Today I am back on the road in Oklahoma, starting a series of seminars around the state related to the E-rate program for U.S. schools and libraries. Last week when I was in Shanghai, China, presenting at the Learning 2.0 conference, I reflected in a VoiceThread digital story about some of the differences in accessing the Internet from my hotel room in China compared to the open access I’m accustomed to from my home high speed Internet connection. I observed from China that the level of content filtering / censorship enforced by the central, totalitarian government was actually LESS severe than the content filtering enforced in many U.S. public schools. This perception is confirmed today, as I’m in an Oklahoma school district and attempting to access a variety of Internet websites I regularly use to both consume as well as create/share information. The following table shows a comparison between Internet content filtering I experienced last week in China, and the Internet content filtering I’m experiencing now in a U.S. public school district:

Website Accessible in China? Accessible in my U.S. school
district location today?
WikiPedia URL blocked - not accessible Yes
My blog Yes Yes
WordPress.com
(view only)
Yes Yes
WordPress.com
(edit/dashboard)
URL blocked - not accessible Yes
EduBlogs URL blocked - not accessible Yes
PBwiki sites (like
my workshop curriculum)
URL blocked - not accessible Yes
WikiSpaces sites Yes URL blocked - not accessible
Flickr URL blocked - not accessible
(can access the site
but all images are blocked)
URL blocked - not accessible
Technorati Yes URL blocked - not accessible
Yahoo Mail Yes URL blocked - not accessible
Blogger.com sites not sure URL blocked - not accessible
proxify.com
(used to bypass
content filters)
Yes URL blocked - not accessible
Access Flickr
FireFox Plug-In
Yes
(can download
and it works)
URL blocked - not accessible
(can’t download, if already
installed it does NOT work)
Google Notebook Yes URL blocked - not accessible
Google Documents Yes URL blocked - not accessible
# Blocked Domains: 5 9

I am sure this is not “news” to the majority of teachers in public schools today, who deal with this reality of blocked websites every day, but I wonder how many parents, community members, and policymakers are aware of this comparison? In China, proxy service websites like proxify.com were readily accessible and NOT blocked, which permitted me to access blocked websites like WikiPedia and others which I needed to get and share information. Here in a public U.S. school district on their network, proxy service websites are generally regarded as an EVIL which must be blocked at all costs.

It is both interesting and instructive to note that CIPA, the Children’s Internet Protection Act in the United States, does not mandate specific content filtering for schools. CIPA does not mandate that school districts block proxy sites. Most school districts in which and with which I now work are essentially choosing to block proxy websites, or are choosing to pay commercial providers who provide content filtering services which block proxy websites. The law does not mandate this.

Many school technology support staff members, as well as administrators, are engaged in an ongoing “digital war” with students as both sides struggle to access or block proxy server websites. Interestingly, although the WikiPedia domain IS accessible from the Oklahoma school district I’m in today, any search on WikiPedia, Google, or any other website for the word “proxy” IS blocked.

The issue of content filtering in schools does have multiple aspects, and the security threats posed by some websites with malicious code to Windows-based computers susceptible to various types of malware should be acknowledged. In this post, the main thing I want to conclude with is the observation that the extensive content filtering highlighted above in this school district makes the Internet almost useless to me as a knowledge worker today.

I can’t check or send my Yahoo email on my laptop. (I can access it via my iPhone, using the cell phone network not controlled or filtered by the school district, but I’d really prefer to process email on my laptop since I can’t copy/paste URLs into email on the iPhone.) I can’t update the Google Notebook page I created last night teaching an education class at a local university. I can’t access Flickr Creative Commons to insert relevant images into this or other blog posts. I can’t link to a blogger blog referenced by Clay Burrell in a comment to one of my recent blog posts. Conversations I want to continue, communication messages I want to send via email and several other modalities are blocked.

