One of my first roles as a teacher was to spy on students. I was offered a teaching job at one of the first schools in Ontario to have a school-wide network. The principal wasn’t entirely sure what a network was, and so she needed some help.
I was hired to teach grade 8, but I was also in charge of the school First Class network. I spent a lot of time reading students’ messages, flagging problems and revoking student privileges. I felt very uncomfortable doing this. I was relieved when a significant problem gave us a reason to shut down the chat function. Ever since I’ve been very uneasy with schools surveilling students.
Supervising students is important and necessary for safety, but secret surveillance runs counter to the goals of schools. How can we create safe, trusting learning environments, when we are secretly watching students? Internet filters and security cameras scream that, in spite of statements to the contrary, we don’t trust students.
Jane Mitchinson’s post “Big Brother in Our Schools” does a great job of outlining the issues with internet filters in schools. Jane explains that Guelph based company Netsweeper “…offered “free” internet filtering to the Waterloo Region District School Board on a trial basis”. This is the same Netsweeper that sold internet filtering software used to censor the internet in Pakistan. It’s a disturbing thought that schools might treat students with the same callous disregard an oppressive government shows its’ citizens.
Internet filters prevent learning. They are never 100% accurate, no matter how well managed they are. If a site is at all questionable it will be blocked. It’s frustrating to both teachers and students to find a legitimate resource blocked. Mitch Wagner outlines several examples of how internet filters harm schools.
Internet filters don’t prevent motivated students from accessing inappropriate material. I’ve never seen an internet filter that a motivated 13 year-old can’t bypass. Internet filters don’t work even in China, home of the “Great Firewall“.
Internet filters also prevent students from becoming digital citizens.
“Is there anyone who believes that your kids will never get unfiltered internet access? When (not if) they do, how will you have prepared them to use it responsibly? What life-skills will you have equipped them with? Abstinence-based education is not evidence-based education.” (Doctorow)
How will students develop the digital literacy required to be responsible digital citizens if we never let them experience the real internet, and let them test the skills and strategies they need to be safe?
The presence of internet filters also suppresses student voice and discourages students from expressing contrary opinions. Expressing dissenting opinions online is already difficult, but internet filters add another discouragement. Recent research reveals that online surveillance “…significantly reduced the likelihood of speaking out” and “may contribute to the reinforcement of majority opinion”. It’s hard to see how any school that uses internet filters can seriously say they value student voice.
Finally, as Jessy Irwin explains in “Grooming Students for A Lifetime of Surveillance“, internet filters, desensitize students to surveillance. They make surveillance the norm, and make students much more willing to accept mass surveillance as adults. These practices threaten all students, but are especially dangerous when applied to our most vulnerable students.
Given all this, why do we do this to our students? Why do so many schools use internet filters?
Certainly, students need supervision when they’re online, but part of the role of educators is to supervise and guide students. Why do we need another layer?
What’s really at fault here isn’t students or technology but how we combine the two in the classroom. Too often, technology is the focus of learning rather than a support that helps students learn. Rows of students staring glassy eyed at screens isn’t more progressive or effective than students robotically chanting their times tables. Schools trying to prevent students from accessing inappropriate internet content would do better to ensure that learning is engaging.
Internet filters, rather than being the cause of the problem, are really just a symptom of the misguided ways we use technology in schools. Our focus shouldn’t be on creating systems to help keep students safe, but rather on creating students that don’t need to be surveilled.