Friday, April 04, 2008

Internet Filtering Reveals the Low Priority Our Schools Give 21st Century Learning

Internet Filtering Reveals the Low Priority Our Schools Give 21st Century Learning

Under the Federal eRate funding program (see: BILLIONS of dollars were spent bringing the Internet into our nation’s classrooms. A very significant broad band infrastructure was established as a result. However, as is illustrated by the following quote, a massive funding scheme like this can not change the attitudes of educational bureacracies entrenched in pre-digital communications era thinking.

“An evaluation of E-Rate in California by Goolsbee and Guryan showed a 68% increase in classroom connectivity per teacher but could not identify any impact on student achievement” (see: )

While back in the 90’s getting teachers to understand and use
"The_Information_Superhighway" was an uphill struggle - since then older teachers have retired, younger more tech savvy teachers have entered the field, and technology has become far more user friendly and ubiquitous. The majority of today’s teachers are interested in using Web-based resources, but hit the brick wall of Internet Filtering, a largely unchallenged, bureaucratic, legacy disincentive that in many ways has the effect of robbing today’s students of the type of education worthy of their attention.

There is much discussion among educators who wish to press forward about how to deal with filtering and ‘work with’ the bureacracy that holds the power of the filter. All this is laudable, illustrating that the committed, unflappable educator is still alive and well in some appreciable numbers in our classrooms. Thank heavens!

However, I assert that beyond discussions of the need for filters and methods (mostly quite challenging) for dealing with them, the fact that our students and teachers have been led to a digital oasis (web-based resources) in the outmoded text-book defined desert of our schools and are not being permitted to drink and quench their thirst for learning, is a measure of how the ‘educational powers that be’ still do not fully comprehend, honor, and value the teaching and learning practices steeped in the changes of intellectual process that have been irreversably brought about by the advent of digital communications technologies.

Recently, I came across a very interesting and revealing podcast discussion among a group of teachers about understanding and dealing with school Internet filters. While I appreciate the responsible and non-confrontational tack tacken, I was moved to spend a little time weighing in on this issue, as I believe they deserve better, much better than they are being shown by their school district administrations. The underlying reason for this is that what they want to do – use the Internet in their classrooms – is not afforded the respect (let alone awe) that is should be shown!

Here is a link to the podcast and below that the text of the comment I posted on the accompanying blog.


From: Teachers Teaching Teachers podcast
Locating the Tyranny of Filtering - TTT95 - 03.12.08

My Posted Comment:

Mark Gura Says: March 25th, 2008 at 5:58 pm

Dear Teachers Teaching Teachers:

I listened to “Locating the Tyranny of Filtering” with great interest and I would very much like to offer the following observations.

First however, I want to say that I think Teachers Teaching Teachers is a highly significant effort. It is one of the first really solid examples of a trend I know is coming, something I call Technology Empowered School Reform from the Bottom Up.

I was a middle school teacher myself for 18 years, subsequently opting for central district administration as a platform from which to make my contribution during the final third of my career with the New York City Department of Education. I eventually held the position of Director, Office of Instructional Technology there.

I continue to work on impacting the state of education and its future, but as a retiree I can no longer do so as a practicing teacher. Consequently, Teachers Teaching Teachers is something I appreciate greatly. The perspective of those who have significant classroom experience and who continue to teach is an essential element of the movement to improve education. This episode is a good example.

I think you posed the theme of this episode deftly. You are correct, the issue is not so much “Is there filtering tyranny?” as “Can we collaboratively identify the location of that tyranny?” I was heartened as you worked your way through the conversation to dispel the notion that there is some evil, top down, monolithic effort afoot to impose filtering on hapless teachers. Furthermore, I met Olgierd several times while with the department and I believe him to be knowledgeable of and sympathetic to teachers and enthusiastic about enlightened approaches to education. In fact, I think the current administration, largely populated by non-educators, is very fortunate to have him there to ‘keep it real.’

I believe I have a reasonably good perspective on the filtering issue as I was onboard when the first filtering system was put in place as a requirement of the federal eRate program, the funds from which paid for a good deal of the school system’s telecommunications networking infrastructure. *Later, I frequently responded to pleas from the trenches for help as teachers early on realized the disempowering effects ‘the filter’ had on their efforts to provide relevant instruction for their students.

