Messages like this one might be common at your school and in your classroom.

Cognitive dissonance from the school internet filtering message

This was displayed today in my computer’s web browser when I tried to visit the website Flickr, which is included on the website whitelist we distribute to schools in advance of our Celebrate Oklahoma Voices workshop. Several things about this Internet filtering “block” message are worth noting.

First of all, the technology director in the school holding our workshop had specifically whitelisted flickr.com the day before, on Monday. Yet today, on Tuesday, the site was mysteriously blocked again. I guess the district’s Internet content filtering could be considered, “highly aggressive.”

Second of all, the webpage title of this “blocked” message was:

busted

The English Wiktionary definitions for “busted” which apply in this case are:

Caught in the act of doing something one shouldn’t do.

and

Caught and arrested for committing a crime.

The normative message from this content filtering page is: You have committed a grevious error. You are in the wrong. You should be ashamed of yourself.

Perhaps we could go even farther. Is part of the message: Accessing websites not approved by our school district’s Internet provider is a big game, and for your last attempt we give you a score of ZERO?! You failed, you’re busted!

Internet content filtering is not game. It’s not funny, and I resent being shown a message which implies I’m a criminal when I’m only trying to visit a website which provides access to millions of educationally valuable, copyright-friendly images for teachers and students to use.

The third comment I’ll make about this “blocked” page is the message at the bottom. The assumption inherent in this offering of “alternative websites” (Google, Yahoo, CNN and Fox News) is that the only reasons a learner at the school would be using the Internet is to either search for information or read the news. These are CONSUMPTIVE activities. This supposedly “helpful” set of links on the block page (which I’m sure is viewed hundreds if not thousands of times over the course of a school year by students as well as teachers) completely misses the point that the Internet can be used, is being used, and SHOULD be used by learners for serious work CREATING and SHARING content on websites which power creative productivity. A mindset persists in schools and many businesses that “real work” on the computer is done only in Microsoft Office, and “the Internet” is used just to “look stuff up” and read the news. This perspective is sorely out of date.

Draconian content filtering in our schools makes me angry. I don’t get angry often. I am well aware that our hostile network computing environment has necessitated firewalls and layered security approaches to protecting organizational network resources. There are “lots of bad guys” out there exploiting vulnerable computer systems and networks, and it’s important to have IT staff (supported by saavy vendors) who can and do help stand at the virtual gates of the organization and fend off would-be attackers.

The levels of severe, out-of-balance content filtering in our schools, which in many cases make all blogs, all wikis, and virtually all “interactive” websites blocked / banned / prohibited are incompatible with the values of a free society. We need to go beyond simply “unmasking the digital truth.” We need a well-planned and designed, coordinated social action campaign to promote balanced content filtering in our schools. We need this campaign to highlight the vendors and others who, like all too many political figures in our era, fan the flames of fear for their own financial and/or political advantage. Threats to network security are real in our schools, but so are the threats to freedom of information access and freedom of expression.

We need a campaign which can create incentives for service providers who filter the Internet to promote Internet accountability. We need to stop treating content filtering as “THE solution” to objectionable Internet content. Basic levels of filtering are needed and mandated by federal E-Rate law in the United States (for E-Rate recipients) but draconian content filtering is NOT. We need a campaign to celebrate, reward, and highlight companies which support BALANCED approaches to content filtering, not approaches which would make the central committee of the People’s Republic of China proud and happy.

One of the teachers in our workshop today, when asked the question, “What instructions: guidelines do you give students NOW about getting photos to use in a video project?” responded:

Pictures must come from a legal website. No obscene pictures.

When I asked the teacher how he defined “a legal website,” he said it was a website which students were able to access because the district’s content filter allowed them to view it.

Let’s deconstruct this comment, because the assumptions here are a BIG problem. This teacher assumed that EVERY website which was NOT blocked by the content filter was OK. That somehow, the school’s Internet filter was acting as an all-knowing, uber-grandmother figure, granting permission and giving blessing to any site which was NOT blocked / on a blacklist. I regret to suggest this perception is common. I lament this perception, as well as its normality in schools.

Folks, WE are the filter. Our minds are the filter. Legality and ethics are not defined by the whim’s of an Internet service provider, a tech director who decides to block or unblock websites, or for that matter by a company which decides today “certain applications” are cardinal sins to own and use but tomorrow become authorized in “their online store.”

We make ethical decisions and judgements based on values, not based on the whims of organizations or individuals. I tried to make this point in our workshop today and my discussions with this particular teacher, but I don’t think I made much headway. The perceptions that “if the filter doesn’t block it, it’s OK for the kids to use in a video project” as well as the belief that “it’s not my job to make decisions about right and wrong online, since our content filter does that for us” are both erroneous and depressing at multiple levels.

