Thursday, June 16, 2011

Online Content Filters

I've been drafting this post for a long time.  There's so much information and so much debate about the automatic filtering of internet content at school; I simply couldn't condense the information into a worthwhile post.

I'm going to, instead, explore some conversations and observations that I've had as well as explore a little bit of idealism.

The inspiration for this post began, as one would expect, with me supervising students in a computer lab and witnessing them have their research blocked incessantly.  I really do mean "without cessation"; there were a number of students who simply gave up researching their chosen entrepreneur because every website they tried to go to was blocked.

Consider two situations: in a computer lab that a teacher is monitoring, and in which every monitor is visible, (1) a student is confronted with unblocked inappropriate material, and (2) a student is unable to continue their research due to blocked appropriate material.

In situation (1), the teacher is able to instruct the student to close the browser window or turn off the monitor, and has the power of disciplinary action if the student resists doing so or repeats the offense intentionally or indiscriminately.  In situation (2), the teacher is able to do nothing but say, "Sorry, try another website."

Given the choice, I would much rather monitor students and have the ability to take action if needed than be rendered useless by a filter.

After this particular experience, I began talking to colleagues and students about content filters, and almost all of them were frustrated to some degree.  Some schools have tried to take steps to at least make the internet more accessible to teachers, but the response to those attempts have been tepid.

I should mention that most public schools are required to implement a filter due to having received federal funding for their computers.  I am trying to address the roots of these issues, not attack all principals.

Most interestingly, I was a sub at a private school within whose technical team I had contacts.  This school does not receive federal funding for technology and does not wish to spend their own funds on a filter.  They are a rather small school and are confident in the effectiveness of teacher monitoring.

I did this during a planning period on a school computer.  Twitter is blocked seemingly everywhere else.

I spoke to some of the students at that school and gleaned some insightful commentary.  The consensus seemed to be that the size of their school played a large role in the success of content monitoring, as did the environment and the type of students there.  They thought that some schools would definitely need automatic filtering, but that theirs doesn't.  One student stated that the rule there is, "Pretty much, 'Don't look at porn for 8 hours,' it's not that difficult."

My favorite discovery there, however, was that while there is no filter whatsoever, the students think that there is.  One even claimed to have been blocked by it in the past.  I did not tell them the truth, though I'm sure I looked a little surprised when I first heard a student say, "I think we have a great filter.  It doesn't block too much, but does keep students safe."

If falsehood and trickery were more reliable, I would be tempted to say that it seems the right lie is the perfect solution!

I thought I was done there, but after proof-reading this post, it seems weak in the knees — like I need to inject a little bit more thought-provoking fuel.  How about this to top it off: What truly qualifies as inappropriate material, and is it at all reasonable to expect automation to handle its monitoring better than teachers?

I skimmed some research that found these materials got passed every filter that the author tested:

1. Cocaine prices in major cities
2. Porn from several dozen servers
3. Live computer virus
4. Terrorist Handbook
5. Bomb Building Handbook
6. Getting high with household chemicals

They also found that websites relating to the American Red Cross, Yellowstone National Park, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (among others) were often blocked.

That all seems pretty poignant to me, while at the same time, a poll at Edutopia represents the thinking that pornography is the most harmful type of internet content.  Based on my experiences with violent photos being searched for and found on a filtered system, I think our considerations should be deeper than that.

Ultimately, and idealistically, where do our priorities lie?  Will a student be more emotionally harmed by being scolded for searching for violent photos or by being able to research drug prevention in various cities?  Will a student benefit more from never being witness to a female nipple, or from being able to research breast cancer?

I'm not sure if it's getting harder to teach our students, but I am seeing hints that it's getting harder to let our students learn.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Three Stories of School-Sponsored Prayer

Dear Citizens of the USA,

The separation of church and state is a vital concept that is used to protect the secular foundation of our government.  Having (and applying) a secular government prevents abuse of religious power and prevents discrimination of many kinds.  Any attempt to infuse governmental agencies with religious agendas, motivations, or exemptions is an affront against this vital concept and all of those whom it protects.

