Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll: Why we don't block the Internet at our school

Image: MS Office Imagebank
Can  we "protect" our kids from the sharp edges of the Internet in our schools?

Should we?

This is a contentious topic and has avid proponents on both sides of the issue from the ultra-conservatives to the ultra-libertarians.  You are probably on that continuum somewhere.

In case you didn't notice, the Internet is full of much more than funny pet videos, email, Twitter, and Facebook.

It is also full of everything you don't want your kids, or your students in Primary and High School to see, or read, or experience.  Without too much trouble, your 4th grader could easily find images that would curl your toenails.

Do we lock our kids up?  Get rid of computers? That would mean forfeiting all the great things that technology can bring to schools. Things like building the literacies and skills for our kids to achieve their academic and career goals in the globally competitive marketplace. Technology is a tool that extends the student's opportunities and capabilities to learn, to communicate, to research, and to connect... all important competencies for the 21st century.

So where is the trade-off?  Why not just block the bad stuff?

If that is the track you take, and many schools are, then be prepared to spend most of your IT department's resources on staying ahead of the students.  If you Google "Schools blocking websites", you'll get over 16 million hits, most of which describe how you can get around anything the school has put in place.

The proliferation of smart phones with Internet access means it is even easier for students to get around the school's controls.  Many parents are now providing their kids with an iTouch, an iPhone or Blackberry and becoming an unwitting agent in defeating the school's controls.  The province of Ontario has recently lifted the ban on smartphones in schools, exacerbating the problem even further.

The ability to "control" the network is a daunting one.

Faced with this challenge, here's the approach we took.

First a caveat - this solution was designed for students from approximately 12-18 years of age.  If there were younger children this would not likely be appropriate - and in that case blocking the sharp edges of the Internet is likely manageable.

Second caveat - This hasn't been tried in the traditional workplace, but it has worked effectively for our staff here.  You may however, want to consider this.

Before we implemented our solution, our non-academic Internet usage at the school looked something like this:

The big yellow "Pac-Man" was Social Media, but the nasty stuff (e.g. Adult and Pornography, Drugs, etc) was high on the list.  I know you might be surprised that high school boys might be interested in porn.

After our "solution", the graph looked much the same, but the categories had shifted significantly (click on the image to enlarge it):

The "nasty" stuff was still there, but had shifted significantly and had become the size of the pie slice your wife serves you when she thinks you need to go on a diet.  In other words, almost invisible.

So what did we do?

Years ago, one of my supervisors summed up his whole management philosophy in one phrase. "People do what you inspect, not what you expect." While as a management philosophy this could degrade into micromanagement, it is a rather astute observation of human behaviour.

So, we built on this premise.  People will change their behaviour if they know that someone may check.

If a student tried to access sites that are considered not in alignment with normal academic uses, we didn't block them.  Rather, we reminded them of how invisible they weren't. By informing them that we had equipment monitoring the system health (but not specifically individuals), we were being upfront that all activity on our network (and pretty much any network) is logged.  If they was academic problems in the future, the head of school could request a report about the online activities of the student, and treat the behaviour issues.

If the use of Social Media was legitimate, and in many cases it is used in delivering curriculum here, then the user could simply hit the "Continue" button.

Here's a copy of the popup.  Click on the image to enlarge it.

This had remarkable results when we implemented it, and the user behaviour remained consistent through the subsequent months.  This also helped us reinforce our message to students about their online presence, and being wise about their Internet presence, which is a key 21st Century competency.

The foundational element in our approach was a workable Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) which clearly described expectations of use and consequences. Don't cut and paste one off the Internet, but develop your own using others as a guide.  Without a solid AUP, all the rest of this cannot have a lasting impact.

Remember your goal is to change behaviour, not control behaviour.

This worked well for us.

What are you doing at your school or workplace around managing the sharp edges of the Internet?


  1. What tools are you using to monitor websites visited?

    1. Hi,

      We are currently using a Palo Alto PA-2050. There are other devices out there that will provide the same (or better) level of functionality depending on your budget and needs.

      As with many of these devices, the list of categories for the sites (e.g. Drugs, Adult, Weapons, etc.) is maintained by a 3rd party.