We’ve got so much work to do when it comes to digital literacy and digital citizenship.

Somebody is NOT Doing Their Job
Creative Commons License photo credit: Caveman 92223

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On this day..

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  • One of the best ways to promote that sort of accountability is through an accountability program. Some businesses and schools have caught on to this with great excitement. These organizations use accountability software to monitor use. Reports of Internet activity are sent to trusted friends or mentors who can use the reports for the purpose of discussing proper Internet responsibility. Of course, filtering at some level is preferable, but having accountability software means we are leaning on relationships, not just technology, to help teach proper Internet use.

  • I am with you 100% on this post. I firmly believe, that as a member of a democratic society (teaching children who we want to grow up to participate in that democracy) that filtering is not only “not good,” but that it is harmful. I believe that filtering teaches nothing and protects students from reality. Without filters will they run into “bad stuff?” Possibly. But I also believe that by filtering, we are not teaching them to function in on open environment that allows them to be connected and creative.

  • Jeff Lawrence

    Wes, I do agree with some of your points, but without filtering our school which you hosted “Celebrate Oklahoma Voices” workshop at would not be one of four schools in the entire state of Oklahoma to have a one to one laptop initiative. If it was not for our ISP “NEWNET 66” we would not have a one to one initiative at our school. They have helped our school with infrastructure, technical support, and all aspects of providing excellent support for our school. They quickly alert us to phishing scams, virus problems and malware. NEWNET goes above and beyond what any other ISP provider has ever provided for our school including ONENET and MASTERMIND, both of which were not very responsive or helpful for our school network needs. Lowrey has been with NEWNET since the beginning and I highly recommend them as a vendor to any school, especially if you are interested in a one to one initiative. While I do agree with some of your points, you are not answering to parents, board members and administrators to why students can access questionable websites. I suggest you become an IT director at a public school and you would view this issue differently, especially since your Federal dollars may depend on it. I find it unfortunate that you used your position as a facilitator of “Oklahoma Voices” to point this out using the icon of my service provider. I am the tech director of our school and I choose what is and what is not blocked. I challenge you or anyone in the state of Oklahoma to find a more progressive school in terms of using technology in the classroom than Lowrey School. Students can not be left to their own devices and judgement, it is the responsibility of the school district to provide as safe of an environment as possible and at the same time stimulate learning and free-thinking.
    I think this article would have been more fairly represented without the graphic posted on it. I am deeply saddened that after such a good workshop you felt it necessary to use our school as a poster child for your pet peeve!

  • Jeff:

    I will email you separately in addition to sharing the responses below to your comment.

    First of all, I am NOT anti-content filtering for schools. I am for “balanced filtering.” If you search my original post, you will find the word “balance” in it three times. One quote is, “We need a campaign to celebrate, reward, and highlight companies which support BALANCED approaches to content filtering, not approaches which would make the central committee of the People’s Republic of China proud and happy.” When I speak out on this issue, as I have done consistently and continue to do, sometimes people who hear or read what I’m saying miss this critical point. I’ve worked on several sides of this issue, and am well aware (as I noted in this post) that content filtering is required by US law for E-Rate recipients. One quote from this post is, “Basic levels of filtering are needed and mandated by federal E-Rate law in the United States (for E-Rate recipients) but draconian content filtering is NOT. ” I stand by that statement. So, please understand my position is NOT that all filtering is bad. I have basic content filtering on our home network at our house, and I would not advise any US school or library (whether they are receiving E-Rate or not) to take off all filters. I think “basic” content filtering is needed, not only because of objectionable content issues but also security. “Balanced filtering” is what I advocate for.

    Secondly, I very intentionally did not mention the name of your school in my post, and my post was not a criticism of your school specifically. I totally agree that it is a challenge to find a more progressive public school in Oklahoma than yours when it comes to technology integration. The issues I highlight here are common to ALL our Oklahoma schools and many other schools across the United States. This post was not an attack on your school. Organizers of Celebrate Oklahoma Voices have been dealing with these content filtering issues for the past four years, they are very familiar to us and to me specifically. If you or others are interested, we have information and documentation about this available on our learning community forum.

    Third of all, I agree that many of the services provided to you as a school district by your filtering company are exemplary in the state. I worked closely with them for the two years I was at AT&T, and I have extolled them by name on my blog in the past. They are MUCH easier to work with and reasonable than some of the other companies providing content filtering services now for other Oklahoma school districts. Given those positives, which I acknowledge, the statements which I made in this post are still valid with respect to your content filtering. I was amazed that a website which was specifically whitelisted one day was blacklisted the next. The other comments and observations I made in this post are still valid (in my view, of course) even though your vendor has done and is doing many great things for you.

