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For Teachers

‘I Can’t Search YouTube for Abraham Lincoln!’: How Internet Filtering Affects Education

By Monica Fuglei July 23, 2014

This post has been updated as of December 2017.

With technology in the classroom on the rise, kids’ exposure to the internet is increasing dramatically. Technology in the classroom is definitely an effective learning tool, but it comes with lots of precautions.  

That’s the entire premise of the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). Since 2000, this act has provided filtering guidelines for schools and libraries to help protect students from accessing obscene content or content that could be harmful to minors in other ways. CIPA offers valuable protections to students, for sure, but implementing internet filtering at the school and district level can also lead to access issues in the classroom.

Here’s more information about CIPA, censorship, and how to collaborate on the best policies to implement at your school.

CIPA compliance and the 2011 expansion

School districts are not legally required to implement these rules, but schools that meet CIPA requirements qualify for discounts on their internet and intranet services. To be CIPA compliant, schools must implement policies that cover:

  • Minors’ access to the internet
  • The safety and security of student electronic communications (including email and chat room access)
  • Unauthorized access
  • Unauthorized disclosure of personal information
  • Access to harmful materials

An update in 2011 to CIPA extended its coverage to social media and online bullying. The update also clarified the federal government’s position on what is ‘inappropriate’ by saying it should be decided at the local level. Let’s tackle that next.

Defining ‘inappropriate’ at the local level

 

Because definitions of appropriate internet access are locally derived, teachers, counselors, and administrators have run into issues with making internet filters CIPA-compliant. Districts fearful of losing their compliance status have adopted overly conservative policies that block access to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, video services like YouTube, or even interfere with general student research online.

KQED Mindshift reports that one school district in Nebraska came under fire for its internet filtering when students were unable to access National Geographic (improper photographs) or use search engines to research government systems in Iran, China, or Russia—all three countries were disallowed search terms.

In other schools, counselors have difficulty accessing materials on suicide or other emotional and mental health topics because of search filters. While districts often have internet filtering monitored by their IT department, many of these employees are not educators and thus could be unfamiliar with the research requirements that might require filter overrides.

If you’re in an educational technology leadership position, take these instances into account when collaborating with others to determine what’s allowed and what’s not. (Keep reading!)

CIPA critics: Protection from harmful material or censorship?

While students have a right to be protected from harm, administrators and teachers must weigh student protections from subjectively defined “harmful material” against a student’s right to learn and research freely. The National Committee for Teachers of English’s position statement advises districts to side with access over limitations, arguing that media literacy and case-by-case judgment should be prioritized over direct or indirect censorship of online materials.

Critics of CIPA also point out that many students already have unfiltered access to the internet at home or on smartphones. Therefore, the best way to protect students is to expand their media literacy skills and educate them about the potential for harm online.

Students’ personal access also highlights another significant issue: a socioeconomic divide that widens when some populations have unfiltered access to the internet while others, who may not have smartphones or internet access at home, do not.

Additionally, Common Core State Standards emphasize student comfort with internet sources and embedded technology, and many English Language Arts programs have adopted multimodal writing. Districts and schools with overly vigorous internet filters deprive students of opportunities to build academic skills they’ll need in the future.

Teachers and administrators can collaborate on flexible internet policies

CIPA is the law of the land for districts who seek discounts that come with compliance, but there is freedom and opportunity at the local level of CIPA regulations. School districts can team with teachers and librarians to ensure that their adopted filters and policies are flexible and have the fewest possible restrictions on student searches and access—all while maintaining CIPA compliance.

Administrators and teachers should engage in ongoing evaluations of appropriateness that default to individual discretion when possible. If educators arm their students with internet and media literacy, they equip them to use online research in safe ways both in the classroom at at home.

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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