I’ve always been fortunate enough to work in a building that was very lightly filtered. Basically, we filtered pornography and that was about it. Everyone in the building, including students, had access to all kinds of questionable material online. Instead of filtering, our policy has always been instead to hold students and teachers to a high level of accountability, insisting that they only be in “appropriate” places online. If they weren’t, they knew they would be facing consequences such as losing their computer privileges. It was a common sense type of approach that served us well for the last ten years.
Yesterday that changed. Yesterday, due to school division directives, we had a smoothwall filter installed in our building.
While the main set of blacklists has been laid across our service quite lightly, focusing on things such as pornography, online auction sites and gambling, what worries me more are the seemingly random pieces of material that have been closed off. Bits and pieces of websites are now blocked that I know from experience are harmless due to what is called a “weighted search.” This basically means that the filter will let you search for something that it considers “edgy” (such as spears or knives or guns) for either a set period of time or a specific number of searches, then it will block access to this material. Apparently some things are dangerous over longer periods of time. A random-clicking-of-links test I tried out yesterday showed me that we have probably blocked off approximately 30% of the internet from our students.
I came home from school yesterday completely downtrodden and wondering where my resume is and when it was last updated. I came home filled with questions about both the effectiveness and the wisdom of this move. I have always been deeply disturbed at a philosophical bedrock sort of place by the concepts of filtering and censoring content in an educational institution. We are a place of learning. A place where we sometimes interact with material that challenges us to see things in a new light. We need to be a place of exploration and serendipity. Learning does not often happen in straightly defined and planned paths. Students and teachers instead need opportunities to explore and connect information pathways. Filters place all of these fundamental beliefs about learning in jeopardy.
To our tech’s great credit, he has told us that he is completely willing to work with us on this issue, setting up the filter to meet our needs and unblocking everything we need. But this isn’t a solution. The internet is not a larger version of a library where you can examine the pieces of content that you need one by one and approve them. The internet is fundamentally something different simply by it’s size, scope, growth and ability to change.
Filters do not solve problems. Filters push problems aside so that they do not have the opportunity to occur inside of our buildings. Filters instead allow issues to fester. Cyberbullying a problem? Students spending too much time on Facebook? Filters don’t solve issues like these. Instead, they move them outside of our buildings where we do not have an opportunity to discuss them with our students. Instead we will most likely simply not know about them.
Filters are not a solution to content online being a distraction either. As Bud has recently written:
“Distractions aren’t a technology problem. They’re a people problem. And creating artificial spaces that don’t actually help to promote the behaviors and attitudes that are important for success is maybe the biggest distraction of all.”
How much of a distraction will the filter itself become? How long will it take until kids begin finding ways around it? How much time will they have to dedicate to finding proxy servers before the routes become well known and well worn and the game of blocking these needs to begin. It is an endless cycle of lost time and energy.
We have long weeks ahead of us of tweaking the filter, trying to walk the line between school board directive and learning needs. One of the most challenging tasks we’ll face next week is trying to explain to our students why, in a place of learning, they are now blocked from viewing certain kinds of information. Leaving the school yesterday at the end of the day, I came upon one of my students who had been in the library where he had headed at the end of the day to finish up his homework. He had a puzzled look on his face as he stopped me to say that he couldn’t get on to his gmail account to get some information he had sent himself during the day. He wanted to know if gmail itself was down or if there was a technical glitch in the system itself. Sadly, I didn’t have an answer for him. All I could tell him was to head home and check his email there, I was certain it would work from home.
Photo Credit: http://farm2.static.flickr.com/1151/952276804_d1b00da027.jpg