One of the most common questions I ask teachers and administrators attending my presentations and workshops now is:

Does your school district trust you as an educator on the Internet more than they trust kindergarten students?

For most educators I work with here in the southwestern United States, the answer is almost always “no.” The vast majority of public school districts in which I work and with which I am familiar provide a SINGLE LEVEL of content filtering for EVERYONE utilizing the network for Internet access. This is unfortunate, since teachers are PROFESSIONALS and deserve to be trusted much more than anyone does or should trust a five year old.

I know of only three Oklahoma public school districts (Tulsa, Enid, and Alva) which currently provide differentiated content filtering for teachers and students. I am planning to put together a whitepaper on this topic in the coming month, and (if possible) will share that document publicly. My perception at this point is that the schools have different network architectures and hardware/software configurations which make it possible to provide differentiated content filtering, but the basic idea can be summarized in the following Skitch diagram:

Differentiated Content Filtering @ School

I hope to learn more about different configuration options available for differentiated content filtering at the educational technology conferences I’m attending later this spring. If school districts insist on blocking access to sites like YouTube, PBwiki, Wikispaces and Blogger, in my view they should NOT block that access for teachers. Differentiated content filtering is not the “endgame” when it comes to changes we need to see on IT networks in schools to help them better support instructional objectives and learning needs, but it certainly would be a step in the right direction for many of the schools I work in and around.

Is your school district providing differentiated content filtering yet? If so, do you know how they provide it? (What type of authentication scheme and content filtering system are they using?) If not, how are you going to get this conversation in front of policymakers?

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  • Yes, my district is now providing differentiated filtering. This is NOT the answer, is nothing more than a cop-out in terms of dealing with educating students to real world situations – and it is inequitable.

    Guess which computers have the lowest memory and the slowest processors in the district? Right, the teacher machines that can access blocked content. Why in the world would teachers choose to go to a blocked site on the slowest computer in the building? Well, because they have no choice.

    Differentiated filtering looks good, but is loaded with problems, and it projects an inaccurate perception of technology reality in our schools.

  • Why have filters at all? Who has the nerve to actually try creating a school culture of trust?

  • To the other comments: I agree, but would also say that the majority of schools are *going* to have filters in place, and that’s not likely to change very soon. Given that, I think moving toward differentiated filtering is a step in the right direction. However, I would ask for four levels:

    1) PreK-5: very restrictive*
    2) 6-8: restrictive*
    3) 9-12: fairly open*
    4) Staff: fully open

    * Any time teachers are working directly with students online, teachers should have the ability to remove restrictions for those students during that time.

    At the very least, administrations need to start recognizing the differences between the online safety, abilities, and needs of a very young child and a soon-to-be adult.

    Another step that might help loosen restrictions is to have better guidelines and laws in place that protect teachers and schools from the actions of students online. When a student gets in a fight, or brings illegal substances/objects to school, or writes a threatening letter, the student is held responsible for that action unless clear negligence can be demonstrated on the part of the teacher. It doesn’t seem to work that way with technology.

  • I’m very interested in this topic. Our district is fairly liberal, but recently added Flickr to the YouTube/Google Video sites that are blocked. I’ve advocated for differentiated filtering, but was told that with the present system, Websense, this is not possible. The approach to content filtering has to change. At least teachers need access to these rich resources, even if, by law for now, they are restricted on the larger student network.

  • My views are much akin to Eric’s in that it seems appropriate to set up a scaffolded approach to access control. More restrictive at the youngest ages, with control being gradually handed over to the student as they mature. With the possibility of elder students being provided their own accounts for managing access to blocked sites with logging and overview capabilities to ensure appropriate use of resources.

    However, as the spouse of an educator, I’d like to see more vendors providing standardized granular account level control for teachers. Treating teachers as the professionals they are, if a teacher has a legitimate need to access a site, then by virtue of their account, they are given temporary override privileges. If the site or page is to be used for more than a one-off implementation, they can submit that site/page for permanent exemption. The exemptions would then approved by a team of educators rather than a single individual to ensure that a fair and balanced pedagogical perspective is applied.

