networked resources, few will risk abuse."*
But is a signed AUP a guarantee that students won't test the boundaries of Internet freedom?
No way, says Jerry Taylor, a technology integration teacher in the Greece (NY) School District.
"You must know, don't you, that [middle school] kids seem to delight in taunting and testing authority, especially if they feel that the disciplinary consequences are the least bit vague, incongruous, contradictory, or downright non-existent!" Taylor said in a recent Middle School Listserv posting.
An AUP must state clearly the consequences of any inappropriate action, and the consequences must be substantial enough to make an impact, Taylor adds. Without clear guidelines, kids are "going to spend a lot of time and energy -- YOURS, not theirs -- to 'force' you to delineate exactly what's going to happen to them when they break each rule."
"Internet safety?" asks Ted Nellen, a teacher at Murry Bergtraum High School (New York City). "That is the least of our worries. The Internet may be the safest place for our kids. Where is the danger? This is a virtual world. The user is an active participant. Tell [students] not to give out personal info like phone number and the usual stuff. Don't agree to meet anyone you meet on the Internet. Sort of like don't take candy from strangers. It is safer on the Net than in school. Look at the rash of violence, kids killing kids. The Internet is safer then most school hallways, neighborhoods, homes."
Internet safety is a HUGE issue in schools -- and in the communities they serve. For whatever decision a school or school system makes about Internet access, that's the way it is! The reasons for the decision -- be they board-, teacher-, or community-based and be they educational, social, political, philosophical, or emotional in nature -- are right for that community. For now.
For schools that decide to put responsibility for Internet safety in the hands of students, good for you!
For those who feel the need to attach one of many available Internet filtering devices to their computers, go for it!
For those schools that limit their students to the use of one search engine for surfing the Internet, cool!
For those schools that create their own "Intranets," which include sites they deem acceptable, terrific!
Will there be a better way someday?
Al Gore says that someday the Internet will run 1,000 times faster than it runs today. If that's the case, "then it should be a no-brainer to simply classify content according to an industry-specified code like the rating system on satellite TV," says Steven Wallace.
"For example," Wallace told Education World, "without impinging on anybody's free speech, one could simply require Web addresses to include a content code, embedded in the URL If the content rating was "Violence," "Nudity," "Adult theme" the URL would change from today's http://www.sleazy.com to http://www.sleazy.com/VNA."
"Filtering software could read the URL and filter accordingly," says Wallace. "Not a real toughy. Pay me six figures for six months of work and I'll write the C++ or Java code myself."
Someday -- perhaps very soon! -- the issue of Internet access for students won't be an issue at all. Students will enjoy free access to the Internet. But, until that day, Internet access -- in whatever form it takes -- is better than no Internet access at all.
* All starred quotes are taken from the NSN Web site's forum on Internet safety. An effort was made to contact all quoted sources.
Article by Gary Hopkins
ADDITIONAL SITES FOR TEACHING KIDS TO SURF SAFELY
ADDITIONAL SITES OF INTEREST
ADDITIONAL STORIES IN EDUCATION WORLD'S
"GETTING STARTED ON THE INTERNET" SERIES
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 1998 Education World
Article by Gary Hopkins