Best Practices for Meeting CIPA Requirements
EdTech Magazine Q4 2005.
I was visiting a school district not long ago and had a chance to visit with its curriculum director. In passing, she referred to their technology director as the “Tech-Nazi” - a title she admitted was borrowed from Seinfeld’s character the Soup-Nazi. He had been taking on the job of unilaterally blocking websites.
This is not the first time I’ve heard folks holding my position of technology director in other districts described in less than endearing terms. One librarian refers to her tech director as “Bob God.” I heard a teacher refer to her district’s technology department as the “Education Prevention Department.” And of course there are those other names that shouldn’t appear in a professional publication.
Tech directors have two strikes against them coming out of the box. First, educators have not always embraced technology (not to state the obvious or anything.) Its complex and often unreliable nature makes it a source of irritation more than delight. Second, we techies have an appreciation of the vulnerability of the equipment we are charged with maintaining that normal people simply don’t. We see those viruses, hackers, software conflicts, power-surges, and SUDs (stupid user dysfunctions) that are always surrounding the fort, waiting for the smallest breach, and then sneaking in and wreaking havoc.
I, for one, would be heart-broken if I thought my nickname was Tech-Nazi or Doug God. Good working relations with people are as important to me as the good working order of computers. And I beleive it is possible to have both if technology use policies are collaboratively developed.
By its very nature, policy and rule making is influenced by human values. Nowhere in schools is this more evident than when it comes to the selection of teaching resources.
Controversies have swirled around textbook content (intelligent design in science texts), book censorship (Harry Potter’s place in our libraries), and video content (a film’s R-rating automatically earning it exclusion from the curriculum). Public schools’ parents and community members can be at both ends of the political and religious spectrum. As Larry Cuban suggests in his book How Can I Fix It?: Finding Solutions and Managing Dilemmas (Teachers College Press, 2001) such values conflicts present not a solvable problems, but an on-going dilemma that needs ongoing management.
Access to the vast resources of the Internet has added a twist to the selection of ideas and images readily available to students while in school. Without using a filter, the Internet is an either/or proposition - either students have ready access to all of its content or none of it. Given that valuable, arguably essential, resources are available only online, not giving students Internet access is educationally unsound. Given that inappropriate, and arguably dangerous, materials are also available through this medium, giving students complete Internet access is educationally irresponsible.
There is little disagreement that Web sites that are prurient in nature should be blocked. Most educators would agree Web sites designed especially for students should be available. The problem is that the great bulk of sites fall somewhere on a continuum between these two extremes. When the Internet is filtered at a district or even regional level, both high school seniors and preschoolers have the same degree of access.
Maintaining both the concept of intellectual freedom and providing a healthy and educational online environment may seem to be a difficult balancing act. But some districts seem to have been able to both meet the requirements of CIPA and give staff and students access to the greatest possible range of online resources by providing a mechanism for all stakeholders to have a voice in policy-making decisions
Values issues often play out in very tangible ways. A high school social studies teacher may want students to analyze a hate group site and compare it to the Nazi movement, while a parent group wants such sites blocked. A librarian, tired of keeping students from accessing games, may want all such sites blocked, while an elementary teacher uses game sites that reinforce math skills. A language arts teacher might encourage students to use e-mail to contact experts on term paper topics, but the district has “banned” student e-mail. And students themselves see chat as a vital means of communication and collaboration while many educators see it only as a frivolous time-waster.
A Formal Decision-Making Group
Policies, rules and guidelines related to filtering need to be created through a formal, collaborative process undertaken by a group consisting of educators, students, technicians and community members. Such a group, whether a policy committee, technology advisory group or a building site team, needs to address the following issues and make recommendations to the school board and administration.
- Whether a filter should be used, which filter should be used, and how the filter should be initially configured;
- How requests for sites to be either unblocked or blocked are handled;
- By whom, how and under what circumstances filters can be overridden;
- How the effectiveness of the district’s filtering practices and policies are evaluated; and
- How other practices that help ensure appropriate student access are developed and used.
Facilitating Informed Decision-Making
Like all policy decisions, those helping construct them should have good information about the national and state laws and local school board policies regarding student Internet access; what types of filters are available and the strategies they use to identify sites to be blocked; research (and opinion) on the efficacy of filtering software; and local network and hardware configurations.
Policy-making groups need to understand the requirements of the Childhood Protection Internet Protection Act <www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/ntiageneral/cipa2003/CIPAreport_08142003.htm> and the financial consequences should a district choose not to meet its requirements.
Studies, such as “Does Pornography-Blocking Software Block Access to Health Information on the Internet” (JAMA, Dec 11, 2002. < http://www.med.umich.edu/opm/newspage/2002/filter.htm>), that demostrate that even the best filters both over-block and under-block and offer only a partial solution to controlling access to Internet resources should also be made available and discussed. Over reliance (or worse, sole reliance) on filtering programs can lead to a lack of monitoring student use by adults and few efforts to teach good evaluation and selection skills.