  • Brett: CIPA and the federal E-Rate system in the United States guarantee we will continue to have content filters in most US public schools. I do know some private schools making their way without content filtering or E-Rate, but they are in an even smaller minority than districts providing differentiated content filtering.

    Mark: I agree differentiated content filtering is not THE answer or “endgame” but it would be a step forward in the Oklahoma schools I’m working in now. I think Eric’s suggestion of a graduated system is sound, along with the ability to open access for students when directly supervised. Added to this (if I was King) I’d implement a system where every website a user visits is logged, specific to their user account and MAC address (if laptops are used.) This logging would take place whether the laptop computer was used on the district LAN/WAN or off it. Then students, parents, and administrators could log into the district’s information system and view all websites visited with that user’s account or laptop. Of course this could still be bypassed, but I think a system like this could be a very useful tool to accompany the face to face conversations which are the ONLY viable way to help students develop the ethical decision-making skills they need to responsibly navigate “the unfiltered web” on their own as adults after they leave our schools.

  • JP

    I agree because students shouldn’t go to certain websites because they may use them inappropiately.

  • As a student, I run into filter/firewall issues every single day.

    I decided to write a post concerning this issue, and I plan to take the issue up with our school board very soon; here is a taste of the situation at our school: “Last week, a fellow classmate notified me that he spent forty minutes trying to access his school-assigned blog, one that our English teacher assigned and grades regularly. He typed the internet address into the URL bar, clicked Go, and waited and waited and waited. Finally, a box appeared notifying him that he might be violating his internet use policy by clicking Continue. He continued clicking Continue, until?40 minutes later?he was able to access his site. Another classmate notified me that she cannot access the images she needs for her Desktop Publishing class and is forced to use the internet at her home to download the images.”

    Follow the link to read the complete post.

    http://ithink.learnerblogs.org/2008/02/23/unnecssary-censorshi/

  • Up until just recently, my district filtered all internet users at the same level. After a few years of conversations, the district will be moving to tiered filtering (K-5, 6-8, 9-12, and staff) next fall. Teachers and librarians will also have the ability to temporarily override the filter.

    For us, the change came as shifts in philosophy and technology made the tiered approach workable. We use Lightspeed filtering which will work with Active Directory profiles to set filtering at the appropriate level for each user.

    While certainly not the ideal, this is an important change, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it all comes together.

  • Just posted some thoughts along these lines – actually some inspired by this post…. Enjoy http://blog.brettmoller.com/2008/02/26/creating-an-effective-connected-culture/

  • As a former teacher and now the Director of Technology for a school district in Kansas, I agree with many of these comments. I too am deeply involved in developing our technology and providing a “Differentiated” scheme to our school district Internet as well as providing additional training for the implementation of technology as a resource and not just another tool.
    Our school district has a 1:1 laptop program with students in grades 7-12. The lower levels of students are about 1:1.5. Unfortunately, I too have to keep a CIPA qualified filter in place as our school district receives a large amount of funding through E-Rate to provide our Internet and Wide Area Network (WAN). So, Wesley is absolutely correct in his response to #3 Brett Moller. Unfortunately, this requirement is a federal stipulated law. Schools receiving E-Rate funding must meet CIPA filter regulation or face the government when they come in and audit the school district.
    There is a large variety of filter options out there on the market. Some are capable of being installed and continue to work when a laptop is taken away from the school district. Also, many filters provide user authentication so each individual can be tracked in case of a violation. Then, based on the user authentication, one can provide different levels of Internet access. For example, we have certain teachers that have proved to be very capable of having an “Open” IP address. They too have to use the proxy server but have been provide a method that will remove those proxy settings when they need access to a specific site. Also, teachers in our district have the ability to request a website(s) to be opened. We ask that the teachers provide an overview of how the website will be used in their classroom. This documentation is recorded with the website information. The reason for this approach in opening a website is to provide proper documentation in case we are to be audited or questioned. Unfortunately, we have had some teachers show that they do not have control of their classrooms and students have gained access to inappropriate sites while on the teacher machine. Therefore, we are not truly a “Differentiated” filtered school district but are sincerely trying to reach that goal!

