Laptop Bans: An Unnecessary Imposition on Students

Many students are finding it difficult to research topics for classes during the school day with the new content filtering.
Many students are finding it difficult to research topics for classes during the school day with the new content filtering.
Maddie Kaltsas

It all started in my AP European History class on Monday morning. In the midst of a project about German unification, every Google search attempt I made resulted in an error message. Worried originally that I was alone in my struggle, my mind was somewhat eased when mass panic broke out throughout the classroom. “I can’t Google anything!” “My Spotify isn’t working!” and similar cries of despair were shouted among the sea of desks. As the day wore on, the technology problems persisted, leaving many students, myself included, incredibly frustrated. So what is up with these bans?

Originally, any Google search resulted in an error message, proving extremely disruptive to my classes. During a few of my classes, my teachers were relying on specific video content that appeared to be blocked. While I understand that any technology change is bound to come with a learning curve and a few kinks, there should have been a greater awareness of its possible disruptiveness.

While the issue with all Google searches has been resolved, specific content remains blocked. There are 14 categories that have been banned for students to search, including pornography, drugs, social media, hate, gambling, games, and social networking. While many of these searches make sense as to why they are blocked on students’ computers, research for classes can be hindered by the blocked content. This content includes controversial books with common themes like drug abuse and gambling that students read in class. It also interrupts the drug project in health class that all students have to complete freshman year. There are many other classes that involve research that would have blocked sources such as AP Biomed, AP Language and Composition, or even CIS Intro to Literature. This is a complete disruption to projects required in the curriculum.

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The blocking happened after the end of a contract expired with the last content-filtering company. The technology department made the change to Securely. This agency allows the school to more precisely block and unblock websites and certain content. For example, streaming services can be unblocked for teachers but remain inaccessible for students. Although this might seem like a positive for the school it still causes disruption to students who have to go to the help desk and ask for things to be unblocked for certain classes.

“Teachers love it. They think it’s great because students aren’t on games during the school day to the extent that they were previously. They also liked the ability to be able to use streaming media in their classroom as needed. Change is hard. It’s never fun to be the person that has to make the change,” Director of Technology & Digital Learning Erin Offerdahl said.

The technology department worked to correct clear errors that unintentionally disrupted learning, such as access to University of Minnesota content for College in the Schools (CIS) classes. However, certain websites that have the potential for distracting behavior also serve educational purposes. Take for example Pinterest: many students use this platform as a way of inspiration for classes, including me. I am an AP art student and house all my inspiration and project ideas on Pinterest. Having no access to it while I’m in art class, since we also don’t have access to our phones, means I have no way to look at what I want to make or use it as an example. If people were to say “Oh just print it,” I have around 500 pins on my ceramic board, so printing is not exactly the most useful tool in my case as I would be killing a whole tree and practically carrying a textbook. There are many other art students and students in general who freaked out because their inspiration and platform had been blocked with no other way of access during the school day.

Another blocked social media that is a persistent issue for students including ourselves is Instagram. Many students run Benilde-affiliated accounts or the BSM Red Knights account at school. Students create updates and posts throughout the day to ensure that followers are getting updates about the games, articles, and much more that get posted throughout the day. This blocking just makes it more difficult to share updates with the BSM community. Offerdahl did share how if needed she could unblock a social media site for students to use. However, this means you have to go and talk to her, taking time out of your day to plead your case as to why you need it unblocked. We understand that social media can be dangerous and distracting but having it blocked causes students like us to not be able to post and share about our BSM-affiliated clubs and classes.

Beyond the concerns about practical applications, the bans also perpetuate harmful social stigmas and stereotypes. There is a disproportionate amount of censorship of female anatomy, while similar male equivalents were not blocked. Not only does this inhibit educational purposes in health classes, it is blatantly offensive. As women, we have witnessed gender discrimination in healthcare. According to an article from Duke Health, women’s healthcare is a persisting issue. Women receive less evidence-based treatment and have historically been selected less often for clinical studies. The fact that we can google information on testicular cancer but not breast cancer only perpetuates the idea that women’s voice in healthcare is unimportant. Furthermore, the fact that we cannot look up information on breast examinations–a practice recommended to start in one’s teens–diminishes the importance of women’s health.

Additionally, censoring predominantly female anatomical terms such as breast and vagina but not testicle and scrotum creates the notion that the female body is “dirty.” All of these terms are important to understanding one’s own body, so why does my body fall under “pornography” and what does that say about how society sexualizes women? While I understand that all of these phrases could be used for inappropriate content, perhaps we should focus on teaching students how to approach this subject matter rather than demonizing it. The technology department and the Securly platform need to reevaluate the message they are sending.

Because there are content filters even outside of school, this inhibits my ability to research for Speech. I am in the category of discussion where I must research a topic in five minutes to inform an hour long discussion. One main topic for this year is deepfakes, which are disproportionately used to unethically create pornography. Since many terms relating to sexual content are blocked, this impedes my ability to conduct research. This issue seems to have arisen for students in school working on research projects as well. However, the technology department hopes to use these filters to encourage better research practices.

“Mrs. Sylvester has this huge database of all research-based articles and things that people can access. I think one thing adults included in this culture is we need to stop using Google as our mode for research because we don’t have control of what pops up first. People can pay for sponsor ads and things then all of a sudden, you’re getting this laundry list of things before you’re actually getting to the stuff that might actually be better content. So trying to think about ways to better research topics before just doing a random Google search tool,” Offerdahl said.

While I am all for using more advanced sources, sometimes it isn’t feasible. The databases don’t include the most up-to-date articles, which in discussions about current events is critical. Additionally, students in AP Language & Composition are required to write a subculture paper where they research and observe different niche groups to provide a perspective of their customs. Because these are generally only a handful of people, in-depth research isn’t always available. While they are required to use databases for the paper, they also need access to the free web. To observe how members interact, some may use Reddit or similar online platforms, which are blocked. Databases are a wonderful tool for scholarly research in an academic setting. However, vilifying Google isn’t the solution.

What’s hard is we don’t always know what’s included in the category until we [try] to search it and then it’s blocked.”

— Erin Offerdahl

The technology department does seem to be working to resolve the hiccups in this transition to newer content filtering. Offerdahl expressed an openness to students’ feedback, which we appreciate. “What’s hard is we don’t always know what’s included in the category until we [try] to search it and then it’s blocked. Now the results or way around that is we’ve started a spreadsheet and the students come to us with things that they’re like well I need this for class we add it to the spreadsheet. At the end of the school day, Mr. Schubloom and I sit and we look through it. We [find] the websites and if they’re appropriate we unlock them,” Offerdahl said.

We understand that change is often necessary, but there needs to be serious adjustments for this new system to work. Putting it on the students to raise concerns with the bans is not a long-term solution. We’re freethinking, responsible individuals, so please treat us as such.

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