Grievance alleges that DODDS system of blocking Web sites hinders education
November 2, 2007
DODDS teachers in South Korea have filed a grievance over Internet restrictions they say hinder their ability to educate students, a problem many other teachers and students say they face daily across the Pacific.
The teachers say the Blue Coat Web filtering device the Department of Defense Dependents Schools uses is too restrictive after five new categories were added at the beginning of the school year.
The categories are arts/entertainment; humor and jokes; real estate; games; and streaming media/MP3.
School officials maintain that the filter is needed to protect students.
“As an educational institution, we have an obligation to ensure students have a safe and productive Web browsing experience while in our schools,” said DODDS-Pacific spokesman Charles Steitz, based on Okinawa. “To this end, we categorically block many inappropriate sites.”
Steitz said the filter frees bandwidth for “legitimate education uses” and allows teachers to focus on their instruction instead of monitoring student Web activity.
But teachers say monitoring student Web use is part of their jobs, and sanitizing the Internet does not prepare students for the “real world.”
“At the high school level, one of our most important jobs is teaching kids how to choose information,” said Seoul American High School teacher and union representative Elda White. “[The policy] presumes we have looked at everything, and that’s not the real world.”
The concern isn’t limited to South Korea. Last month, educational technologists from the schools met in Japan to discuss the problem.
Michael Schadt, an education technologist at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, said one idea that came from the meetings was to create a separate filter that would open the Internet to all of the sites teachers have requested.
He said he has unblocked about 40 sites since the school year began.
At first, teachers at Yokosuka’s Nile C. Kinnick High School needed approval from principal David Tran to unblock a site, but now teachers contact the education technologist directly, Schadt said.
He then visits the requested site to determine its educational value. He has had to say no a couple of times, but for the most part, the process is painless and takes about 20 minutes, he said.
But in South Korea, union representative White said getting access to sites takes far too long.
“Several teachers have tried, and it takes days or weeks. They tell us the principal has to look at the site and approve, but the site is blocked, so the principal has to go home to look at it,” she said.
White said the system the school used last year, in which pornographic and social networking sites such as MySpace were blocked, was appropriate.
But the new restrictions go “overboard,” she said.
“It’s throwing the baby out with the bath water, and creating more problems than it’s solving,” she said.
White said teachers are forced to modify assignments, give their students more time to complete them or abandon assignments altogether.
She said history and art teachers have been unable to access museum Web sites. A music teacher was unable to stream singing by Luciano Pavarotti, the opera tenor who died recently, for her students to listen to, and the school’s film class can’t access movie Web sites.
Thomas Amend, who teaches middle school at Yokosuka Naval Base, said he recently polled his students and learned that virtually all of them have been blocked at least once from a Web site needed for school work.
“Twenty percent have been blocked within the last 24 hours and 25 percent have missed a deadline or rushed out poorer work due to being blocked at school from a legitimate Web site,” Amend said of his poll results.
He said he, too, has been blocked from research.
Louis Peradotto, 17, a senior at Kubasaki High School on Okinawa, said there have been many times he and other students have been blocked from Web sites they needed for classroom work. Earlier last week, he was blocked from reading an education article from his local newspaper.
“Yesterday we went on, and we couldn’t get on Stars and Stripes; it was blocked,” he said.
Peradotto said he understands why the school uses filtering software and supports it, but thinks it goes too far.
“I think it is a little too extreme,” he said.
Not all educators are having problems.
“It hasn’t become an issue here,” said John Mueller, principal of Jack Darby Elementary School on Sasebo Naval Base, Japan. “The process has allowed [teachers] to get access” when it is appropriate.
At Darby, a teacher can ask for any blocked Web site to be made available but must justify why the access is needed for education, Mueller said.
If the Web block is lifted, the teacher then must review the page to be certain it contains no inappropriate material, he said.
The Web information can be used in the classroom if it passes the two reviews, Mueller said.
The same process is in place at E.J. King High School, at Sasebo, and usually a decision over Web site access is made within one day, Principal George Man said.
According to Steitz, some relief may be on the way.
He said DODDS is developing its own Blue Coat category, which should reduce the review and approval process for educational sites. He said the category will contain validated educational sites and apply to all schools in the Pacific.
Stars and Stripes reporter Travis Tritten contributed to this report.