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Monday, July 25, 2011

Web restrictions draw ire of some educators

USA Today
by Greg Toppo
July 25, 2011

Book banning has long been a controversial issue in the nation's schools. Now some educators say banned websites pose as great a threat to kids' education and intellectual freedom.

Filtering software and school rules designed to keep out violence and pornography are also blocking key educational and otherwise useful sites, teachers say, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube — not to mention Google and National Geographic.

Web restrictions draw ire of some educators.

The Pinellas County (Fla.) School Board in June voted unanimously to block teachers from communicating with students via Facebook or Twitter, even about school-related matters. The school board said it hopes to prevent the appearance of inappropriate contact between students and teachers via social media.

This fall, a handful of schools and libraries across the USA plan to celebrate Banned Sites Day to draw attention to the issue, according to New Canaan (Conn.) High School librarian Michelle Luhtala. The day was her idea. She says the same issues of censorship, fear and free speech that make banned books resonate also apply to social-networking sites that most public schools block.

"Teaching with social media shows students how to responsibly use those platforms," Luhtala says. "Blocking access in schools denies kids the chance to practice sharing their knowledge with the real world in a supervised setting."

Many schools use "brute force" tools that block good educational sites, says Karen Cator, the U.S. Department of Education's director of educational technology. Cator says she has urged schools to use more sophisticated, updated software and to educate themselves on the actual filtering rules, which are less restrictive than many educators believe.

"The Internet is not going away," she says.

Along with social networking, many schools block teachers' personal e-mail and seemingly harmless sites. In a survey for the education website MindShift, Editor Tina Barseghian found that teachers at some schools couldn't access National Geographic or Flickr, as well as the video- conferencing site Skype.