    I am familiar with the difficulty school organizations in particular, as well as individuals more generally, have with criticism. It is common to take criticism personally. If I had wanted to criticize you, your district, or your vendor directly, I would have used your names in my post. I didn’t. Yes, the name of the vendor is on the graphic. It was necessary to use that screenshot to highlight multiple issues which I wanted to point out in my post, however.

    It is impossible for a culture of any kind to constructively change if people who see needed areas of improvement are silenced. I wrestle with these issues on a weekly basis, and sometimes daily. I am working as a constructive change agent inside and outside our state for our schools and in education, and part of my role is serving as a mirror for issues and challenges which I witness and experience. I am very judicious whenever I share criticism. Everyone loves praise, but no one likes to be criticized. I know this is a long comment, but the bottom line I hope you’ll understand is that this post was not an attack on you, your school, or your vendor specifically. If I had wanted to do that, I would have used your names, and I did not.

    My blog is filled with posts where I extol and praise some of the most innovative teachers, students, leaders, and schools. Your school (as I said several times during our workshop) is a shining star for many reasons in our state. These content filtering issues do not change that fact, and I am sure I’ll be sharing in upcoming days not only some of the wonderful digital stories created by your faculty, but also my own observations about your school and what you all have achieved with respect to technology integration. We need more leaders in our schools like you have been blessed to have, and I will be pointing that out in future posts. It will be clear I am specifically praising you, your school, and other leaders from your district, because I will use your names specifically.

    Last of all I’ll respond to your suggestion that I become a school technology director. I’ve definitely considered that. I’ve also considered returning to the classroom, if I could be fortunate enough to work for a visionary superintendent like you all have had who has done the myriad of things required to implement a sustainable vision for 1:1 learning. (I came very close to applying at another Oklahoma 1:1 district when I left AT&T.) I am sure you are right, because of where I sit the world does not look the same to me as it was if I was a technology director. That said, however, I believe at this time it’s my calling to do what I’m doing. I certainly don’t want to advocate for changes which are impossible or out in “left field,” when it comes to content filtering or anything else. I do know SEVERAL technology directors as well as administrators, in our state and in other states, who have a very different view of content filtering than the one implemented in most of our schools. It IS possible to have balanced content filtering, while protecting both the safety of school constituents (including students) as well as the network and the devices which use it.

  • I have replaced the original Flickr image which is embedded in this blog post to cover/hide the name of the vendor who provides content filtering at this district. The issues which I highlighted are not specific to one vendor, these are common for many schools, in many places, with many vendors.

    The vendor in this case DOES provide schools with exemplary service on many fronts. Because my blog is well indexed by Google and I was not specifically criticizing one school or vendor in this post, I did not use their names. In an upcoming podcast I will be highlighting some of the exemplary services provided by this specific vendor, to this specific school.

    Apparently some blog readers “read into” this post that this school district is unhappy with the services provided by their Internet service vendor. That is not the case and is an inaccurate extrapolation of the content in this post.

  • I am not a big fan of content filtering, Here is a blog post on my thoughts http://tsakshaug-nonesense.blogspot.com/2009/11/article-on-schools-blocking-sites.html
    Many schools leave the filtering to non-educators, this should be in the hands of educators who know why sites need to be accessed.

  • JJ

    I am an avid reader of your blog, I follow you on Twitter, and I appreciate your contribution to my personal awareness of educational issues. However, there is one issue that I believe you are lacking in understanding. I try hard not to take your statements about IT Directors personally, but you continually throw us under the bus with regard to content filtering. In many schools in our state the “IT Director or Technology Coordinator” is the only technology staff person for the entire district. My job includes every aspect of networking, hardware, software, staff training, e-rate (which is monumental), online state testing (mega-monumental), and tech support for computers, Smart Boards, projectors, sound equipment, and any other equipment purchased by the district. I have hundreds of computers and network equipment at 5 different sites all over town. I work 60-70 hours a week and still can’t ever get it all done. Most of the time I just run to the hottest fire and the rest of the problems have to wait…sometimes for weeks. This situation is fairly common in our state. Most of us are not interested in having control; we just try to survive.

    My ISP provides the content filtering service, but I manage my own filter. I would love to open it up more, but I have to comply with directives from e-rate and my administration, and the limitations of my network. When parents, teachers, or even students report inappropriate sites being accessed, I am usually instructed to block them. I blocked Flickr for a period of time because the students were using the site to find photos involving nudity and other inappropriate content, and we had parents who were outraged. I have been directed to block YouTube, Facebook and MySpace because of the potential for inappropriate content and activity. I did not make that decision myself, but I happen to agree. YouTube has great content but also has content that is totally unacceptable. Until we can find a way to selectively filter the content the site will remain blocked. Our current filter uses category blocking. I realize this also blocks valuable social networking sites that have valid educational uses. The ISP staff works with me to create exceptions for these when teachers need changes made. It’s not perfect, but we don’t get the ideal situation very often in public schools.

