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The Day the Filters Came to School

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.

Instant change.

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.

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20 Responses

  1. Your post is required reading for anyone looking for reasoning as to why we shouldn’t be filtering content in our schools. (aside from the obvious blocks, which you’ve mentioned.) We need to teach our students to become discerning users of the Web and the only way to do this is to teach them how to use it responsibly. All teachers need to be part of this process, not just the Ed.Tech. facilitators or Library staff.

  2. What a wonderfully written blogpost. I agree with you completely. Filters create more problems and have students spend time trying to “out smart.” the filters. We just put in a new filter this year as well. It blocked EVERYTHING that was web 2.0. It took four weeks to get some of my websites back unfiltered. Four weeks, of learning gone forever. Students and teachers sign a AUP, everything is monitored. My guess, filters are a false security, of feel good, that the “higher ups” can say to the other non-techie people “look we protect your children.” Ironically, parents DO NOT filter at home. With more and more mobile phones, students can access ANYTHING they want at a moments notice.

    You and I are the lucky ones, our tech departments will work with us and unblock the sites that we need. Others are not so lucky, they live is a completely blocked world that frustrates teachers, as well as students.

    Thanks again for the post.

  3. Thanks for sharing and putting into words what so many of us are facing. The obstacles aren’t easy to overcome, but they should be. Our bottom line is to provide the best environment for teaching and learning. Many filters prohibit students from finding answers to their curiosity. We need to provide better staff development so our practitioners can coach our students to use the web safely and effectively as Jenny says in a previous response. I find it funny that we send our students home to check email, often times in an environment of total seclusion.

  4. Congratulations! You have now joined the 21st century in public education.

    I fought the filter battle for 9 years. I stopped fighting it. I now refuse to use technology at school. It’s not worth the disappointment or wasted time. To use the “technology” the technocrats try to make us use would demonstrate some kind of support for their policy; so I refrain.

    I give my students and parents my class blog and twitter account, and tell them to follow me at home.

    Once technocrats gain a foothold, it never loosens – it only gets tighter.

    Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. I know your pain. Your job will now be to find ways around censorship. It is the new part of the teacher’s skill set.

    Only the best to you.


  5. A sad day for you Clarence, and I’m sorry. Many of us in the US have looked at you guys and gals up north without much filtering going on and wished to be in your shoes. I know the place you’re in right now. Hang in there and keep pounding away to make things right. You’re an inspiration.

    Interesting side note: my district is now RELAXING some filter control on student machines. Shaking my head, wondering what took so long…

  6. *Stands and applauds* I cannot tell you the frustrations I have felt with this very issue. I can’t access “ABC News Science and Technology” page this year, as the filters have ramped up. It appalls and disgusts me that “Administration” does not get it. THANK you for this post– here is mine on the same topic:

  7. Just blogged about the same issue! I am so tired of having things blocked left and right. We also have a tech director that is willing to unblock – but that never works because of how interconnected sites are………the filters do not block everything that needs to be blocked – hence my blog title Trouser Snakes and Google Docs! We must train teachers how to identify and supervise appropriately. Thanks for bringing this issue to light!

  8. My district is working towards some openness. I believe we can get things to where we need them but it does take pushing and there is push back. I can’t make myself stop working towards an open environment and I will not stop working towards authentic technology integration. The technologies are really open in the real world. Schools are a borderland between real world and protected world, the borders will always shift a bit.

  9. Clarence Fisher

    Thanks all for your support and voice on this issue. I’ve been angry and frustrated all day today just thinking of going back to work on Monday and beginning the battles that I know will be in order. I’ve also been spending a lot of time wondering about how I will explain this to the kids in my class. In the end, I think my issue is one of deep rooted philosophy. I will argue for openness at every single turn. I will argue for openness in the belief that we are all better off living and working in a place where we have unfettered access to questionable information. I will always argue for the fact that we live in a global, connected democratic nation and that we all need to learn to live under this paradigm. This is not a technology issue. It is a people issue. I will be meeting with my principal first thing Monday morning I assure you. Thanks all for putting up with my rants.

  10. [...] much advice from many people all around the globe, I seem to be actually getting along with the filter that has just recently been installed in my [...]

  11. I know your pain and can understand it … and do think that personal responsibility needs to be ingrained into the actions of staff and students. However, that does not stop the complaints from parents or investigations when things go dreadfully wrong.

    I know that it feels like a drastic change but keep with it … reach for that flexibility and it will come. Most filters can be really granular nowadays and smoothwall. Unfortunately any change to filtering can have dire consequences and sometimes you have to use the opportunity to ask questions. Email … does your school provide email for all staff and students? If so then why are they not using that ind choosing to use Gmail instead? It is not because they want one email address because so many of us nowadays have lots of addresses and we can use them to separate personal and professional life. If it is not used then how are you filtering (or at least logging) things to check for cyberbullying? With email my preference is to use it to log and warn rather than block (abusive email still gets through but a copy goes to an allocated person who will follow up with the required discipline / investigation) and the knowledge that this is there is often enough to curtail some of the bullying / abuse … and yes … I know you then get those that say that it will then happen outside of the school systems but at least it gives you a chance to educate students about how they approach bullying online?

