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Internet Filtering: The Effects in a Middle and High School Setting

Deborah G. Simmons

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Abstract

The purpose of this study was to identify the effects of Internet filtering and restricted Internet access in a school system and its effects on teaching and learning. A total of 120 middle and high school teachers and support and administrative staff completed a questionnaire with 14 Likert-type items and one open-ended response question about their perceptions of Internet filtering in their school. A chi-square test between middle and high school respondents revealed no significant differences. The majority (N=87) reported they accessed the Internet on a daily basis. Nearly all agreed that technology support was available (N=118), but 117 respondents felt legitimate sites had been blocked. Although user agreements were in place, results indicated that some felt students were not always punished for downloading offensive material. Some admitted they themselves used techniques to get around the filter or block to complete their tasks.

A majority of the respondents reported e-mail as a critical function. Most felt the restrictions imposed in this county school system were designed to be more of a ban on Internet access. Teachers who used the Internet to develop lesson plans must show how the web sites will be used to support the lesson, and get approval to access the Internet. Sites must be bookmarked for the students’ use, and teachers are responsible for students accessing only those pre-approved sites. Frequent comments regarded the “filtering” system as essentially a block that: hampered their duties, created an inconvenience, reduced student autonomy, lowered morale, and decreased the likelihood they would create lessons integrating technology.


Introduction

The Internet has been touted as a tool that encourages learning and communication. As a new way of processing information, the Internet can encourage learners not only to view themselves as being in charge of their own learning, but also to perceive teachers as facilitators in their learning process (Yumuk, 2002). The Internet is interactive and engages the learner. Unlike resources such as textbooks, journals, and other materials used in traditional teaching and learning; the Internet can stimulate learners to find the most updated information in a short amount of time (Yumuk, 2003). Since the Internet has become so ingrained in our culture, schools now have the added responsibility to protect students from inappropriate Internet content.

Since 1996, Congress has worked to pass Internet legislation that would protect the nation’s school-aged children from inappropriate content and punish violators of those laws. However, many laws passed by Congress violated constitutional rights and failed at the Supreme Court levels. One example was The Communications Decency Act of 1996. This act prohibited the sending or posting of obscene or indecent material via the Internet to persons under the age of 18. The Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional in Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union (1997) because it violated free speech under the First Amendment.

With the Child Online Protection Act (1998), Congress passed a more narrowly written law to protect children from inappropriate online content. Later, Congress passed the Children’s Internet Protection Act (2000) which required schools and libraries that received federal funds for discounted telecommunications, Internet access, or internal connection services to adopt an Internet safety policy. The safety plan had to include technological protections that blocked or filtered access to visual depictions that were obscene, pornographic, or harmful to minors.

Educators recognize that because the Internet crosses every facet of life, it tends to model society at large, and this can pose a problem for content that crosses into the classroom. The information on the Internet is often times faulty or inaccurate, and some suggest that if left unchecked may expose children to pedophiles, pornography, and other lascivious materials. State and national legislatures have attempted to insulate people from indecent materials found on the web (Rumbough, 2001). School systems look for ways to counter the harmful association that Internet access can bring through software designed to filter inappropriate information. However, when filters or other restrictive measures are enforced, teachers and administrators must contend with the effects that Internet filtering or blocking has upon their use of the Internet. Whether or not students, teachers, or administrators should have full Internet access in a school is debatable. Rather than allowing students, teachers, and administrators full Internet access, some schools monitor accessed web content, controlling how and when teachers and students can access sites based on a formalized lesson plan that must accompany the request to access the Internet. This control works contrary to research about how students learn. Shofield and Davidson (2002) suggest that student learning is enhanced when students are allowed to try out their own procedures for solving problems, to pursue their personal interests, to contribute to the assessment of their own work, and to help plan classroom activities. It is not surprising that they also found educators frequently implemented policies and practices specifically designed to direct and control students’ behavior online.
Mehlinger (1996) contends that technology has been an important part of our schooling in America. Initially, technology was slow and relatively non-threatening. When viewed from this simplistic standpoint it is easy to see how the Internet now is met with resistance, when with one click, today’s students can obtain questionable information such as how to build a bomb. This instantaneous, limitless access has prompted the Internet filtering debate across a variety of fields.