  • Wes: That is obviously an example of Government regulations that are made by folk that are ill-informed. Obviously, you guys have to work a way that will keep that regulators happy. What about giving the teachers the ability to unblock sites on the spot? Surely that can be arranged? Or is there something stopping that also? Can we have the teachers professionalism be trusted to do something like that?

  • Wes – We are trying to address this issue here where I work – Larned, KS. We use a product made by Vicomsoft called InterGate Policy Manager. Any user who wants internet access must authenticate to the filter. The filter in turn verifies that authentication with the LDAP running on our Mac OS X OD Master. The filter also can be configured to recognize groups on the OD Master. In this way, we have set up different content filtering rules for students and staff. In the end the building administrator makes the final decision on what should be blocked for both students and staff but at least this allows our teachers a little more freedom when they are at school.

  • Stan: Thanks for the details on your configuration to do this. I am going to add a section to the new tech directors wiki that our state dept of education has setup, on different configurations for this.

    Brett: It is up to the local school district to determine how filtering is setup and managed, so yes, theoretically districts could set it up (and some do) for quick unblocking when a teacher requests it. Local control is the rule, but the reality is most districts don’t have very permissive policies setup for teachers. Then there is the whole issue of kid access, and whether to tier access rights for them as well….. Even fewer districts are doing that now. It’s great to hear what different folks are doing tho, both to learn and share how they are doing it as well as learn what is working/not working with their configurations.

    Mark Ahlness is in a Seattle district that IS doing this (he commented earlier) and I hope to visit with him at NCCE about this specifically. Again, tiered or differentiated content filtering isn’t an “endgame” and has its own problems, but I think it is still a step ahead for most schools I’m working in and with now.

  • Our district has just enabled differentiated filtering levels in the past two weeks. Although it had been discussed (and dismissed) in the past, pressure from teachers to be treated as professionals and awareness on the part of the teachers that it COULD be done are the two things that forced the hand of the director of technology. There were some issues as we now have both pc and macs in our district. We use Novell Client Trust, so our pc users are identified and authenticated as teachers when they open the browser. Mac users have to sign in to the browser and it times out after 80 minutes.

    A next step is to identify a procedure for teachers to unblock a site for a period of time, rather than have to go through administrative channels, where decisions are sometimes made by non-educators.

    I agree with many of the other comments that this is not an end solution, but at least a step ahead.

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  • Wesley Scott

    As a Technology Director, I feel that differentiated filtering looks good on paper, but is just not applicable for a number of reasons.

    1. PC management – Schools are woefully underfunded. We only have a fraction of the manpower that the corporate world has. Replacement cycles for rural districts can be double what is recommended. Our computers must often last 6-7 years, and this forces us to minimize trouble areas.

    2. Monitoring – Who possibly has time to manage individual or group differentiated filtering. Thousands of websites are accessed everyday. Even if teachers are responsible, what about when there is a sub? Shut the computers off. Stretch already tight budgets with extra training?

    3. Levels of filtering – Who determines what is to be filtered for which age? Can you really lump all students into those 4 areas? What about IEP students? Maturity Levels? Disciplinary Actions? Parent Consent? Religious Beliefs? Maybe the School Board should set what should be filtered. But then the board changes and new rules are in place.

    4. Lack of Professionalism – Completely open internet assumes the professionalism of 100% of the teachers. Teaching is a noble profession, but no group is perfect. As a school official, I cannot open the district up to liability. It only takes one instance of inappropriate content on a computer to make the news and damage the district. Enrollment drops and teachers are laid off.

    5. Stifle Creativity? – there are millions of websites. How can blocking some of them stifle creativity? There are still millions to choose from. Hundreds of thousands of topics. I grew up in a time where if it wasn’t in the local library then too bad, and today’s kids have access to incredible amounts of current up to date infomation.

