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Are Internet Filters and Firewalls Irrelevant?

The Digital Immigrant and Digital Native Discussions Continue....

In 2001, Mark Prensky coined the terms "Digital Natives" and "Digital Immigrants" to describe the differences between adults and students in using technology.

Educators are the "Digital Immigrants" who have to adapt and learn how to integrate technology into their lives. Students are "Digital Natives" born into a culture and lifestyle where technology immersion is the norm.

Although I know a lot of educators who argue that immigrants can use technology in the same ways as the natives and that being a native does not necessary guarantee proficiency, I have found the Digital Immigrant and Native comparison to be helpful in understanding the essential differences in childhood experiences that separate educators from the students.

To explore these differences in perspectives, this monthly series features a discussion between me, a tech savvy old immigrant, and, GSD, a high school aged tech savvy native.

Last month we discussed The Ideal Technology Device.

This month, we talk about how student access to the Internet is regulated by Internet filters and firewalls. Should the Internet be regulated in schools?

GSD Says:

Internet filters and firewalls in schools? For me, that's not really something fun or interesting to talk about, because honestly, it feels irrelevant.

If I need to get on Facebook on a school computer, I know a way around the firewall. If that doesn't work, I have a smartphone in my pocket. Firewalls are not something I or my peers really think about. If we're not allowed to get on a website, we'll find a way to get on the website.

End of story.

I see the problem with that. But the truth is, students like myself will use all the resources we want, for better or for worse. We'll use Facebook to collaborate on group projects and to procrastinate while doing our homework. We'll use YouTube to better learn our math assignment and to watch funny cat videos. We'll use SparkNotes because the information is short and sweet and it's there.

As far as firewalls go, I understand that schools have a legal obligation to show that they're keeping the bad guys out and the liability low for students causing trouble online.

At the same time, I see how blocked websites get used anyway. What makes me angry is that some websites are blocked because teachers are afraid of them, they heard bad things, or simply because they don't know anything about them.

While I know that isn't right, I know using Facebook in school to chat isn't either.

But students don't think about what they should or should not be doing, or why something's blocked, or even what cool educational opportunities they could get in their classes if they had full access to the Internet. They'll just use school computers how they want, and if something's blocked, they'll find their way around it.

So how can a firewall be effective in today's age? I don't think it's possible. There's no happy medium where enough websites are unblocked to prevent misuse while still protecting school computers and students. Websites will get used whether schools want them to or not, whether it's on school computers or on personal devices.

While that problem may never have a perfect solution, I do have an idea on something that might move us in the right direction. The use of the Internet in school should be openly discussed between school administrators, teachers, and students. Students have a lot to teach teachers about using the Internet for information and collaboration. And teachers have a lot to teach students on how to use it all properly.

Students will still find ways around restrictions. Students have been doing that for a long time.

I won't pretend that dialogue between students and teachers will change that.

But maybe a little discussion can help everyone get a better understanding of what's useful and what's not, what should be used and what shouldn't, and what opportunities the Internet can offer for all.

The Old Digital Immigrant Says:

Absolutely! Teachers and students can learn a lot from each other when it comes to using technology.

But when we talk about Internet filters and firewalls, for better or worse, we are discussing school legal responsibilities and safety, not the potential value of the Internet in learning.

Unfortunately, these are two very different perspectives in understanding the issue which ultimately leads to different conclusions, depending on who you are.

From the learning perspective, I know many classroom teachers who would agree with you. They are also frustrated with Internet restrictions and want to exercise their instructional freedom and creativity. Internet filters and firewalls are cumbersome and a barrier.

From the "responsibility and safety" perspective, you understand that educators are liable for what students do in school. I was going to quote some legal jargon like "in loco parentis" and regulations about how any use of school technologies should be only for school related purposes, but then I would sound like an old grumpy gatekeeper.

The reality is that part of the burdens of responsibility is that one must always balance potential advantages and risks. Administrators and specialists want to provide teachers and students with all the benefits of technology and the Internet, but they must guard against potential threats and abuses. They want students to learn how to use the Internet responsibly to develop digital literacy, but they worry about everything from potential cyber bullying, predators, to just wasting instructional time and resources watching the funny cat videos you mentioned on YouTube. They worry about what could go wrong, even if it has a .1% chance of happening, because that's what people charged with leading and managing schools and classrooms have to do.

Ultimately, school officials must balance the benefits with risk, but they will always favor caution.

School officials also understand that students may find ways to go through the Internet filters and firewalls. But if students do so, they do it knowing that they are going against school policies and safeguards.

There are compromises. Districts often develop policies and procedures for teachers to allow access to websites and other resources. Districts also provide alternate sites and applications to attempt to offer similar instructional experiences offered on potential websites that may be inaccessible at school.

So, teacher and student discussions about Internet resources will be very valuable, but the filters and firewalls will always stay active.

In the end, students, teachers, and administrators will see the issue very differently because of their different roles.

We can all agree on the value of technology and the Internet, but our responsibilities will compel us to make different decisions. Students will learn in any way they can. Teachers will teach using any available resources. Administrators and managers will do whatever is necessary to ensure stability and safety, and will continue maintaining the Internet filters and firewalls as an imperfect solution.

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