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V of EIn My Opinion: The Filter Is Bad for Education
By guest editor Ted Nellen

Educational technology innovator Ted Nellen reacts to reports that the majority of Americans favor filtering Internet access in schools.

Recently, The New York Times reported on the results of a survey that concluded that the majority of Americans are in favor of filtering Internet access in schools. Today, Ted Nellen -- a pioneer in the field of educational technology -- voices his concerns about that survey and about the effects of filtering on education.

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When it comes to a discussion of filtering Internet access in schools, it seems to me that it only makes sense to include in that discussion teachers who are actually using the Internet in their classrooms. Who, after all, is more knowledgeable about a subject than those who confront it each day?

That being said, it should come as no surprise that I'm wary of a recent survey that found that most Americans support Internet filtering in schools. The survey, commissioned by the Digital Media Forum, a consortium of public interest and consumer groups concerned with issues of media policy, polled only 1,900 people, yet a New York Times article about the survey reported that "an overwhelming majority of Americans" said schools should install filters. (See Survey Finds Support for School Filters, by Rebecca S. Weiner, October 18, 2000.)


Now (especially in light of the recent presidential election) I'm suspicious of both the number of people surveyed and of the conclusions reached. Operating on the premise "Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see," I'd like to know a couple of things:

  • What did the survey say? Since the results may have an important impact on something so important to me, I'd like to see the instrument that made these claims possible. What questions were asked? Were those questions weighted to produce a particular conclusion?
  • Who were the respondents? In the New York Times article, Dhavan Shah, the University of Wisconsin professor who conducted the survey, is quoted as saying that he was surprised to see that those who don't use the Internet were in favor of filtering and that those who do use the Internet opposed filtering. Now that doesn't surprise me at all. What it tells me is that the 1,900 people who took part in the survey were not teachers, nor did they seem to know much about using the Internet in educational settings.


Ted Nellen Photo The New York Times article quotes Andy Carvin, a senior associate at the Benton Foundation Communications Policy Program, as saying, "The vast majority [of Americans] seems to accept filtering as a way of school life." I agree. Filtering is becoming a fact of life in education, but teachers accept it only because they have to; they don't have a choice. Another emerging fact of life is this:

Introducing Ted Nellen!

Ted Nellen, an English teacher since 1974, began using computers in his New York City high school Cyber English class in 1983. He started using the Internet in the classroom in 1985, and the World Wide Web in 1993. Twice named teacher of the year for New York City schools, Nellen left the public school classroom in 2000.

He is currently an adjunct professor at Fordham University and New School University, a guide and teaching assistant for Connected University and cybrarian for TaskStream. (A cybrarian, according to Nellen, is "a person who integrates, infuses, and injects Internet technology into education.")

Nellen is also a Shakespeare scholar, a Carnegie scholar, a doctoral candidate, a conference speaker, a published author, and an active participant on many educational foundation advisory boards and on National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) technology assemblies, commissions, and committees.

A detailed list of publications, presentations, education, and honors can be found in his online rsum.

The filter is bad for education.

I say this based on my own experiences teaching in a New York City public high school classroom that was first connected to the Internet in 1985. I taught until 2000 and, in the intervening years, used the Internet every day in my classroom. My success in using the Internet was based on non-filtered Internet access.

The filter is bad for education.

The filter doesn't behave as it is supposed to behave. In New York City, teachers have to teach AIDS lessons to 11th graders. In my unfiltered classroom, I had no problem teaching those lessons. In a filtered classroom, I was never able to teach any of the lessons because the board of education was never able to efficiently disable the filter when I needed it disabled. The plan the board had in place simply didn't work; it still doesn't work, even though the board claims it can be done. A filter cannot be disabled as easily as many filtering proponents claim, and yet as flawed as it is, the filter stays in place.

The filter is bad for education.

The filter takes away the teacher's right to decide what educational resources to use. When I conduct surveys in educational settings, the vast majority of teachers who use the Internet in their classrooms are not in favor of filters that they cannot control. The problem with the current use of filtering agents is that too few have too much control over access to information, and it's too hard to disable or adjust that control. That isn't filtering; it's censorship.

The filter is bad for education.

The filter takes away the teacher's ability to educate students about proper computer use. In education, the activity in the classroom and the teacher's supervision of that activity make inappropriate access highly unlikely. In fact, computer logs tell us that in schools with unfiltered Internet usage most inappropriate access occurs by adults after school hours. Inappropriate student access -- when it does happen -- is momentary. And yet students whose Internet access is filtered at school go home and use unfiltered, unmonitored online computers -- without the protection of having learned proper use in an educational setting.

The filter is bad for education.

The filter is an issue in public schools only. We must be aware that we're having this discussion about public schools -- not private schools, religious schools, home schools, or distance learning settings. I'm concerned that the discussion of filtering affects only public schools. Who goes to public schools and who doesn't go? This selectivity of who is filtered and who isn't screams that the filter is bad for education.

The filter is bad for education.

The filter affects only the Internet. Why is the Internet so tightly controlled while other forms of media in schools are not? We have rooms filled with textbooks that are notoriously flawed and loaded with incorrect information. We have books in our school libraries that contain hate speech, show how to make bombs, and include pornography. We have magazines and newspapers, some of which contain the same kinds of questionable material. Yet only the Internet is suspect.

Only the Internet and this latest survey, that is. I'd like to see another discussion of this topic -- one that's more open and that includes many more teachers who use the Internet in their classrooms. I'd like to see those teachers have the opportunity to present their expert views and provide evidence to support their opinions so that we might actually find the best way to employ the filter in our schools. Because the fact remains:

The current use of filters in schools is bad for education.

Ted Nellen
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