Since the 60's, courts have consistently ruled against school-sponsored prayer at graduations and otherwise.

At a high school in Louisiana, the traditional Christian prayer at graduation was challenged by a graduating atheist, Damon Fowler.  He pointed out the illegality of the prayer and the superintendent agreed and removed it from the program.  The remainder of this story plays out as a complete debacle, with educators and community members directly insulting Damon and presenting themselves as clueless about American law and philosophy.

Importantly, at the graduation rehearsal the night before, the student who was to lead a moment of silence also led a Christian prayer, specifically stating, "I would like to give thanks to the god that has made the class of 2011 a success."  At graduation, almost identical events took place.

(For the record, the atheist community pulled together to fund a scholarship for Damon, who has been disowned. Organized by Hemant Mehta, they raised over $30,000.  Awesome.)

In the most kind terms I can possibly muster, the way that this played out, with its moments of silence and its no-approval-needed student speeches, presents us with the question of exactly what qualifies as endorsement by a school.  It seems currently (barely) legal for a school to say, "We won't require speeches to be approved ahead of time, and students can therefore say whatever they want and we won't get in the way."  However, when it is completely clear that a student is going to lead an audience in prayer, it is transitively clear that anyone in the audience who is not a part of that tradition will be singled out and likely considered inferior to the majority.  When a school does nothing to prevent such things, doesn't that seem to endorse the discriminatory viewpoints involved?  Yes, it does.

I attended a high school in a rather conservative and Christian area for one year.  I was involved in choir, of course.  The choral department hosted an annual banquet toward the end of the year for its students and their families.  I heard that a friend's father, a pastor, had been asked to lead the prayer at the banquet.  Knowing that since this was to be a school-sponsored event such a prayer would be illegal, but also knowing that the faculty involved wouldn't be receptive to any discussion, I went to the principal.  I brought him printouts of Supreme Court decisions to prove my point and within days, the prayer was cancelled.  I had disappointed a number of friends but had done the right thing.

Alas, as the event approached, I heard through the grapevine that one of my religious friends intended to stand at her table and lead the audience in a prayer.  I would be shocked if the choral faculty did not also know about this ahead of time.  At the banquet, she stood and led prayer, and I watched a room of bowed heads speak their "Amen."

What if, at Damon's school, a Muslim student had spontaneously led a prayer?  She could have said, "I would like to give thanks to Allah, the god that has made the class of 2011 a success."  How would the school administration have reacted?  What if a Buddhist had spoken?  A Wiccan?

I now daydream of what could of been had I asked that question in high school before the banquet.  My friend would have stood and led a Christian prayer, and I would have promptly stood to introduce a Jewish friend to lead the audience in prayer.  Immediately after that prayer, I would have introduced a Muslim friend to lead a prayer.  Immediately after that, I would have introduced a Buddhist friend to lead a prayer, one accompanied by Tibetan chant that we would've played from a boom box.

I can't imagine how the audience would have reacted, but I feel like that's what it takes to actually make a point.  I suspect the news media would have been engrossed in such a story.  Unfortunately, I did not have such a collection of friends of various faiths, nor the guts to do what needed to be done.

A similar story is occurring in Texas right now.  This one went to court and the agnostic family of plaintiffs won, but then the ruling was overturned yesterday at a federal appeals court.

Update: This Texas graduation was reportedly rife with prayer. This serves as a poignant, though frustrating, example of why this entanglement of school and religion must stop.

When governmental agencies present a message, such as by a speaker they select, that is religious in nature or purpose, they are separating the recipients of the message into those who agree and those who do not agree.  When such a separation is created in the minds of the people there is at best an implication, at worst a declaration, that those who are not included in the group of agreement are inferior citizens and people.  Such presentations imbue the government with religious perspective that by its very nature divides a people against each other.

In more straightforward terms; every time a school sponsors a prayer, even if it is non-denominational, every non-religious citizen and I are being sent the message that we are inferior to those who agree with the beliefs presented.  This is abhorrent and should cease immediately.