NCTE, along with ALA and AASL, are intellectual freedom advocates. In honor of Banned Websites Awareness Day, here is a post from Doug Johnson, on the filtering of educational websites in schools.
High school student Rachel is increasingly concerned over racial issues in her community and plans to write her senior thesis on this topic. There is an active “Black Lives Matter” movement organization in her community that uses Facebook to communicate. Her school blocks Facebook and she does not have Internet access at home.
Middle-schooler Diego and his friends are having a great time using the iPad to create and edit videos. They think their last production about school bullying would be helpful to other students, but their school blocks YouTube. Diego shares the computer and dial-up Internet connection in his home with both his parents and two siblings.
Fifth-grade teacher Ms. Dickens uses GoogleDocs in her class to facilitate peer-editing online, so she was pleased to learn about a program that would allow students from families with low incomes to check out computers and wifi “hot spots” for use at home. But she was told that GoogleApps was blocked by the hotspot’s filter.
Scholar Henry Jenkins has long expressed a concern that students who do not master collaboration-enabling technologies will not be able to fully engage in modern cultural and political life. About “participatory culture”, he writes:
“Our goals should be to encourage youth to develop the skills, knowledge, ethical frameworks, and self-confidence needed to be full participants in contemporary culture. … A growing body of scholarship suggests potential benefits of these forms of participatory culture, including opportunities for peer-to-peer learning, a changed attitude toward intellectual property, the diversification of cultural expression, the development of skills valued in the modern workplace, and a more empowered conception of citizenship.”1
Or as is more commonly expressed in political circles, if you aren’t at the table you’re probably on the menu. People who are not able to be at the digital table where discussions are held and opinions are influenced are very likely not to have their interests factored into big decisions.
Yet many schools make great efforts to keep students (and staff) from using social networking tools that enable sharing ideas online. These schools consider blocking blogs, wikis, social networking venues, collaborative-editing tools, and photo/video sharing tools necessary if children are to be “protected.” Many educators view social networking sites as frivolous distractions that prevent students from paying attention in class or focusing on other school work.
Much of the intellectual freedom work on which ALA and other well-meaning organizations have focused has been about the censorship of professionally written materials. As I opined in 2013:
“My concern is that in our professional efforts to prevent censorship, we are focusing so completely on assuring access to the ideas of others that we neglect the other side of intellectual freedom: the right for all to express their own ideas, information, and art.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. Intellectual freedom includes having the right to create and disseminate information and opinions as well as having the right to access the intellectual products of others.”2
I called this “the neglected side of intellectual freedom” and this neglect becomes especially egregious when looking at education through the lens of cultural proficiency and equity.
In families that can afford technology and Internet access in their homes, evenings, weekends, summer breaks, and holidays are times students can practice social networking skills and engage fully in our participatory culture. Yet not every student, especially those who come from economically disadvantaged homes, has the opportunity outside of school to use social media.
Schools have begun to address the need for all students to not just have a device that can be used to access school resources, but the need for all students to have Internet connectivity outside of regular school hours as well.3 By providing wifi hotspots for checkout, by opening computer labs before and after schools, and by working with other community organizations such as the public libraries and community centers, some schools are making real attempts to bridge the online learning opportunity gap among students.
But in these efforts, are schools providing not just access to educational resources such as learning management systems, e-books, digital textbooks, and online reference materials – materials written by others – but are they also providing the means for all children to express opinions, engage in social dialogue, and work collaboratively with their peers?
This is the intellectual freedom issue of today.
1Jenkins, Henry. “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture” MacArthur Foundation, 2006
2Johnson, Doug. “The Neglected Side of Intellectual Freedom” LMC, March/April 2013
3 Johnson, Doug. “Helping to Close the Digital Divide” Educational Leadership, February 2015.
Doug Johnson is the Director of Technology for the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage (MN) Public Schools. His teaching experience has included work in grades K-12. He is the author of nine books, columns in Educational Leadership and Library Media Connection, the Blue Skunk Blog, and articles published in over forty books and periodicals. Doug has worked with over 200 organizations around the world and has held leadership positions in state and national organizations, including ISTE and AASL. You can reach Doug at firstname.lastname@example.org