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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 non-educational activities (not to mention offensive or inappropriate content).

In Greenwood, Ind., 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 i-Pads, entrepreneurial students sold a workaround to classmates for $2 a pop. And in Cherry Hill, N.J., 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 ability 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 (AASL) 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 feel 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, 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 cyber-bullying, 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.

Is it possible to use Facebook and Twitter in educationally appropriate ways? Sure—but as technology and education specialist Michael Trucano points out, tech enthusiasts often focus on what’s possible to the exclusion of what’s predictable and what’s practical. What is predictable is that young people, given the chance, will use the web for social and entertainment purposes; what’s practical is to remove that temptation during the school day. Even successful professional adults often need to tie themselves to the mast to get hard work done in the face of the Internet’s endless enticements: novelists like Dave Eggers and Zadie Smith have said publicly that they use software that restricts their access to the web while they’re writing.

Proponents of loosening school Internet filters often insist that educators have to “meet students where they are” — that is, in a world utterly saturated by technology. Actually, that saturation is an argument in favor of tightening students’ access to tech, of supplying in their formal education what they are not getting in their digitally dominated “informal education.”

As UCLA professor Patricia Greenfield has written, “The informal learning environments of television, video games, and the Internet are producing learners with a new profile of cognitive skills. This profile features widespread and sophisticated development of visual-spatial skills, such as iconic representation and spatial visualization.” (By “iconic representation,” she means the ability to understand the symbolic meaning of pictorial images like the icons that dot our computer screens.)

Greenfield continues: “Formal education must adapt to these changes, taking advantage of new strengths in visual-spatial intelligence and compensating for new weaknesses in higher-order cognitive processes: abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination.” We need, says Greenfield, to help students “develop a complete profile of cognitive skills”—and doing so requires time away from screens.

Critics of school firewalls also claim that they create a contrived and artificial environment, ill suited to preparing students for the “real world” beyond such barriers. But, of course, the purpose of school is to be just such a protected place, set off from the rest of society. We create special physical spaces and staff them with special people—teachers—in order to train young people to handle the untrammeled “real world” in a thoughtful way.

We also employ teachers to guide students’ attention to what is important, which is why the school librarians’ likening of blocked websites to banned books is in most cases absurd. A blocked social-networking site is less like a censored text and more like a teacher who tells students to stop passing notes and focus on their work. When Internet-connected computers are passed out, educators must continue—indeed, redouble—such efforts to direct students’ attention in fruitful, productive ways. This crucial responsibility should not be handed over to IT staff or school district lawyers—or worse, to software manufacturers who’ve never met a school’s faculty or students.

Internet filters are one conduit, albeit an imperfect one, through which educators convey their sense of what is meaningful and valuable to know. They represent a series of judgments and decisions, which ought to be made (though often are not) in a communal fashion. Teachers and administrators together should give careful thought to what is let inside the school walls and what is kept out, to what they view as enlightening and what they deem ephemeral. These choices should be integrated into a curriculum that instructs students on how to engage safely and effectively with the Internet, on how “to use the filters sitting on their shoulders,” as web expert Nancy Willard puts it. And, finally, schools’ web controls must be at least as smart as the most mischievous members of the student body—so that educators’ considered choices aren’t undone in a moment by ingenious but still-undeveloped kids.

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Annie Murphy Paul

Annie Murphy Paul is an acclaimed science writer; the author of two previous books, The Cult of Personality and Origins; and the creator of the popular Brilliant Blog. A contributing writer at Time magazine,...

Letters to the Editor

99 Letters

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  1. Schools should let every student play video games because it is fun but not just because of that but it helps students be entertained to have a great time to have the joy to be happy and communicate with other people it’s all about confidence so everyone can play to be happy to let everyone play what they want we all do hard work us people need to be rewarded so if there’s anything you could do unblock every game.🤔

  2. Some of you don’t have yt? I feel so bad, bro. My school hasn’t blocked yt because sometimes we use yt videos for learning stuff. I do have a game you might be able to play though. Doodle Champion Island Games. It si a Google game and it will last you a while. Until you get bored of it, that is.

  3. Oh my gosh, they blocked grammarly on school computers, it is harmless. WHat can it do to a student? Nothing. It is literally a writing assistant that helps you write better.

