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Blocking and Filtering and Lockdowns, Oh, My!: The Internet-Security Overreaction

| Chris O'Neal

This past year, I've been working with school districts and schools in many places, and it's been such a great learning experience as I've had the opportunity to see teachers everywhere doing incredible things, sometimes in spite of very tough testing schedules, complex accountability guidelines, and rigid pacing guides. Still, they carry on, forging ahead, trying out project-based learning, extended multimedia learning units, technology-rich lessons, and so on. One issue that I'm finding proves difficult, however, regardless of where I go, is the Internet-filtering systems in place in some districts.

I understand the whole filtering issue, and I fully support some level of safeguard in classrooms. I also understand we have laws and regulations in place designed to protect children's safety (the Children's Internet Protection Act [CIPA]) and the privacy of our children (the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act [COPPA]). I have a ten-year-old daughter, and I would be very wary of sitting her down in front of a computer and telling her to simply have an unguided search session to see what she can learn. She'd learn lots, no doubt -- lots that I don't care for her to learn just yet, or things I'd rather teach her myself.

However, I'm finding that in some districts and schools, the filtering and blocking system seems to be in overdrive. Teachers tell me regularly that wikis and blogs are blocked across the board, for everyone. This is unfortunate because not only does this prevent our students from using these incredible tools, but our teachers are also unable to take advantage of a brilliant avenue for learning, collaboration, and communication that wasn't possible just a few years back. Some of the best educator blogs are blocked in some schools, and I just can't figure out why.

You know, pencils can be really dangerous, too -- and desks as well. I taught elementary school, and I can't tell you how many times students got stuck by pencil lead and desks fell over. I also can tell you that my own child has seen some strange things while sightseeing in Washington, DC, and other places. But we prep her ahead of time; we talk about what's out there, what's good, what's bad; and we try to impart street smarts. I understand the risk of taking her out in public. I also understand that in order for her to appreciate, use, respect, and harness everything around her, she has to experience it. She has me, her mom, and her wonderful teachers to help guide her along the way.

I think educators are pretty smart people. We figure out ways to use new things in our classrooms in spite of their potential risks. We set up expectations, rules, and consequences. I know I'm oversimplifying this issue a little, but the point remains the same: It's 2007, and blogs, wikis, and the like are powerful tools that need to be a part of our classrooms. Students are using these outside the classroom, so why not find an educational, productive way to allow them inside? This would give us a chance to impart some media smarts while taking advantage of some pretty powerful tools. For example, check out this interesting use of wikis in the classroom.

Share your stories, reactions, and experiences with finding the balance between blocking and unlocking. What works? How do we comply with CIPA but not put a total lockdown in place that prevents teachers and students from accessing critical learning tools?

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Chris O'Neal (not verified)

Extremes

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Hi Kim,
Thanks for sharing that - I wish other schools would consider that option. I think there will always be incidences where students purposely try to do inappropriate things - but they do that anyway on the recess playground, football games, etc. We teach them, guide them, deal with issues, etc. I just think locking to the extreme is more dangerous than some flexibility.

Kim Flintoff (not verified)

Silliness in the extreme...

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I have been very lucky in that I am currently working in an independent girls school. Each girl (and teacher) from Year 5 through to year 12 is provided with a MacBook. Each machine is preloaded with a Standard Operating Environment (including Adobe CS3, MS Office Pro, iLife, iWork and more). Each girl has an administrator password to add or remove software as she requires. Our net access is logged but not filtered. And guess what? We have very few incidents of misuse. Over 1200 machines in a 95% wireless environment. Just goes to show that education works better than external control.

Scott Siri (not verified)

Most IT departments in

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Most IT departments in schools are undermanned and underfunded. The tech guy does not have time to block every bad site on the entire World Wide Web. This is a GROSS misunderstanding among teachers. Most schools subscribe to blocking services. The blocking service chooses sites to block and schools choose the categories of media that they want blocked. If we don't want kids to have access to Blogs, Wikis, and Chats on inappropriate topics, then we need to block all blogs, wikis and chats. We can open up specific sites but this too is cumbersome, because it requires "unlocking" every single page of a site that teachers want access to.

Here's a tech solution. If you want a blog or wiki that your kids can use, set up a web server in your school and host a blog or wiki on the inside of the filter. If you want a chat for your class, you can do that too on the inside of the filter. Most schools have websites that could also host chats, discussion boards and wikis. The district won't block their site. Software for these web 2.0 applications can be found for free on the web but someone has to set it up. If you want to use this stuff in the classroom, get your feet wet in the tech and learn how to set it up!

The dangers that lurk outside are not the fault of the IT department and they don't have time to "unlock" 1000's of pages on the internet. At some point we as teachers have to take the responsibility for finding workable solutions that are acceptable to all parties involved. The administration needs to pony-up the money to fund good filtering services that allow for differentiation between teachers and students.

Administration also needs to realize that most industries have 1 tech per 200 computers and this assumes that 1 computer = 1 user. How many schools have funded that kind of technology help ratio? Technology costs money. If we want to use it effectively in education we need to convince the people who fund it that it is worthwhile. We should not abuse the techs who work tirelessly to maintain it.

I teach full time.
I work tech on the side.
I will soon have a Masters in Educational Technology.
I'm tired of being blamed for "blocking" teachers.

ISTE suggests the following as Satisfactory Efficiency
Computer-to-technician ratio is
between 75:1 and 150:1.
Reference
http://tsi.iste.org/techsupport/tech-support-index-2.4.pdf

Sorry for the rant, but this topic always stings me a bit.

