Calculus teacher Steve Willott finishes showing an example of a new concept on the board. Can anyone find me a different method to do this? Students search through their textbooks and notes in an attempt to find the answer. According to Willott, the only problem with this is that he would like students to be able to recognize good methods even if they’re presented in ways beyond the text book.
“I could see students searching YouTube for particular terms we use in class in order to see different methods or examples,” he said. “Then under my guidance I would be able to better equip them to evaluate those sources independently.”
All social media sites – including YouTube – are blocked on the school’s WiFi and school computers with student access, which prevents Willott and other teachers from using those 21st Century tools in class.
The Francis Howell School District is required to use internet filters because it receives funding from a government program called E-rate, which provides discounted telecommunications services. In order to receive that funding, the filters must comply with provisions in a law known as Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). Basically, schools must block material that is obscene and harmful to minors, such as pornography; however, the law doesn’t specify everything schools have to block or allow. In FHSD, a committee of school administrators decides what qualifies as inappropriate for students to view on the school’s computers.
The filter method the committee picked caused sites of value to be blocked as well. A category-based system restricts all sites placed in particular groupings by the computer program – such as offensive language, gambling, and pornography. Educational sites can fall under these categories for various reasons even if they are appropriate for student viewing. A site that falls on one of these lists is blocked automatically, and only after a teacher requests a review can it go through the process to be opened.
“If a teacher or a principal or somebody comes and says ‘hey, this site is blocked but there is educational value,’ then certainly we check with the academic team,” Chief Information Officer Ray Eernisse said. “A review is done of that site, and it’s opened if it is deemed appropriate and good for instruction.”
Some sites reviewed and deemed educational are generally unblocked within 48 hours. Social media platforms however, remain on the list of sites that FHSD will not unblock to students. Those sites do not filter their content, so the entire site is blocked. This is because the district can’t guarantee students will not view inappropriate material while using sites of that nature.
“I think that there could be educational value to those sites,” superintendent Dr. Pam Sloan said. “I can tell you that I use Twitter myself as a tool for professional development. We have to make sure we have a safe learning environment, so we have to do what we can to protect that. In the future is there going to be a way we might be able to do both? I think that is something that just has to be seen, probably.”
While sites outlined by CIPA are blocked, by blocking social media the committee has chosen to expand FHSD’s blocks beyond CIPA’s requirements. Even with these extended restrictions in place, students still have access to a long list of sites that could be considered inappropriate by the committee.
“I understand the need to filter out some of the things,” Fingers said. “But I think sometimes the filters encourage some students to work that much harder to get around them.”
Many see the filters as inconveniences when working on school assignments.
“There’s things like typing the words ‘breast cancer’ that are blocked because it says ‘breast,” senior Sam Renda said. “These are certain things you need for research and projects that you need for school.”
FHSD’s internet filters hindering students’ ability to complete assignments at school is a recurring situation. Some teachers have needed to alter the way they would normally handle a project because of the restrictions. English teacher Diane Fingers had to deal with this when using Facebook for an assignment with Senior Lit.
“I think if it’s for school purposes, then it should be opened,” Fingers said. “It’s hard to give an assignment and then say, ‘Oh yeah, you have to wait to do this when you get home.’ Whatever assignments we give, we should also be able to give all of the resources. If that’s social media, then we need to give them access.”
In addition to Facebook, other teachers like Willott use YouTube to supplement their lessons. But because of the Internet blocks, students are not able to access this resource on the school’s computers themselves.
“I use YouTube all of the time in Physical Science to show demonstrations,” teacher Jon Travis said. “I don’t see that there’s any reason that high school students couldn’t access YouTube.”
Students and organizations at FHN have decided that the benefits of using social media as a tool are worth taking advantage of right now despite the restrictions in place at school. AP Chemistry students use Facebook to share information, help with homework, and schedule study sessions. Multiple clubs use Twitter as a way to remind members about meetings and news.
Despite the many ways Social Media is already being used within FHN, student access to those sites at school remains restricted.
“There’s going to be some that we just can’t open,” Eernisse said. “If you were to send me a request right now about YouTube, I’m not going to open YouTube. We at the district are not allowing YouTube to students now.”
There have been considerations to incorporate social media into the curriculum in the future. Formally and fully integrating social media into the curriculum could take up to six years, as that’s how long it takes various committees to revisit and edit each subject in the curriculum. In addition to that, as social media skills continue to gain importance over time, the district may consider the possibility that certain blocks could be removed or changed. As of press time there were no formal plans to move forward on either of these considerations.
“There may come a time where we actually need to teach the appropriate etiquette when using dating websites,” Eernisse said. “So does that become a skill that we have to teach in the future as technology continues to infiltrate our daily lives? In that case we’d have to open it because we’d have to have people teach the right way to do that.”
If the District were to unblock social media or YouTube to students, it could be a slow going process. Revisiting the policy requires meetings with various administrative departments, such as the technology and policy committees and the academic team. Nevertheless, changing the policy is possible.
“I think you’re going to see more flexibility in what people can access,” Eernisse said, “As school districts themselves become more accustomed to using digital resources, the Internet and technology in general, and parents become more aware of what’s going on out there.”
While the blocks remain, there are still students and staff at FHN who will continue to adapt to the inconveniences and use social media as a tool.
“Most of my kids have iPods or smartphones,” Fingers said. “So even if we don’t give them access.”