  4. tenth grader here. they blocked half the websites i can use to find information for articles.
    say i’m absent in class and they didn’t give me any notes. i look up “how to write a conclusion paragraph” and the first three websites i find are blocked. grammarly is blocked. half my music which i need to be able to focus is blocked – even music with no swears! i’m so confused with the filters. at least have some logic. cigarette duet isn’t blocked, but how to save a life is.

  5. why do schools hyperbolize thier categoritation of blokked websites shuch as saying that yandex games is porn

  6. bruh, i’m 18 years old, currently on a school chromebook. literally 99% of anything not school related but not inappropriate, like coolmathgames is blocked. all music websites, all game websites, youtube, websites with help related to console games, pretty much anything not verified is blocked by admin at my school.

  7. this is dumb like whats the point of computerlab we litaraly cant play any thing but prodigy it gets boring and barely intertaining tbh they probabiliy dont care why would they block helpfull stuff too srs its annoing fr

  8. They blocked mental health resources at my school. Also picrew, also youtube also google sites. My teachers give me assignments to watch a youtube video and I can’t complete them. They also blocked most LGBTQ resources and even some religious resources. I understand blocking certain things, but schools take it too far. I’m in the 9th grade btw.

  9. Bro they literally blocked slither.io, like it’s so harmless, not only that but at my school you’re only on your computer in your FREE TIME

    -6th Grader

  10. they block everything involving something other than outdated websites. according to the school “its for my own safety” that is a lie. what? is yandex.games like a damn porn website or something??? they block it. anything to exist. BLOCKED. they have it too restricted. the blocker is supposed to help. not stress kids out. also along with the spyware installed on to the school computers.

  11. why do these teachers and administrators block everything to get on they are probably so stupid they would block google classroom

  12. Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), is the most annoying brian dead group that filled unaware 60 year old hags that I’ve ever experienced. Like holy crap man, they spend so much time and money blocking websites we use for entertainment and what-not when they could be paying for our education system. Why do you want us to suffer even more when we get crappy food, crappy teachers, and on top of that, COVID.

    In Maryland (where I’m at), they’ve blocked grammarly, quora, extensions, and most stock image pages just because they felt like it. Imagine having to a slides project and they’ve blocked all the transparent stock images that you need, obviously you can download it but sadly some websites want you to visit the said site so you can get the transparent version…hmm maybe this is just the stock pages being scummy… but still, my point stands.

  13. my school blocked brainly, wiki, and a bunch of websites that i get info from, i get most of my questions wrong on edg because of this.

    its highly agitating.

  14. oh now they blocked spotify on the computer, little do they know i have a phone with a vpn

  15. they blocked messcraft and theres nothing wrong with it like i finish all my work to get on in it and they block it uuugh they are so annoying

  16. Some of my best middle/high school experiences were when my teacher would allow us to have a 5-minute break and the whole class played online games together. At my new school, everything is blocked. Obviously teachers cannot constantly monitor every student’s online activity while in the room, but I think with a qualified teacher in the room, having limited website blocking is OK! If a student is distracted with their device, the teacher can ask them to close it. Works every time! The whole concept of shutting off games/entertainment/websites unrelated to school (from my biased student perspective) is that it does not allow students to SELF-REGULATE. High school students surely are able to control themselves and choose when to focus. Therefore I think the website blocks are (most of the time) unnecessary when it comes to older students who can take care of themselves and be more independent.

  17. It blocks everything and slows down the computer because it detects if it has something bad every frame. If you’re telling me to get an extension to unblock it, they also blocked the web store, and if I try go pull out my phone, they will get mad for obvious reasons. It even blocks educational resources and even the web archive.

  18. I’m bored, lets play some Slither.io- BLOCKED. Okay, lets search unblocked- BLOCKED. Hm, maybe a SM64 emulator online will work?.. Oh, it’s actually porn. That’s not blocked. Like, this is stupid. I can literally watch porn, but I can’t just play some Slither.io?! Bruh! Why are people so dumb?!

  19. There is a link that gives you access to all the websites there is to exist, like you can even go on Instagram or Tik Tok with it. It’s called “imagineblocking.herokuapp.com” but my school finally found a way to block it and a lot of people stopped going there lol.