And finally, good-decisions should be based on the principles and guidelines of other professional organizations such as the American Library Association as discussed at “ALA’s Web Site on the Children’s Internet Protection Act” <www.ala.org/ala/washoff/WOissues/civilliberties/cipaweb/cipa.htm>.
Access to these documents allows committee members to base arguments on more than “gut-reactions.”
Developing Articulated Filtering Guidelines
Finally, any guidelines, policies or procedures need to be documented, distributed and discussed among all stakeholders. Should questions arise, should school administration, technology administration, or school boards change, there will be no change in practice without a formal re-evaluation. Too often we confuse practice with policy – at our peril.
Effective school leaders have long harnessed the power of building policy ownership through collaborative decision-making. New technologies, tech-savvy students, and vocal publics make good policy creation more important and more challenging than ever. But it can be done.
The Mankato Area Public Schools, Mankato, Minn. have taken measures to create good policies that make sure students and staff can operate in the least restrictive Internet environment possible, keep students safe, and yet meet the requirements of The Children’s Internet Protection Act.
The district offers these recommendations:
- Choice of filters is not based on cost or convenience, but on features and customizability. The least restrictive settings of the installed filter are chosen. Filtering (using WebBlocker) is undertaken in only two of 14 categories—sexual acts and gross sexual depictions. E-mail, chat rooms and blog sites are not blocked.
- The override lists in our Internet filter are generously used. Library media specialists can override the filter or have access to a machine that is completely unblocked in each media center so that questionably blocked sites can be reviewed and immediately accessed by staff and students if found to be useful. Any teacher or media specialist may have a site unblocked by simply requesting it—no questions asked. The technology department is relieved of the responsibility, beyond correctly installing and configuring the filter, for students accessing possibly inappropriate materials, and all school staff members are still required to continue to monitor students while on the Internet as if no filter were present.
- Requests for the blocking of specific Web sites that fall outside the specific parameters of CIPA (obscene, child pornography, or harmful to minors) are treated like any other material challenge. Any request from a staff member, parent or community member that a specific Internet site be blocked, is treated like any other material challenge in the district; the “reconsideration” policy is followed.
- Take a proactive approach to ensuring good Internet use by students. Encourage media specialists and classroom teachers to:
- Articulate and model personal values when using technology Talk to your students about what you believe to be ethical conduct online. Set clear limits about what is allowed and what is not allowed. Be knowledgeable about your school’s Acceptable Use Policy. See if the labs, libraries and classrooms your students use display lists and create handouts of conduct codes. All of us learn more from what others do than what they say. The ethical conduct we expect from our students, we ourselves must display. Verbalization of how we personally make decisions is a very powerful teaching tool. It’s useless to lecture about intellectual property when we as adults use pirated software!
- Build student trust. Students – either by accident, carelessness, or orneriness - will access inappropriate sites. Educator should view this as an opportunity to guide and instruct. (The description of the site from the Google search said “Hot Foxes XXX.” What clues are there that this site probably isn’t good for your animal report?) Students need to see the teacher as a trusted adult to whom they can go when confused or frightened without fear of reprimand.
- Allow students personal use of the Internet. While priority needs to be given to schoolwork when technological resources are scarce, computer terminals should never sit empty. And there are some good reasons to allow students personal use of the Internet, especially in the school library. Personal computer use gives kids a chance to practice skills, gives weight to the penalty of having Internet access taken away and makes school a place kids want to be.
- Reinforce ethical behaviors and react to the misuse of technology. Technology use behaviors should be treated no differently than other behaviors - good or bad - and the consequences of student behaviors should be the same. It is important not to over react to incidences of technological misuse. Should a student bring inappropriate reading material to school, we do not ban reading for that child. Should a student access inappropriate material on the Internet, we should not ban the child’s use of the Internet.
- Create environments that help students avoid temptations. Computer screens that are easily monitored (no pun intended), passwords not written down or left easily found, and getting into the habit of logging out of secure network systems all help remove the opportunities for technology misuse. Computers that can connect to the Internet should only be placed in easily monitored areas where adults are always present. The presence of an adult is a far more effective means of assuring good behavior than any filtering software.
- Assess children’s understanding of ethical concepts. Technology use privileges should not be given to students until they have demonstrated that they know and can apply ethical standards and school policies. Testing of appropriate use needs to be done prior to student gaining on-line privileges such as email accounts or Internet access. The teacher should keep evidence of testing on file in case there is a question of whether there has been instruction on appropriate use.
- Educate staff and parents about ethical technology use. Through newsletters, talks at parent organization meetings, staff meetings and through school orientation programs, the library and technology staff needs to inform and enlist the aid of all adults in teaching and enforcing good technology practices. In many cases, teachers and parents themselves are unprepared to help students make safe and appropriate use of the Internet. This is an ongoing job.
- Help children understand that ethical behaviors are in their own long-term best interest. Rules of society exist because they tend to make the world a safer, more secure and more opportunity-filled place.