As a knowledge worker, the available Internet connectivity in this school district is almost useless to me. As I’m sitting here listening to a presentation about the E-rate program in the United States which provides for Internet connectivity in many schools, the impact of content filtering on the usefulness of the actual bandwidth being provided today is dramatically visible to me today.


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On this day..

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  • http://www.mctoonish.com/blog Heather Ross

    Great post, Wes. I followed what you and Will Richardson were saying about this while you were in China and blogged about my frustrations with the filtering at my own POST-SECONDARY institution.

    After reading your post today I tried using proxify.com to finally get in and try out Second Life. It worked! I then sent the link to my office-mate who has been trying to access a flash tutorial that is blocked. Ooops, proxify.com was suddenly blocked. I hit the back button while navigating the FAQ section of Second Life and was suddenly blocked from it and proxify. My frustration is growing.

  • http://www.ijohnpederson.com John Pederson

    Scoreboard.

    I need to build on this with my experiences in schools I serve. I have one that blocks all of Google. Another that leaves Wikispaces open, but blocks Wikispaces support.

    While it’s easy to think “restrictive administrators who enjoy power”, it goes deeper. Like people who don’t know how to manage these systems. Or schools that have no policy/procedure to request a site be blocked/unblocked.

    Thanks for doing this.

  • http://remoteaccess.typepad.com Clarence Fisher

    This is fascinating to me. As a person who works in a buildng with unfiltered access, I’ve listened to many of the debates about filters but I had no idea it was so restrictive. It says a lot when democracies are doing more to relegate information access than communist nations.

  • http://it4teachers.blogspot.com Danielle Abernethy

    I’m curious to know what you think about schools using a product like netTrekker? It’s not a filter, but it only allows access to websites in their database that have been given the stamp of approval by teachers. I know some schools leave it open to access information from wikipedia while others filter out Wikipedia sites.

  • Melissa Garner

    I just checked this list from my desk at a large K-12 school district in Oregon. We use filtering (Websense) and, unsurprisingly to me, the only site in your list that we block is proxify. That makes sense to me, actually, since proxy sites will allow access to ANY content, something that is against the spirit and letter of CIPA.
    I sometimes think some of the things we block (like http://www.weeworld.com) are strange when compared to similar sites that we don’t (www.meez.com). I regularly make the point that blocking some of the sites you mention is educationally restrictive and, since I work on instructional tech in the Technology department, my opinions are dully considered. I’ve played an important part in keeping blogging, IM and web mail open (thankfully!).
    Here’s the policy we use (simplified):
    1. There are some categories of sites that are just blocked period. These are blocked by categories and _humans_ review sites to see if they fall into those categories.
    2. School administrators can request that a specific site be blocked. It is immediately blocked for them.
    3. If a different school’s administration requests that the same site NOT be blocked, the discussion is handed off to our Curriculum department for resolution.
    This has worked quite well for our District. Very few issues are sent to Curriculum and our schools are able to use the web to (gasp) educate. I try to say often and clearly that it our educators’ responsibility to teach students responsible use of web resources and classroom time and, when they are off task, it is a discipline issue, not a technology issue.
    Wes, you make me even happier that I work where I do. Thanks!

  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    Melissa: It’s great to hear that learners in your school district have a much more open environment for communication and collaboration. Clarence, I know of a few private schools that have unfiltered Internet access, but no public schools here in the U.S. (I don’t think any can because of CIPA.) As web 2.0 tools are used more and the creativity as well as work of students becomes more transparently visible to the public, I wonder if we’ll see communication and creativity divides more visibly between schools which permit broader types of Internet access and those which severely restrict access? LeAnne K. Robinson, Abbie Brown, and Tim Green have a good article titled “The Thread of Security” in the Sept/Oct issue of ISTE’s Learning and Leading with Technology magazine (unfortunately restricted to ISTE members only) which addresses these issues also via anecdotes from the classroom. Somehow I think school board members, administrators, and parents (as well as teachers) need to understand how a restrictive web environment can be more like a handicap than a learning aide.

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