  20. bruh my school sucks they block anything and everything they blocked prodigy, Grammarly, screenrant, CBR, extensions, zoom, and even yahoo.com, bing, and discord (yes the school even had an update event thing on discord) whats next like gmail oh wait that’s blocked to

  21. I find it incredulous that schools will literally block certain websites. I saw one letter where their school blocked google. How incredibly ridiculous is that? The website that could potentially save someone’s life if they need to know cpr? Seriously? Nonetheless, I could see how schools would tend to block games and the like. But it’s all truly controversy, and people could argue for days about this topic and still never find a common conclusion. Signing off, E

  22. Schools are not “Preparing students for the future.” We are smarter than the teachers. My school uses GoGuardian. A Chrome add-on that gets into your OS also. It’s not helping us learn, it’s making everything worse. They recently blocked Replit, and that is a website I do a LOT of coding on. Luckily, I have a PC of my own (Windows 10). Schools need to remove all of their Spyware. (Yes, GoGuardian is also counted as Spyware.)

  23. I mean, I understand the blocked gaming and explicit websites but it simply doesn’t make sense how hard they’re trying to block them. No matter what schools’ do, it is impossible for them to block everything. yet they keep trying. Also, the “distraction in class” argument is only partly true. Things like Go-Guardian allow teachers to see and stop what students are doing, so students can’t exactly play games during class without permission. Also, some schools block google are you kidding me? What is even the point of the Chromebook then? Unless they only unblock certain sites, like with a whitelist, they still remove the search, which is one of the most useful things students have access for. I feel like “E” did a far better job than anything I could write, and writing stuff here is essentially pointless. But it is just the dumbest thing how schools’ try and fail to block sites. It will never work. Even if they had magically perfect fire walls, students can still just screw around with the hardware. I could install a Retropie onto this chromebook if I wanted to. It’s just so pointless.

    Cheers, Noah.

  24. Oh and to the person who said Roblox is harmless, I’ve seen literal porn on there lol.

  25. same, on June 22 wiki wasn’t blocked, and nor were some youtube videos, ThEN next day wiki BLOCKED some, not inappropriate youtube videos BLOCKED. Roblox BLOCKED. Some not inappropriate pictures on google BLOCKED! But Amazon is not blocked. Target is not blocked. Like Amazon and Target are shopping websites! So you want us to shop and order stuff but not play games! MAKE UP YOUR MIND!!!!!!

  26. Personally, I’ve always been a big fan of computer science, and my school has managed to hamper that too (even during the summertime). My Mac has come across dozens of issues which all lead up to the requirement of admin rights. Certain applications will bounce up and down for a minute before refusing to open, which is usually due to my computer requiring an update–the option for which has been blocked. Disk image files can’t be used at all and certain language compilers and code editors are put under lock and key for no reason (the Groovy compiler works, but the Haskell compiler doesn’t–and people don’t even use Haskell!)

    Instead, the school recommends a crummy IDE known as CodeHS, armed with several issues:
    – Extremely sluggish (Python runs like as–phault)
    – Dev tools are blocked, so error handling in Javascript is a pain
    – Very few supported languages, some of which have nothing dedicated to graphical interfaces and are simply comprised of the terminal itself; the languages that do have a graphical interface have a separate IDE dedicated for it; you could be midway through a GUI program or game and find that you are using the wrong IDE!
    – NodeJS is broken
    – JSON is broken
    – The “import” declaration is broken
    – There is no File System
    – The website is aimed for kids, and I feel like I’m being looked down upon

  27. Social media platforms? I get it. Youtube videos? I get it. Why the code editors? Why the .dmg files? Why are the apps on my computer in the first place if I am just going to be greeted with the disappointment and anger of finding out that my school is at it again?

    They might as well block nothing or bar everything! They might as well block me from turning on the computer for all I care!

  28. My school literally blocked gmail.
    They also blocked logging out and creating accounts.

  29. My school literally blocked gmail.
    They also blocked logging out and creating accounts.
    and because they issued a chromebook and they’re way too power hungry, THEY LITERALLY BLOCKED CHANGING THE BACKGROUND OF THE HOMESCREEN AND IT’S SOME STUPID SCHOOL LOGO AND IT’S UGLY.

  30. and a follow up on what i originally said, both twitter and discord is unblocked, yet they blocked newgrounds.

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