    Most businesses now employ filters. Banks, Hospitals, Universities, Libraries, Retail outlets, etc. The only place you find unrestricted Internet is in the home. And that is where it should stay…

  • Wesley S.: I appreciate your input and shared perspective as a tech director. Several thoughts in response:

    Differentiated content filtering is not just an ideal or something that is on paper, it is a best practice that is in place in a number of school districts. I wrote a white paper detailing some specific examples over a month ago and the article is still undergoing a legal review. I look forward to publishing that on the open web soon, because I think it will help provide specific examples of school districts implementing content filtering that address several of the questions you posed here.

    In terms of cost, this is a network-level solution, not a client-side one. If you have teachers authenticating now to an LDAP or active directory database, then you need an LDAP aware device which can provide different levels of filtering.

    Please note my position is NOT to encourage unrestricted Internet access in US schools and libraries receiving E-Rate funding. Filtering is the law in the US, and I also think a basic level of filtering is a good idea. I encourage parents to implement a basic level of content filtering at home, for free, using a tool like OpenDNS.

    Yes, content filtering absolutely stifles creativity. In the Oklahoma public school district where my own children now attend, all blogs and wikis are blocked. No one can use these tools at school: NO one of which I am aware. This is a large school district. This is a significant stifling of creativity, in my view.

    When I get legal approval to publish the content filtering article, I will certainly link it here as well as on my social bookmarks for content filtering.

  • Corey White

    I suppose larger schools have less flexibility, but I am able to do differentiated filtering on a more individual scale. I simply do it on a person-to-person basis. If a teacher or staff member requests to be unblocked I simply look at their need and determine whether it is something I need free for everybody in the district or if I need to unfilter that specific machine (I do it by IP Address).

    If I unfilter the machine: a) I ask that they not allow students on the computer b) That they preview all sites before showing students c) Use common sense when surfing d) I inform them that our filter logs ALL Internet activity! I have little trouble. The only trouble area is that teachers will and do allow students on their computer.

    I’m sure the students would disagree, but when you talk to them most are not concerned about being able to access academically challenging or needed material. They want to play flash games, surf Youtube, and play with the various social networking sites. Not really what I’d call productive for the most part. If the students are being kept out of legitimate websites then the problem is really not with the filter, but the policies and people in charge of them.

    As for it stifling creativity. I suppose it does in some aspects, but the reality is that you are talking about a very, very small number of kids and the impact is very minimal. While creativity and technology mix more often these days I keep my focus on tech and let our Arts Dept. handle the creativity.

    The problem is that we talk about how smart kids are and how technology savvy they are. I suppose it’s all in the application. We’ve got kids that can SIMULTANEOUSLY instant message, play on social networking sites, text, program their iPod, play video games, and watch videos. However, I find many of these very same kids can NOT properly use a Spreadsheet, create a webpage, use Photoshop to edit an image, or do a mail merge. How many could write a formula in Excel to calculate something? Sure some can, but I think we have our priorities wrong here. Blocking a few pages they want access to isn’t hurting them in the least. At worst it’s an annoyance and that’s all.

  • Corey: Like many in IT in our schools, your comment reflects an assumption that part of your job should be filtering out websites that students could use to be off task and “not productive.” My position is, that should not be the role of the IT staff. Teachers have the responsibility of designing engaging work for students, and in MANY, MANY cases, they are not doing this. See Phil Schlechty’s excellent book “Working on the Work: An Action Plan for Teachers, Principals, and Superintendents” for more about this.

    As far as your idea of “leaving creativity to the art department,” I strongly disagree. Encouraging and supporting creativity should be EVERYONE’S job at school. Unfortunately many teachers and administrators have a “fill the pail” mentality when it comes to schooling. They view their job as trying to fill the pails (brains) of kids with a fixed amount of content, rather than trying to provide students with opportunities authentically engage in meaningful work with interesting content. Creativity and curiosity play a natural role in authentic learning, and that is why I continue to maintain that we should emphasize creativity in our schools.