    It is also not the technology’s fault. Or the person that put it in … it is what you do with it once it is there. If you can show that classroom management is good enough to make sure students are on task, are not looking at inappropriate materials and have alternatives in place (eg AB Tutor control to monitor classroom machines or Synchroneyes to give them personal IWBs) then see if you can get things relaxed. I would be interested to know how you got on with the Principal.

  12. Heather

    Wow, there ARE sane, rational and effective people out there in education. I had almost lost hope. Now I need to find some I can join. Thank you for this. I will direct my journalism staff here for their editorial on our massive filtering issues.

  13. Hi Clarence,

    I feel your pain. I moved from an extremely open district… to China!

    I didn’t get to see you very much in Boston, and so I’d like to share my POD’s are Coming presentation with you, or at least part of it:
    Slides 49 to 56.


    You will make it work, but more than that, you will be a voice that speaks out against filtering and educate the powers that be. A slow but necessary road, and we need educators like you vocalizing their concerns and shifting opinions about how to ‘protect’ our kids. The other concern that is used to justify filters is ‘off task behavior’.

    Bud’s recent post says it better than I can:
    What we’ve decided is that we will no longer use the web filter as a classroom management tool. Blocking one distraction doesn’t solve the problem of students off task – it just encourages them to find another site to distract them. Students off task is not a technology problem – it’s a behavior problem. It is our intention that we help students to learn the appropriate on-task behaviors instead of assuming that we can use filters to manage student use.

    Fight the fight that needs to be fought, and many of us will offer any support that we can.

  14. [...] The Day the Filters Came to School Just came across this link. Rose tinted glasses comes to mind The Day the Filters Came to School [...]

  15. Tony A

    It is an admiral ideal to want an unfiltered internet system in a school. Real life isn’t filtered, so why should a school be?

    However, I feel that you miss the point. A school has a responsibility to protect their children. Be that from physical assault, or from mental. It is claimed by many that exposing children to pornography and violence at an early age can damage their development, or warp it into something it is not supposed to be. Of course, this age is different for everyone, so a one size fits all approach, such as filtering, obviously will annoy some people but protect others.

    The idea of personal responsibility, both in staff and pupils is another Good Idea, but in reality simply would not happen. Teachers don’t have the time to monitor everything their class full of children are doing on the computers. In the UK, they are required to put 1 to 1 time for every child. In an hour long lesson, with a class of 30, that is 2 minutes per child, minus settling time etc… Not enough time to watch what they’re all doing.

    Add in the group of children who will always take advantage, break the rules etc… and you have a system where the school will continually receive complaints from parents about someone in their child’s class accessing inappropriate material – and you have no evidence of it except that parent’s complaint.

  16. SchoolNetManager

    * Sticks head above parapet * I’m a school Network Manager

    For every story like this, you see 5 in the press about children accessing inappropriate material at school. No filtering solution is perfect and neither are the children… or the staff.

    Smoothwall is and acknowledged leader in filtering for schools. Their staff,like those of other filtering solutions (we use RM), work long and hard to ensure that what gets through is approriate and that what is blocked is sensible.

    My priority is to ensure that Teachers can teach and Learners can learn at my school. At my school social networking, personal email and games sites are not regarded by the Senior Leadership Team as serving that purpose.

    There are grey areas, I agree. For example, eBay is used by our office staff to ourchase items for the school… the message boards are blocked though. YouTube is also problematic. Do we unblock it allowing use of a video that may be useful for geography, or do we block it knowing that what the students choose to watch when they should be working isn’t so educational?

    I agree that off-task students is a behaviour problem and that teachers should be able to keep them on the task in hand. However, in practice, a teacher with a room full og 30 teenagers has a crowd control situation and needs help.

    Filtering may inconvenience people, but most IT Managers will work with staff to ensure that Teaching & Learning is not affected and that any problems are ironed out as quickly as possible. This will not, however, mean that filtering is lifted completely.

  17. Steve M

    This is an interesting point, I sit on a UK local education e-safety group and we have been asking Head teachers for their comments recently on filtering and monitoring of schools Internet connections. In the UK schools are legally obliged to take (All reasonable precautions) to protect students from accessing inappropriate materials, parents are the first to complain that their child has been “allowed” to access and view this type of material. so my question is this:

    Given the likelihood of litigation in the even of a child viewing inappropriate material, what would readers consider to be “Reasonable Precautions”?

    Most schools do not have the manpower to monitor students internet access (big brother style) and in most cases punishment is never forthcoming for those who do transgress the rules.

  18. [...] Filters that also filter learning -or- High expectations about appropriate use? [...]

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  20. [...] Filters that also filter learning -or- High expectations about appropriate use? [...]

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