Tech Leadership

Kids as Your District’s Content Filter?


Internet safety for students has been a critical policy question for technology since passage of the Children’s Internet Protection Act in 2000. Districts that accept e-Rate funds from the federal government are required to use filtering technologies to limit exposure to pornography and explicit online content.

In recent years, the federal act has been used to justify blocking many Web 2.0 collaborative tools, such as social networking, blogging, wikis and collaborative online games.

Keith KruegerKeith R. Krueger

Some school districts are rethinking their reliance on filters to ensure Internet safety and are focusing on preparing students to be their own filter.

School districts can provide filtering and at the same time provide access to Web 2.0 tools because the definition of “inappropriate matter” in K-12 schools under the protection act is determined by the local educational agency.

One place this is happening is the 23,000-student Birdville Independent School District, near Fort Worth.

Opening Access
Birdville’s superintendent, Stephen Waddell, bases the open-access philosophy on the need to prepare students “to be successful in an age they live in. Kids today want to learn in a social context and be treated in a respectful way as an equal.” That meant Birdville had to rethink what the district allowed on its network.

The rationale for allowing applications like Facebook and YouTube is based on the belief we should make kids active participants in their learning. The Birdville district’s vision statement is: “All students succeed in a future they create.”

According to Waddell, this approach was based on a careful understanding of the research on learning. Students’ ability to share work and collaborate with a global audience is a strong motivating force and improves the learning environment. When asked about writing for a blog, for example, one Birdville student said, “I have to make it perfect because the whole world can read it!”

Even though Birdville’s community is conservative on most issues, it agrees with this approach. The district focused the conversation on preparing students for the future and the educational value of these new collaborative technologies. Facebook and YouTube are used to communicate with parents and community. Most of Birdville’s 33 campuses and many teachers have Facebook pages that parents can “like.” Campus announcements and student works are posted on school and class YouTube pages. Thus, parents and students see the value in these resources and understand their power. Student interaction with Web 2.0 tools is scaffolded by grade levels, and age-appropriate tools teach students Internet safety and literacy. If a student accesses inappropriate websites or troublesome situations arise by misuse, the student’s use of the technology in school can be suspended. With serious infractions, the student can lose his or her account.

This open-access philosophy evolved in Birdville, starting in 2003 as the district was designing a new elementary school. Waddell visited the IBM Palisades Executive Conference Center and was impressed by how the facility design encouraged collaboration, engagement and participation. He wondered why his schools couldn’t do the same.

This was happening just as Web 2.0 applications were transforming society by making it more participatory. Waddell saw how socialization was at the heart of learning.

“At that time, we were banning YouTube, so I decided to look at it,” the superintendent said. “While there was stuff that was certainly not educational, I also saw absolutely incredible AP classes [dealing with] carbon cycle and the arctic flora and fauna. Plus, the kids that created these videos are having fun, engaged and learning. So we took the risk and unblocked it.”

Waddell says that, once students have open access, the real task for educators has just started. Educators must relearn how to teach with these tools. Professional development needed to change to enable more self-training. Birdville’s professional learning blog is used when a staff member attends a conference to post a summary, allowing for questions and comments.

A Conversation Starter
Waddell, who has been superintendent since 2002, admits he is not a “power user” of tools such as Facebook, but having used them at the state superintendent’s conference, his administrators and teachers have embraced them.

Waddell’s advice to other superintendents: “Trust in your community. Don’t be silly, but take some risk. As long as the kids’ use of Web 2.0 tools and lessons are structured around good pedagogy, your community won’t have a problem. And, if public schools are going to survive, they need to reimagine learning.”
Is it time for a similar conversation in your district?

Keith Krueger is CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, Washington D.C. E-mail: