Forum Friday – Who should control the filters?

On Fridays I like to pull an interesting topic from the forum here on the site and share it with the community. Unfortunately, there’s not much new at the moment (although I’ll get to your post soon enough Andy). So while I was reading through some blog posts today I found an interesting comment by David Warlick. Mr. Warlick was commenting on a presentation at a conference about the habit that American schools have of severely restricting access to websites, programs, and other technological tools.

David Warlick:
…the United States runs what is probably the most repressive education system on the planet, especially when compared with the access to information that learners have outside the classroom. “Students in China have e-mail,” he said. “Do your students?”

Now the last time that I wrote about censorship of websites at my school I was jokingly accused of biting the hand that feeds me by my school’s tech director. While I agree with my tech director that authority should be respected, and the decisions that those in leadership roles make are an honest attempt to protect our students, Mr. Warlick’s comments got me thinking. Is it in our student’s best interests’ to rethink the traditional top-down model of filtering and censorship when it comes to using the Internet and communication tools in school? If students in China and elsewhere have easier access (which is distinctly different than more access) to the tools they need for learning, might a better system for determining access on our computers be developed?

Certainly, establishing a committee that would be responsible for determining district-wide access would take a great deal of time, and probably be very slow to react. However, going with a completely technical solution like a filtering service, without the aide of human tinkering would restrict far more than is necessary. Currently, we have both a human and technological solution in our district, and for the most part it works very well. However, the system we have in place (and here’s where I bite that hand) creates hurdles for teachers that want to use technological tools as easily as they would a textbook or other resource. Granted, we have means of negotiating those hurdles, but for the less than tech-savvy teachers that don’t have much free time during the day to work their way through or around those hurdles, they will simply avoid using those tools altogether. Even I am guilty of limiting my exploration and experimentation because I know I don’t always have the time or the energy to put into providing compelling reasons to have certain resources unblocked.

And yet, in one school district a couple of hours away from us, I recently learned that all teachers in the district have the ability to temporarily unblock a resource to determine if it’s safe or viable for instruction. Intriguing, and something that I would love to pursue further to see if such a system could work for our school, as it would eliminate some hurdles. However, there must also remain a balance, as many teachers may feel overwhelmed with such a responsibility, and so I am at an impasse. I have never worked with any human or technological system of filtering that I feel fits everyone’s needs all the time. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, you can please all the users some of the time, and some of the users all of the time, but you can’t please all of the users all of the time. In other words, by blocking too much, you negatively affect teachers’ willingness to use technology. By blocking too little, you run the risk of seriously jeopardizing certain standards of safety (according to the national government & many parents). Where is the happy medium then?

I’m a bit worn after this week to answer the question fully, but I can’t wait to have a serious discussion about this with members of my district technology group soon. They are people that I all respect (my technology director included), and admire for their ability to rationally debate the merits of adjusting the way we filter in our schools. Who would you put in charge of filtering in your schools?

Other Blogs Talking about this Subject:

To Filter, or Not to Filter



  1. You ask “Who would you put in charge of filtering in your schools?”. I would say the one who gets fired if the system is misused.

    Also, I wonder if Mr. Warlick’s statement is true regarding students in China have email. If the students in China do have email you can be use the goverments eyes are reading every word. Mr. Warlick can the students in China be anything they want to be live anywhere they want to live? Wow, email I am so impressed.

  2. Larry: Thanks for the heads up. I’ve read your post and completely agree. I really like the analogies you use to convey the idea of responsibility being bestowed upon students.

    Diane: Truth be told, I wasn’t really concerned about David’s comments about kids in China with e-mail. In fact, they aren’t technically his words, but if they were, he’s worked closely with a teacher in China many times before, and has even had the opportunity to travel there, so his statements do have some validity. That issue being aside, it was the general idea of an “iron curtain”of information that exists in our schools.

    With every school district determining it’s own filtering policies, several districts across the nation are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to learning. Districts with large amounts of access have environments in which teachers and students alike feel empowered to use what they need, when they need it. Districts in which the filtering policies are repressive have developed cultures in which teachers do not regularly engage students using technology, and students which ask permission for everything rather than embrace the tools.

    Thankfully, we have a more or less happy medium in our District. Some tools that aren’t available in other schools we have access to, whereas some abilities that other districts have we don’t. My concern has always been, and this has been in every district I’ve worked in, is that teachers and students aren’t given the responsibility of accepting the faults and successes of their actions. I’ve talked with our Tech Director about it before, and he’s very understanding, but I feel that this is one of those conversations that should never be over. As information and access to it is constantly evolving, so should or attempts to provide safe access to it.

    Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not advocating dropping filters or making teachers the gatekeepers, but rather to constantly ask ourselves are we really serving our students with our policies, or stunting learning.

  3. Our district subscribes to a filter that, I understand, uses human eyes to evaluate sites and maintain a database about what is ok and what isn’t. When first introduced some 5 years ago or so, kids, and staff, seem to hit it pretty often, but it’s gotten better. To some degree it’s all been adjusted, but technical aspects of the filter have changed also. For example, early on, a search for “breast” pretty much had all blocked results. Today (and it has been this way for a long time), sites with medical or biological information are almost always accessable, while sites that focus on sexual content usually are not. Established sites are well reviewed and appropriately catalogued….personal sites not as much. Perfect, no, but it almost completely eliminates kids stumbling into commercial porn while trying to do simple searches. The district also chooses to block some some sites strictly from a traffic standpoint….game sites, or some sites that may not be objectionable socially, but have no academic value. YouTube is blocked from a standpoint of the non-academic traffic outweighing the benefit. TeacherTube is not blocked. There are ways around this….some of them legal and within the TOS of the sites, and others are, um, more imaginative.

    I don’t like everything about it, but I wouldn’t want it to go away. It eliminates a lot of the survelance duties of the teacher!

    We do issue school email accounts to our students….all of them. We’re the only school that does, and we’ve been doing it for about 6 or 7 years… Filters for words, and a lot of options by the admin about how to handle issues. Part of our focus is to treat it like a “work account”, and the students have a very similar set of rules as the staff do with their district accounts, except it is the only account students are allowed to acces from school. You can use it for fun, but language has to be “school appropriate” all the time. This system also has the same filters for chat and message boards….two tools I consider essentail to modern work, but neither of which I would much want to teach kids in an “open” environment.
    I spend time explaining to kids that if they want to say things that are inappropriate for school, I don’t much care…..they just have to go home first, and use a different system. It helps as a way to train kids into behaving to a certain standard in the school, and making it clear that they can have their own standard somewhere else… helps to clearly delineate where that line is. If a kid is using Hotmail to converse with a teacher and all their other friends, I consider that line to be kind of blurry. If a teacher asks kids to use personal email as part of a school assignment, it gets blurrier.
    I like clear lines.

    We’re very much into the idea of training students to actually deal with the reality of the Internet and things they will encounter…..but in a padded room (so to speak) at this age. We’ve been pleased with the result.

    Consider the case of a student that emails a profane comment to another student. Without school controls, you have a perpatrator and a victiim. You have to deal with both students, and possibly both parents, and you may have a situation from which you never completely eliminate the fallout.

    With filters in place, the message never got delivered. The admin caught it minutes after it was sent, and moved to confront and deal with the perpatrator. There never was a victim, and the perpatrator can be dealt with with more consideration of how to change the behavior than balancing “justice” for a victim. I’ve found that because the item didn’t get delivered, that it doesn’t seem any less serious of an issue, or any harder to get the sender to “get it”…..its just more simple.

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