I would describe the situation in terms of de facto tyranny instead of de jure tyranny. While there may be no Wizard of Oz-like man behind the curtain thwarting students and teachers from accessing web resources purely as a misguided exercise of power, the effect may be the same. In fact, dealing with unintended tyranny in this case may be more insidious than having to take a Dr. Evil head on, because one becomes involved in an elusive fight in which it is hard to find an antagonist, let alone defeat him.

One thing I can tell you from direct experience though, is that an administration, even of a vast system like New York City’s, can indeed figure out how to make things happen if it sees them as important and wants to do so. While there may be a system in place to cope with filtering, it does not appear there is much of an effort made to let the rank and file know about it, let alone how to make the most of it.

With some regularity I am privileged to meet with classroom teachers who work for the New York City school system. This most often happens when I am invited to be a guest speaker in one of the many graduate education courses offered at universities in the city. I speak to these teachers about how they can tap technology to provide a better educational experience for their students. However, I very frequently meet resistance to my thoroughly grounded, in fact widely published, assertions and suggestions. To my surprise, most often this is not based on conflicting understandings of pedagogy, but of the practicalities involved in using computers and the Internet. The single greatest ‘yeah but’ I hear has to do with ‘The Filter.’

It used to be in these situations that I would quickly point out that there are ways to cope with the filter, that by contacting the right people and asking the right questions, the filter need not represent a brick wall stop to the type of activities they want to do with their students. I get quite a bit of push back to this though currently, by teachers who assert that they have called, or their supervisor has called to have something unblocked by the filter and that they’ve received one type of ’NO’ or another. I, of course, have no way of testing the veracity of these claims, but I will say that I’ve heard it so often, with such tenacity and vehemence, that what is clear to me is that the filter does represent, by reputation if not in fact, a very serious disincentive for teachers to do what by now they really know they must do, involve use of the Internet in their teaching.

Unfortunately, the current administration has demonstrated repeatedly that speaking up and bucking the system may result in disciplinary action. And so, making a big noise for the benefit of the kids is a phenomenon that has waned just as the integration of Web 2.0 resources in the classroom has become more and more necessary.

Many have pointed out that the school system is currently experiencing a revolving door personnel turnover that spins faster than ever before. One facet of this is that teachers hear that the Internet won’t work in their classroom, won’t give them access to much of what they want, and consequently many no longer even try to use it with their classes. That this is due to a filter, let alone that there are ways to cope with it, is often not even part of their understanding of the situation. What is true for them is that the web is not part of the classroom equation, contributing to frustration on the part of teachers and boredom for students, and ultimately abandonment of the school system by a very high percentage of teachers and principals.

The only way to overcome this in terms of promoting the use of the incredibly rich body of web-based resources these professionals might use, would be a serious outreach effort. The school system must continually and diligently inform new teachers, those who’ve replaced colleagues who may have known about coping with filtering previously, that they can prevail in this. My inference from speaking earnestly with many in-service teachers is that no significant such effort is taking place.

I find that much of your advice to teachers in this episode was sound. Yes, get to know the man who runs your filter! Yes, be courageous in standing up for the web-based instruction you believe in! And yes, organizing holds promise! These are positive, non adversarial approaches and represent due diligence that should be the first line of action. Yet, in the end, once organized there is likely to be conflict. Not over the issue of “will you (Mr. Filter Man) please help me?”, but in forcing the administration to concede that overcoming the filter’s discouraging effects on its own teaching force involves acknowledging the high importance of using the web in teaching and learning. By evaluating actions instead of rhetoric, an honest assessment would lead one to conclude that this hasn’t happened yet.

From my perspective, the fact that we still have this problem is part and parcel of the real issue, the lack of comprehension by the upper echelon of the administration that there are legitimate… no, make that mission critical reasons, for teachers and students to be working online and that ENSURING that there is a clear path for them to do so is important!

We must all continue to work hard to make sure that they come to understand and acknowledge this very important point!

Thanks again for this highly informative and important podcast episode!

Your Colleague,

Mark Gura

*Below is the text of a message I sent to the (NYC Board of Ed.) C.I.O. in July of 2000. I don't recall ever getting a response. Has this situation gotten better or worse?
(iGear was the original name of the school system's Internet Filter and D.I.I.T. the acronym for Division of Information and Instructional Technology)


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