Going Online for Instructional Resources? Avoid Inappropriate Content

By Christopher Wells

As administrators and technology leaders, we are skilled in choosing the right instructional resources for our students. However, this task becomes much more troublesome when a potential online application or resource has a number of excellent learning resources but is connected to inappropriate content, as well. YouTube is an example of a website with thousands of videos that can be used for effective instruction, but if a student can use YouTube, he or she can also access millions of other videos that may be totally inappropriate. Such content is also difficult, if not impossible, to filter.

A recent incident at a school in my district occurred when students were spending their time looking through local mug shots (displayed in “poster” thumbnail form on a single web page) to find people they knew or who were related to their classmates. Aside from being an inappropriate use of school technology, knowledge of the photos became disruptive in classes and in the hallways. I checked with the school police officers to make sure it was okay to block these sites, and was give approval to prevent district network users from going to the sites. Almost immediately, several complaints emerged: assistant principals, school transportation office staff and criminal science teachers all insisted they needed these pictures.

How, then, does a school district (or even a school) provide access to controversial websites to some people but not others? While segmenting populations to provide different levels of access to school community members may be possible, is it the correct action to take?

In the case of the mug shots, we redirected people to the authenticated police force site that provided the same information, but did not show mug shots in a “poster page” form; each picture and infraction was noted by a text list and required the user to know the name of the arrested person, which still met the needs of all of the groups requesting access. In this example, what was appropriate for some groups was not appropriate for others, but the needs of the whole district or school should be considered when making such decisions.

Appropriate vs. Inappropriate Content

  1. Appropriate web resources. When websites are appropriate, some thought has been given to the advertising, links, age appropriateness and users that would be exploring the pages on the site. One size rarely fits all students, but if the site is designed properly, the company supporting the website should have guarantees or assurances that the site is both “student-friendly” and instructionally supportive. Education companies work hard to create such tools, and allow educators and technologies to provide feedback, too. Some companies, such as NetTrekker, BrainPOP, Discovery Education, and ProQuestK12, are all in the business of providing safe, appropriate content resources.
  2. General-purpose web resources with filtering. It seems as though there are as many people working to expose students to inappropriate materials as there are trying to filter out content that should not be shown on school computers. Even the most sophisticated blocking and filtering software tools let some digital trash in, and students without clear learning objectives and mischievous fingers may find sites that are clearly not education-appropriate. (Robinson, Brown, & Green, 2010, p. 19) However, with a clear instructional goal, a solid Acceptable Use Policy, and a culture that supports appropriate use of technology, students will often police themselves when computers are used to view inappropriate materials. (Wells, 2010, Ch. 5)
  3. Inappropriate web resources. Would you give a 3rd-grade student a magazine with a children’s article to read if there were pornographic advertisements on the sides of each page? While this may be an exaggeration, many students are faced with this every day, even when using free e-mail, such as Yahoo! Mail, or Facebook. While school districts may say that such social networking tools are blocked to limit in-school distractions, there is a more compelling legal side as well: the Children’s Internet Protection Act, or CIPA. This law requires all schools seeking federal funding to have an internet filtering resource in place, and this should be used to the extent practicable. That means that we, as educators, are required to protect students from inappropriate material whenever we can, and that includes blocking most social networking sites. However, CIPA is much broader than just social networking, and schools and districts must constantly improve their protection strategies to keep students safe from inappropriate materials.

At the end of the instructional day, the appropriate versus inappropriate dimension relies heavily on the educational leadership and school culture. The concepts surrounding finding the right online resources is one that may involve the entire school community, because parents, staff members and even students want the right resources in their hands for solid education.

As school leaders, we also must be mindful of our legal responsibilities in CIPA and the concept of in loco parentis, and this may flavor our perceptions of specific online tools and software. Should the rules be different for students and staff members? Is a software tool used in the 11th grade also something that can be installed at elementary or middle schools? Only you and your staff know and understand how your district or school will answer those questions, and holding a frank discussion to explore the concepts of appropriate versus inappropriate content will help you make more effective decisions when using online software.

Learn More
For more on this topic, read the author's book, Smarter Clicking: School Technology Policies that Work!, a joint publication with Corwin Press, AASA and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. This book is designed to provide ready, effective access to dozens of resources and processes to protect students using technology.

References

Bissonette, A. M. (2009). Cyber Law: Maximizing Safety and Minimizing Risk in Classrooms. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin Press. p. 57.

Deal, T. E., & Peterson, K. D. (1999). Shaping School Culture: The Heart of Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Robinson, L. K., Brown, A. H., & Green, T. D. (2010). Security versus Access: Balancing Safety and Productivity in the Digital School. Washington, D.C. 30036-3132: International Society for Technology in Education.

Wells, C. (2010). Smarter Clicking: School Technology Policies That Work! Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin Press. Chapter 5.

About the Author
Christopher Wells is the director of IT policies and communications for Gwinnett County Public Schools, the largest school district in Georgia, with over 160,000 students. E-mail: cwells@schooltechpolicies.com. Visit his website at www.schooltechpolicies.com for additional articles on this topic.