In the health industry, some believe that filtering significantly hampers the quality and quantity of online health information. In a study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation (2003), researchers examined six filters that are used mostly by schools and libraries. They found that filters can effectively block pornography without significantly impeding access to online health information, but only if they are not set at the most restrictive levels. The study showed that when filters were set at lower levels of restricted access, user activity remained unchanged. While no substantial increase in accessing pornography websites was indicated, access to health care information was greatly impeded.

The Internet is a valid tool for research, communication, and education. Educators want an effective way to use it while ensuring a safe environment for students. Since 1994, according to Mehlinger (1996), computer usage in school has grown steadily from fewer than 50,000 computers in 1983 to nearly 5.5 million in 1994. Since then, computer access to the Internet has also grown in public schools. The National Center for Education Statistics (2002) reported Internet access in schools had grown to nearly 99% of all public schools. Also, access to the Internet had expanded in instructional rooms,1-3% in 1994 to 77% in 2000 and 87% in 2001. When data was first collected in 1994, only 35% of public schools had Internet access.

With a computer and access to a server at an Internet node, anyone can distribute any information on the Web, regardless of the validity of the information (Shiveley and VanFossen 1999). Shiveley and VanFossen (1999) researched critical thinking and the Internet, and suggested questions that students should consider before using information on the Internet, such as: (1) Who is providing the information, (2) What is the author’s authority to write on this topic, and (3) Does the author provide detailed background information that supports his or her authority?

Teachers commonly expressed concern about the possible negative consequences of student autonomy on the Internet, and implemented procedures designed to control and circumscribe students' online activities (Schofield and Davidson, 2003). Schofield and Davidson found that teachers were in agreement that they did not want students to access sexual content from school, nor did they want them to use the Internet as a recreational vehicle, to engage in chat rooms, or to e-mail friends. They also found that high school students engaged in this behavior more frequently than other students. They questioned 42 high school students who used the Internet for academic activities about whether they drifted off task and to what extent this occurred while working online during classroom time. Over half, 27, (64%) admitted that they had drifted off task.

According to a report released by the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) (August, 2003), a “one size fits all” mentality is not the solution. While the educational community has had success with technology measures, it also recognizes that comprehensive child protection solutions do not rest solely with technology. This report emphasized a customized approach where teachers and educational institutions combine technology protection measures along with other strategies and tools to afford better Internet protection for children.

A growing number of people including children now rely on the Internet. By the fall of 2001, 99%of the public schools in the United States had access to the Internet, and public schools had expanded Internet access into 87% of instructional rooms (The National Center for Education Statistics, 2002).

Those who argue for less control and those who seek full control acknowledge that controls are necessary, but disagree about the form. However, children are at potentially greater risk with access to the Internet when they can roam freely without control mechanisms. The Commission on Online Child Protection Act (2000) established that the Internet potentially exposed children to indecent material, pornography, hate sites, violent sites, and online predators. However, Schofield and Davidson (2002) found that Internet usage produced independent feelings in students as they engaged in interactive learning. Teacher assessments described students as functioning in an independent and self-directed manner using the Internet, even with the adoption of surveillance strategies such as placing Internet connected computers so that screens were readily visible.

The public school system studied in this project modified its Internet policy and service in computer labs. In December 2004, the school system blocked Internet access to all computer labs in all its high schools. Later, it restricted access system-wide. Afterwards, Internet service was turned back on for students to access specific sites. This study sought to define the perceptions and beliefs about the revised Internet policy and its effects in a middle school and high school setting.

 



 

 

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Meridian: A Middle School Computer Technologies Journal
a service of NC State University, Raleigh, NC
Volume 8, Issue 1, Winter 2005
ISSN 1097 9778
URL: http://www.ncsu.edu/meridian/win2005/internet_filtering/index.html
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