Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Banned Websites are Today's Version of Yesterday's Banned Books

Kate Olson has on her website, katesays.org, the results of a survey she conducted about websites banned by schools. The fact that Myspace and similar sites appeared on the list did not surprise me at all. Some of the sites on the list like Wikipedia and Google Docs I had previously heard of being blocked, nonetheless I'm still amazed that schools insist on blocking those sites. The sites that really surprised me were Edu Blogs, Word Press, Ustream, PB Wiki, Blogger, and most surprising one person said that their school doesn't even allow opening email attachments. What was equally surprising in Kate's survey was the lack of explanation given by administration for blocking websites.

Schools blocking websites is much like banning books. Every year my school library has a "banned book week" display. In the display the librarian includes books that in the past have been banned by schools, but are now common place in education. Books like Of Mice and Men, 1984, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, once were banned (in some cases still are) but in hindsight schools have allowed the teaching of these books. Hopefully, the same will be said in the future about websites that are banned today.

The number of blogging and wiki applications reported as blocked on Kate Olson's survey results was surprising and disappointing. Blogs and wikis have many genuine purposes in education. Both can be used for keeping parents and students informed of what is going on in your class. Blogs and wikis can be used by students to participate in conversations related to class away from the classroom. Blogs and wikis give a voice to students that are reluctant to speak in the classroom. Adding a file upload widget to a blog provide students with an avenue other than email for submitting work electronically.

Fortunately, my school district does not block too many applications at the high school level and usually unblocks items that are blocked if a teacher puts in a request. I'm curious to know what those of you in more restrictive environments do to get sites unblocked. Is your school district willing to unblock websites at a teacher's request? Does your school district respond quickly to requests? Who makes the decisions about blocking or unblocking websites in your school district?

Here are two great videos every administrator should watch before deciding to block a website.