The teachers at the professional development session were visibly frustrated; I could hear the irritation in their comments. The presentation on the use of digital technology was to help them improve digital literacy across the content areas, but many of the sites in the demonstration were blocked by the school's Internet filter. I sympathized with their frustration because just three years ago, I was like them. Three years ago, our school's Internet filter blocked everything.
Back then, members of my English department were finding excellent resources to use to teach the novels All Quiet on the Western Front, The Crucible, and the memoir Night. Unfortunately, many of these resources were unavailable because they were on YouTube or had descriptors such as "witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts" or "Nazi" that were blocked by our filters. The filters were useless to a large degree since many of the students knew a variety of different strategies to get around each filter. So, the irony was that the students had access where the teachers did not.
Furthermore, the students were having a rich and very authentic experience of using the Internet outside of school. Once they came into our building, however, they were detached from the very technology that they would need to use in their future. Our school web filters created an "un-authentic" web experience for our students. We were losing the opportunity to teach them digital citizenship because they were not digital citizens.
Fortunately, our administration took the position that teaching our students 21st Century skills meant that they should have access to the Internet in a technology rich learning experience. The filters were minimized. Our acceptable use policy was enforced, and teachers and students had access to the Internet resources.
We moved from exclusively computer lab use to 1:1 netbooks in English/Social Studies to a "Bring Your Own Digital Device" (BYOD) over the course of the next two years, and now, two years later, I can testify that unblocking the Internet has not created a problem for teachers or students. Yes, the students can watch YouTube videos, but they also make videos and share them with other students. They make videos for our "Friendship and Respect" Assemblies and share these on YouTube; they watch Oscar winning films for Film and Literature Class that are on YouTube; they embed YouTube videos into their blogs.
Furthermore, our students have access to the Internet to meet the state adopted Common Core Literacy Standard:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.6 Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.
Of course, our students are not perfect, and their behaviors using the Internet at school are not always tied to curriculum. I once came upon a group of young men huddled around a computer screen one morning. They were watching a video, and as I grew closer, I could hear a voice say, "She's a beauty..." and another agree, "Oh, I want her!" I feared the worst, but when I came up behind them to see what was on the screen, I got a eyeful of a 2006 Ford F250 XLT Powerstroke Turbo Diesel Pick Up Truck. Curriculum? No. Authentic experience? Yes.
The frustrated teachers who were sitting in the professional development asked what steps they could take to have their administrators review acceptable use policies and open the Internet filters for their students. They discussed looking at other school districts' acceptable use policies. Perhaps there might be some testimony about the success of unlocking an Internet filter?
This post is one such testimony, and I offer this to any teacher that is looking to "unblock" the Internet in order to engage students in developing 21st Century skills. We are already in the second decade of this 21st Century, and the skills necessary to use the Internet are becoming more valuable in this Information Age. According to the 2012 data, using the Internet is a real world experience for 2,405,518,376 people. That is 1/3 of the world's population, and there has already been a 566% increase in use since the beginning of the new millenium.
Our students are counted in those numbers already. They are already familiar with global connecting platforms. While they use the Internet outside of school for social media; they should be taught to use the Internet for education and productivity in school. So once they have access to YouTube, they can never go back...they will only go forward.