One of the ways schools attempt to protect students from the big, scary internet is through online filtering. Proponents of filtering will say that this prevents students from accessing inappropriate sites and protects their privacy by keeping them from revealing too much identifying information on the internet. But is this the whole story?
Not exactly. Filters do block a lot of inappropriate sites, but, truthfully, they block a lot of beneficial ones, too. In addition to legitimate educational websites, many social networking sites are blocked. While revealing too much personal information and the possibility of cyberbullying are legitimate concerns when it comes to social networking, it is also true that tools like blogs, Twitter, and Pinterest can have many interesting uses in classroom instruction and activities.
Additionally, those who see online filtering as less than ideal (including myself) may argue that by preventing access to so many websites, we are not actually teaching students all that they need to know about evaluating information and online safety. Allowing students to access the “bad” sites gives teachers and librarians an opportunity to teach them how to determine if the information they find is accurate, or unbiased, or completely false, or created by a hate group. Similarly, allowing students to utilize social media provides an opportunity to explore internet etiquette, respect, and ethical use. If everything is blocked and teachers and librarians are unable to give students the chance to practice these skills, then odds are they’ll leave school without the appropriate tools to analyze and evaluate information, or the proper attitude about how to interact with others on the internet.
When schools use filtering, they don’t just prevent teachers and librarians from instructing students on information literacy, they also jeopardize intellectual freedom. Basically, people have the right to access whatever information they want, from any viewpoint, without restriction by others. Online filtering, while ostensibly for students’ safety, takes that right away from students. It is better to teach students how to find a wide variety of information in a smart, safe manner than to take away their right to obtain that information.
Most likely, online filtering isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. However, school districts can begin to utilize filtering more effectively, so that students are not only safe, but also have the opportunity to learn and practice important skills for information literacy and online safety.