I was sitting at a table at the FETC conference last week, taking a break between sessions, when I overheard a phone conversation between a teacher and a school colleague.
“Can you access Padlet from a school computer?”
“No? OK, can you access fur.ly?”
“No? OK, at this point I am going to assume everything on this list is blocked.”
Sadly, this is a conversation I hear at every education technology conference I attend. The teachers emerge from a conference session, energized about new tools they have learned about that can enhance instruction, only to discover that aggressive Internet filters block access to these tools.
I asked the teacher whether there was a mechanism in place for teachers to request that a site be unblocked.
“Yes, we can make the request,” she said, but added that her district’s technology policy was “extremely conservative” and often would not unblock requested sites. “I asked to have Glogster unblocked after FETC last year, but they wouldn’t do it.”
I thought back to my own school, which has an educational site license for Glogster, and the amazing projects I have seen students create. As a school technology director, I was frustrated on her behalf.
In many districts, decisions about blocking and filtering online content are made without sitting down with educators to learn about their educational needs. Some technology directors take a reactive, knee jerk approach to blocking and filtering, basing their decisions on overly conservative and often inaccurate interpretations of the Children’s Internet Protection Act, without any consideration for the educational potential of various web tools. Instead of supporting and encouraging innovative teaching and learning, some technology directors discourage it.
Blocking and filtering decisions should never be made by IT professionals in a vacuum, especially by those without actual teaching experience. In fact, the primary decision makers should be educators, with input from IT. Our Web filter blocks a lot of educationally valuable tools by default, but without a compelling reason, I will unblock almost every site that teachers request. They are the ones best positioned to determine what tools they need to do their job, and it is my job to provide access to those tools.
I can’t say yes to every request. Sometimes, a potentially valuable site has to remain blocked because it contains spyware. Sometimes, bandwidth considerations play a role, which is why we block certain streaming media sites that are not being used for educational purposes (but yes, our teachers can and do access YouTube.) Sometimes, I will consult with school administrators before allowing access to a site. However, nine times out of 10 I will unblock a site as quickly as possible so as to minimize the impact on instruction. If I can’t unblock it, I clearly communicate the reason why.
As a technology director, my job is not just to keep the servers up and the network running. My job is to support and enhance technology’s potential for teaching and learning. My job is to lay the groundwork for innovation and excellence in education. If I am not taking instructional needs into account when I make decisions that impact teachers and students, I am not doing my job.
When I hear teachers say that their school district blocks a tool like Edmodo because it is a “social media site,” that tells me that their school’s IT staff may not be keeping up best practices in educational technology. It’s far easier to blame a decision on CIPA than it is to understand the educational value of these tools.
It’s a long shot, but I look forward to the day when I attend an educational technology conference, and I overhear a different conversation taking place.
“Can you access Padlet from a school computer? Great! I can’t WAIT to start using it with my students!”
Susan M. Bearden serves as the director of information technology for Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy in Melbourne, Fla. A frequent conference presenter, Bearden co-founded and moderates the #edtechchat and #digcit (Digital Citizenship) Twitter chats and participates regularly in the weekly EdTechChat Radio podcast for the BAM Radio Network. Connect with her on Twitter as @s_bearden or at www.susanmbearden.com.