As schools around the country have rolled out one-to-one computer initiatives, handing out tablets and laptops to their students, a sour note has often intruded on the triumphant fanfare heralding these programs. Within days, even hours, of the devices’ distribution, their young users have figured out how to circumvent the filters meant to block access to games, social networking, and other noneducational activities (not to mention offensive or inappropriate content).
In Greenwood, Indiana, hundreds of students managed to reprogram their school-issued tablets on the same day they received them. In Los Angeles, where the school district has begun giving out a planned 600,000 iPads, entrepreneurial students sold a workaround to classmates for $2 a pop. And in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, a middle school pupil had a ready answer when his father, Thom McKay, asked him how he got on Facebook even though his school had banned it. “Pretty easy, Dad,” his son replied, as quoted in the New York Times. “Don't be an idiot. We know more about computers than the teachers do.”
Even as students are reveling in their abilities to evade their schools’ Internet blocks, teachers are growing frustrated that they can’t get around those same firewalls (perhaps confirming the middle schooler’s acerbic observation). Educators’ online forums and Twitter accounts are filled with complaints that inflexible filters prevent them from using computers in creative and innovative ways in their classrooms. YouTube videos of famous speeches, Skype conversations with experts outside the school, collaborative tools that would allow students to annotate a shared text: access to such resources is cut off, teachers lament, by heavy-handed Internet controls.
School librarians, too, have joined the fray, mounting a moral crusade against the filters. The American Association of School Librarians has named an annual Banned Websites Awareness Day, drawing an explicit comparison between blocked websites and that righteous cause of freethinkers, censored books.
Since students are sidestepping them, teachers are feeling thwarted by them, and librarians are decrying their “overly restrictive filtering,” shouldn’t we consider knocking down school firewalls altogether?
It’s a question that applies to most American schools; 98 percent filter the online content available to students, according to a national longitudinal survey conducted by the AASL. The Children’s Internet Protection Act, a law passed by Congress in 2000, requires public schools that receive broadband access at a federally discounted rate (that’s almost all of them) to protect young people from online content that is obscene or otherwise “harmful to minors.” Nervous school administrators have additional reasons to install the filters: worries about cyberbullying, security breaches, illegal file sharing, scammers, and spammers.
The survey by the school librarians’ association, however, points to a less lurid reason to restrict students’ access to the Web: According to the AASL, schools’ top three filtered content areas are social networking sites, instant messaging and online chatting, and games. Such activities aren’t (necessarily) inappropriate or illegal, but they are big honking distractions, and if we want our young people to learn anything during the school day, they must be kept away from these sites.
A growing body of evidence from cognitive science and psychology shows that the divided attention typical of people engaging in “media multitasking”—the attempt to pay attention to two or more streams of information at once—produces shallower, less permanent learning. And let’s not kid ourselves: When students are free to roam the Internet in class or in study periods, divided attention is the result.