Gary Latman (not verified)

Overzealous Censors

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At the school where I was an English teacher and Technology Coordinator, as quickly as sites were blocked, kids found proxy sites to bypass the Chicago Board of Education censors. In my lab, I had monitoring software, which I used periodically to get a sense of what students did and where they did it. Rarely, if ever, did they go to sites that were really objectionable. Usually, they just wanted to communicate with others. OMG, they were using the medium to communicate, but Central Office has a great need to CONTROL. They have blocked YouTube, numerous file sharing and file storage sites, and even blocked Yahoo's Briefcase, where I have nearly a dozen years of Language Arts tests, quizzes, and other resources. What's really enlightening is that when I need to access a censored site, I find a tech savvy student to get the latest proxy site. The bureaucrats have dummied down the curriculum, and now the Internet.

Larry Haynes (not verified)

Filtering

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As an elementary school principal, I can see the need for filtering. However, our district has gone to the extreme in my opinion. Because a few teachers were visiting MY SPACE accounts and shopping online, we all are strapped with a filter so tight that access to several good sites is blocked. We have to request for a site to be unblocked. Any site, including grant opportunites, that are affiliated with a major corporation (Target, Sears, Wal-Mart, etc)is blocked because it categorizes the site as "shopping." Access to blogs of any kind is prohibited. Limited access is one thing. Zero access is another.

Tim Hand (not verified)

Filtering in NSW Australia

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Chris

Currently here in NSW Department of Education & Training, we are faced with similar issues. The system has opted for a 'one size fits all' regime across K-12 and for vocational education Institutions. However after much uproar the Dept has
retracted its policy and allows for individual schools to modedrate their own filtering. But currently each school must apply on a casae by casae instance to have sites unblocked. Understandably for many teachers this is too much hassle and they retreat off the Net. The issue of 'Duty of care' etc needs to be considered in terms of denying students access they have at home to the real information economy.

Steven Day (not verified)

My experience is that there

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My experience is that there is no differentiation in the filtering my district uses. I will regularly get information that I cannot access a site because SurfControl won't let me. I have the same limits and controls as the kindergarten and first grade students. As a professional and an educator, I signed the forms for the district agreeing I wouldn't go to the "bad places' on the web. Shouldn't that be enough? If as an adult, I need information on how to play Mancala in my classroom, I really don't believe that i should have to try over 9 sites just to get the instruction for playing Mancala. (true example) As a profession, allow me the dignity of knowing where I should go on the web from a school computer and stay our of my controls. Once I log in as an adult, hold me to my signed agreement and then let me go where I need to. Place filter controls on users rather than systems. As students grow up, they should have greater access to information. Just a parents allow our children more freedom and hole them more responsible as they grow, so should the school system about computer usage. My students are telling me all the time how they get around the filter controls. The most common is to go to a translation website and access blocked locations through them. Seems that the translations goof up the ability of the filtering software to block. If our students can get around the filters, what are we really teaching them? Rather than having discussions about what content is appropriate and how to be responsible users of the information, we are propogating another form of hacker. We can't even find out how sites get blocked in our district. But from my experience is is more to make someone's life easier rather than benefitting our students.
Charlie Makela (not verified)

I want to add my

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I want to add my two cents to this issue. I was working with a group of teachers yesterday and was explaining the new Acceptable Use Policy for our division that is required by the state's mandate to include Internet Safety into the curriculum. One of the questions raised was the possibility of the filtering system differentiate between student and staff logins. They were concerned that much of today's news originates on the Web and denying them access to sites such as YouTube affects their ability to incorporate these newsmaking events into their instruction. It isn't a matter of downloading it from an unfiltered computer to show in class later as you can not legally save a video clip from YouTube. They sited several other sites that they would like to incoporate but are unable to view from school. Many times the site is blocked due not to the content of the site, but the links off of that site contain objectionable topics. I agree that we need to actively bring this conversation to the table with the leaders in both instruction and technology. My 5 year-old granddaughter is already familiar with using technology in her learning. She uses interactive software and her parents computer. Cell phones, dvd's and mp3 players are part of her everyday world. Is the classroom she enters every day ready for her? We are asking students to leave their technology tools and knowledge behind when they come to school rather than building on their knowledge to create active engaged learners and consumers of information.
Mary Parke (not verified)

I understand the need and

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I understand the need and want to use Web 2.0 tools. The conflict is in honoring FERPA, COPPA, and CIPA. My guess is, that if the blog/wiki/etc REQUIRES login and restricts login to students in the course/class only, then the laws may be satisfied, and the course is contained for student-teacher; student-student use only. The problem comes in blogs and wikis that are made PUBLIC and thereby post student-user data to the world with no protection. The balance is in finding the correct tool for the use, in my experience. For example, some CMS (content management systems) allow for instructors to not only post class data such as handouts and links to websites, but they also allow for open-forum discussions. It is the discussion forums in this instance that violate students' rights (not to mention opens up the forum for hacking and spam). If instead, the instructor used a LMS (learning management system), then the same forums could be protected by login and other measures of security (depending on the system - such as SSL encryption). Using the LMS in this scenario instead of the CMS not only protects the students' data, but also the integrity of the institution's data and the instructor's data. The problem is that the law and the software companies are not working together in order to find best-case use scenarios (and the law is VERY SLOW to update). I run into these same issues with accessibility...but that's a WHOLE other story...
Roxanne Karr (not verified)

I, too, am distressed by

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I, too, am distressed by our district's decision to block everything and then release sites, one by one, on request only. They started by blocking every search engine except google and yahoo (I had to request that they allow askforkids.com). They also blocked most of the sites I had linked on my school website, until I asked for each one to be unblocked, individually. Then they blocked iTunes. Imagine my thoughts when I read in Edutopia about all the wonderful educationally based podcasts available! I agree with Mr. Day-- I signed an acceptable use agreement; let me do the job I have experience in doing... finding appropriate sites for kids and then monitoring them as they surf those sites!
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