This week, I’m responding to a series of questions on the filtering of “inappropriate” internet sites by schools and public libraries. For the sake of this discussion, I’m going to assume that some filtering is inevitable. CIPA and the ERate program (look here for details) require that schools take measures to keep young people safe online, and filters will almost certainly remain a part of that effort. A philosophical discussion about filtering vs. freedom may show up here another day, but for now I’ll be practical and focus on how librarians can best teach in a filtered atmosphere. And now on to the questions…
Should filters be the final authority? I think most of us would agree that the answer to this question is a resounding NO. Assuming that filters are necessary, they should be minimal and flexible. Teachers within the district, rather than IT or administration, should take the lead on what internet content is appropriate for their students. Web 2.0 applications and social networking sites have powerful educational potential, and should never be blocked to begin with. When teachers or students discover educational sites that are blocked or inappropriate sites that sneak through the filters, there should be a quick and seamless process for blocking and unblocking sites. This interview with Michael Gras and Scott Floyd about their Texas school district provides a powerful model for how this minimal and flexible filtering can work.
Who should be responsible for the safety of children online? The answer to this question is simple: PEOPLE. No filter works perfectly, so there will always be a danger of students encountering suggestive, hateful, or violent material online. Watchful librarians and teachers offer much better protection. They should work proactively to prepare students for how to handle inappropriate material, and be quick to react when this occurs. Even the most attentive educator cannot be there to look over every student’s shoulder, however, so the key is to create a community in which students have the skills to assess a situation for themselves and ask for support as needed.
What measures can we take to protect them beyond filters? Schools should incorporate an internet safety curriculum beginning in early elementary school. This should not be a separate series of lessons taught only in the library, but rather should be integrated into classroom projects for “just in time” learning. As students learn to use the internet for gathering information, sharing their work, and communicating with others around the globe, they should simultaneously be introduced to the dangers they might encounter. Librarians and teachers can work together to teach these skills, and in doing so, they can accomplish more than the best filter ever could. They can teach students to be not just “internet-safe” but “internet-smart”.