Big Brother in our Schools

Courtesy of Nighted, Deviant Art
Courtesy of Nighted, Deviant Art

Did you know that all schools providing registered childcare in the UK use a Canadian-made Internet filtering system to deter children from becoming terrorists?

Good grief. Kindergarteners are plotting terrorist activities? How they fit all that in between fingerpainting, learning to count to 100, and taking naps, I’ll never know.  Sound a little extreme to be true? Check the news release on Waterloo-based Netsweeper’s own website. Thank goodness we haven’t gone over the edge of paranoia in our schools here in Canada.

According to the Cambridge Times, that same company, Netsweeper has offered “free” internet filtering to the Waterloo Region District School Board on a trial basis. This comes on the heels of a request by school trustees including Cindy Watson, Natalie Waddell, and Kathi Smith to hire “experts” in Internet filtering after one Cambridge couple complained their child had seen pornographic content at school. While I sympathize with the parents, I believe we may be treading in dangerous waters here.

Netsweeper is the same company Toronto’s CitizenLab discovered in 2011 to be blocking sites in Pakistan. Waterloo-based Netsweeper was hired by the Pakistani government  in an effort to block any sites that would seem blasphemous to a muslim-majority, as well as those featuring political discourse, and the news outlet CNN.

Normalizing surveillance in society leads to the eventual acceptance of blocking freedom of information and freedom of speech. That’s a direct hit to democracy.  Am I over-reacting? Well, that’s why I started this post with the story about the terrorist plotting kindergarten kids in the UK! You see, this is how it all starts. Yes, filtering pornographic and racist material makes sense. Of course we want to protect our children. But, we need to consider how best to do that while being cognizant of the short and long-term effects and trade-offs.

There’s always a cost involved when hiring “Internet filtering experts”. Besides the high potential for computer algorithms to inadvertently block perfectly innocuous material and affect access and freedom of information, companies never give anything away for free. We need to consider our children’s privacy as many of these companies are in the business of data mining, especially if offering free services.

So, what’s the practical way to deal with censorship and surveillance for the sake of our children? With 571 websites created every single minute on the Internet, harmful sites are bound to slip through the best content filtering algorithms. That’s why WRDSB teachers use a user-based monitoring system called School Connect where they are able to monitor students’ screens in their classroom. There’s nothing better than this. Teachers act not just as filters intercepting inappropriate content, but as guides and educators, they are able to interject and have a discussion with students about content. This is what we call “education” and “media literacy”.

Is it any wonder the Board has delayed its decision on stricter Internet filters? They’ve got a lot to ponder.


7 thoughts on “Big Brother in our Schools”

  1. Great article.

    You got me thinking about normalization of surveillance in today’s society. You mentioned, at Board meetings parents are asking for censorship in an effort to protect young children. Are these the same parents who are indoctrinating children into the Surveillance State through the use of “Elf on a Shelf”? Very Orwellian.

    1. They could very well be.
      I think we’re pretty lucky to be slightly behind in implementing such policies. It makes it easier to see potential areas of friction, giving us more time to respond. We just have to keep our eyes and ears open.

      Thanks for your comment Carlo.

  2. We live in a reactionary climate, so sadly nothing surprises me anymore. Our most common reaction to anything that scares us, provokes or makes us uncomfortable is to stamp it out, lock it down or monitor (control) the hell out of it.

    I like the approach you advocate. Of course, be cognizant of the “dangers” out there but let’s take a step back and a deep breath. There is a lot we can do, and already do to empower teachers, parents and students by helping them become media literate without reverting to Orwellian tactics (thanks, Carlo).

    That being said, you do have me thinking about how often I inadvertently support those very same tactics. Hmm…

    1. Thanks for commenting Elaine. I agree we’ve become more reactionary. I also have to say that I’ve only ever had to use School Connect to redirect students away from games and stay on task. If anyone has landed on an inappropriate site, they’ve never reported it to me. I have had students go off task by reading news stories and blogs about world events, but that’s allowed us to have a discussion about it. Those are teachable moments.

  3. Your argument is a good one. School Connect works pretty well as a monitoring device.

    Just a thought: What happens when everyone is using chromebooks? School connect won’t apply then. Is there anything else in the works, I wonder.

    1. Sue, I wonder about that as well. When Chromebooks show up in increased numbers next year in our high schools, it will be more difficult to monitor students’ screens from a central location at the teacher’s computer. Teachers will have to circulate more often. That may actually be a good thing as teachers will have more opportunity when they’re up and about to respond and guide discussion about what a particular group of students happen to be seeing. I’m going to fall on the positive side of this one and believe that it will bring about more opportunities for discourse and media literacy.

      1. In the elementary panel, we have been using School Connect less and less with the shift to mobile technology (Chromebooks and iPads). As our schools continue to dismantle their computer labs and go with devices, this will certainly present us with more challenges but definitely more opportunities to have those valuable discussions and teachable moments.

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