Firewall to Learning or Shield of Liabilitly

The Block message I got when attempting to logon to Google Hangout.

The Internet is vast, diverse, and can be dangerous just like our physical world.  Helping our youth by imparting information regarding the world and how to deal with it goes back to the beginning of time, I am sure that cave dwellers cuddled their young and protected them from wild and wooly creatures that lurked about.  Today, we hold a young child’s hand when we cross the street, ensure the use of a safety belt and a bicycle helmet, and provide them with information on a variety of topics as it is requested and on their level of understanding.  We even allow a child to use a knife when making a peanut butter sandwich, a milestone for some on the way to independence.

Children walk to school, cross streets and use sharp instruments at school (scissors, pencils).  Yet when it comes the Internet, school districts  BLOCK any site that just MAY have something that is potentially perceived as harmful.  I wonder how much of this “protective” action is about protecting the child and how much is about protecting the organization/school/district from a fear of a liability issue?   I recently asked someone connected to the workings of our technology firewall why Google Hangout was blocked, as I had used it professionally (from home) and as a professional developer saw the potential for its’ use in instruction and coaching.  The response I got was “somebody probably saw something”, unclear as to what the something could be I accepted the fact that I will need to keep my hangouts – professional or otherwise, after hours.

I understand that a firewall is both to keep people out of your network and to keep people on the inside from getting out, each with reason.  A firewall is important to keep confidential information (student and staff records) and financial records (my paycheck) safe from nefarious action and it also serves to keep inappropriate information from impressionable young minds  (violent and sexual content included).  My school district purchased a software firewall to do this job.  So, being a machine and not being able to judge, the machine simply blocks anything with particular words.  Included in these words are “games” and “social networking”, thus no Google Hangout, Youtube, Facebook, parts of LinkedIn or anything that resembles a game (educational or otherwise).   Oddly Twitter was given a reprieve, no doubt some human intervention on that one.

I have tried to fight the battle only to be told “Don’t go there” and I see my colleagues accepting this method of dealing with the Internet by working around it.  They use smartphones to bypass the system, download and save Youtube  clips to use in the classroom, and do their professional development at night from home where they can access the latest information and collaborate with fellow practitioners without hitting that block.

Despite the fact that most teachers are more than capable of supervising students so that they are kept safe from the dangerous parts of the Internet the BLOCK is easy and efficient.  Blocking is not unique to my district, I’ve compared notes, but it does seem that smaller school districts and Charter schools do have a more open attitude towards innovations.  I wonder how students who are allowed to use Internet games and social networking sites compare with those who are blocked from exploring these innovations during the school day.  I’d love to hear from teachers who are permitted to guide their students in the use of these emerging and widely used tools.

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