    You lament how kids can’t use a spreadsheet, create a webpage, edit an image in PhotoShop, do a mail merge, or create a formula in Excel. My questions are:

    1- What problem-based learning contexts are teachers providing for students which require and invite them to use Excel as a tool, to solve REAL problems– not simply equations that a teacher pulls out of a textbook, out of context, or invents but doesn’t relate to the real world students understand? I agree students should be able to use spreadsheets to analyze and chart data, identify trends, predict outcomes, etc. How are teachers at your school regularly challenging students to do these things in meaningful contexts, where students are genuinely interested in doing the work and finding the answers?

    2- In relation to students not knowing how to create a webpage… Have you checked how many of your students have profile pages on MySpace, Facebook, Xanga, and Myyearbook? Chances are quite a few of them do, certainly a high percentage should if they follow national trends like those highlighted in the summer 2007 National School Boards Association Report “Creating and Connecting.” Creating and maintaining a profile and webpages on a social networking website IS “creating a webpage.” Are you wanting students to use a program like Frontpage or Dreamweaver to create a website? Gaining experience creating content on a social networking site, keeping your profile private, and carefully monitoring the content that is published and “tagged” by you as well as your peers to monitor the electronic portfolio which Google is amassing about everyone are all important skills.

    3- In terms of photo editing, has anyone at your school created and sponsored a digital photography contest for students? Having a contest like that could be pretty affordable and yield some great benefits. Setup categories for the types of skills you want students to develop. If you want them to learn photo compositing, then have that as a category. Rather than limit them to PhotoShop, which is very expensive and likely beyond the computing budget of most families, introduce students to free, open source photo editing programs like Gimp which they can use legally both at school and at home for zero dollars.

    4- In regard to your lament about students apparent inability to do a mail merge, how many teachers at your school can independently do a mail merge? How many local entrepreneurs in your community can do a mail merge independently? Certainly it is great if people know how to do a mail merge, and I am a big fan of learners of all ages knowing how to powerfully manage and manipulate data not only in spreadsheet programs but also in flat as well as relational database programs. How sure are you that “doing a mail merge” is a critical 21st century skill, however? Many times in school, I think we make assumptions about things EVERYONE needs to know how to do– from memorizing the quadratic formula to writing a haiku, that really seem pretty silly and irrelevant when you consider the skill sets of people living and working quite successfully out of school.

    I do appreciate your input and comments on this thread, Corey, but I continue to maintain that tiered content filtering is essential and an overall focus on both creativity as well as authentic student engagement in our schools is direly needed. You raise some points that are valid: My challenge to you is, DO something about them, rather than just lament them.

    Start a digital photography contest at your school.

    Help a teacher develop an integrated lesson which involves so much data to process, that students ASK for a tool (like a spreadsheet) which can help them aggregate and analyze it. Invite students to help design the project so it focuses on a local issue of real importance, in which they, their families, and/or others in their community have a genuine stake and interest. If their learning is situated in that type of context, I think you’ll find the impact of their learning experiences will be far greater, and many more of them will learn digital literacy skills alongside traditional literacy skills. Teaching in a problem-based learning environment is a lot more work than simply lecturing and delivering content to students, but it is the type of learning environment our students need to remain engaged in school work. Too many kids today are BORED by school. As the adults running our schools, it is our responsibility to remedy this situation.

    As a last suggestion, please consider introducing all the teachers at your school to EduTopia. They publish a free, monthly magazine for educators and have a fantastic site dedicated to helping teachers learn about new ways to help students engage in project-based learning, cultivate digital literacy skills, and improve the opportunities for learning in our schools in other ways. The price is right, the resources are free, and chances are high if you share this with your faculty you’ll find at least a few teachers who will love some of the ideas and actually implement them for the benefit of your students.

    There are many things we can lament when it comes to schools and students, but there are also lots of good things we can DO to try and improve things. We’ve all got to do what we can.

    Good luck.

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