    I also have to ensure that our network remains functional. We have 4 T-1’s and we are constantly pushing our bandwidth to the max. We are currently administering state mandated online tests. It doesn’t much matter whether I agree with that whole process (I don’t), it is not optional. In order to conserve bandwidth, I have blocked a few areas such as internet radio and video streaming. This was not a censorship decision, but a necessity. Again, in an ideal world we would have adequate bandwidth for any and all educational endeavors.

    I do not just randomly block categories or websites. In addition to adult content, I have such categories blocked as online auctions, illegal activity, and personals/online dating. I also have web-mail blocked except for our school mail. This is simply because I don’t have the time to clean up the infected computers due to phishing scams, malware, and viruses. No anti-virus protection will prevent all of these threats. I work had to ensure that our teachers and students have access to tools, sites, and applications they need. It is sometimes impossible to perfectly balance those needs with the realities of our infrastructure. I understand that balance is the key, but sometimes it is not easy or even possible to achieve. So instead of blaming us IT folks for standing in the way of progressive education, perhaps you need to understand the bigger picture. We are not just randomly making decisions to control users on our network.

    I agree that students need to be taught digital citizenship and given opportunities to collaborate and create in online social environments. I want my school to be progressive and overcome challenges involved with balancing their experiences. But as the IT Director, I am a very small piece of that puzzle. You sometimes give me far to much credit and power that I don’t deserve or possess.

  • JJ: This rant was not an attack on IT directors. While I certainly can point to specific cases in specific districts where the IT director is a HUGE impediment to the cause of digital citizenship and acquisition of the ISTE NETS (that is the case in some large as well as small school districts) I totally agree that it is unfair to lay all of this at the feet of the IT Director. Bottom line, this is about leadership and administrative vision. Yes, IT directors have a responsibility and an obligation (I’d argue) to help inform their administration about risks and about “balance” when it comes to content filtering. That said, however, schools are hierarchical bureaucracies and like all other staff the IT Director works for the superintendent, who works for the school board, who works for the public. So the buck REALLY stops with the top leaders in school districts.

    We all have important roles to play, and the role of an IT Director is undoubtedly a vital one. I definitely acknowledge there are a myriad of legal mandates with which schools (and IT departments specifically) must comply. In many cases, however, FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) overrule reason and logical thinking. I’ve taught in school districts and worked in school districts where the threat of lawsuits led administrators to do things that could be rightly judged by outsiders as irrational and against the developmental needs of children. Removing all playground equipment from all elementary schools because of a lawsuit threat from a parent is one non-technical example that comes to mind. There are LOTS of factors here. But let’s bring it back to technology and content filtering.

    Your job as the IT director is not and should not be construed by parents, your administration, or your community as “guaranteeing the safety of all students on the Internet at all times.” I recognize that is a common perception, but it is a FALSE one. It is one we need to work together to address and change. If you read through the materials currently available on the Unmasking the Digital Truth project, you’ll see that schools have a GREAT deal of latitude in how they choose to enforce content filtering.

    Do you have to block webmail and YouTube? No you don’t. You can choose to, but you don’t have to by legal mandate. If students or adults on your network are searching for objectionable content, that’s not your fault as the IT director any more than it would be a teacher’s fault if a student brought a Playboy magazine to school. I believe we need more accountable networks and communities in our schools to address these issues. Many people today assume falsely that content filters can keep our students on task and keep them away entirely from online content we consider objectionable. They can’t. We need to acknowledge this and adopt MUCH more balanced filtering rules in our schools than we have at present in MANY places.

    Praise God we live in a relatively free society. (I won’t digress into a diatribe about The Patriot Act here.) I’ve lived in Mexico, and I’ve visited mainland China twice, Hong Kong once. We believe in freedom of expression and in freedom more generally. The enforced rules of content filtering in many of our schools do not, in my view, reflect our values as citizens of the United States or as citizens of a free society. My September 2007 post, “Content filtering in Communist China versus an Oklahoma school” highlighted some of these contrasts. We should NOT block all video sharing sites, all sites permitting social networking, all wiki sites, and all blogs in our schools. Yet sadly, that is EXACTLY what many of our schools in Oklahoma specifically do now. This is wrong, and I believe we all have a responsibility to help fix this situation.

    I acknowledge this is a complicated problem, and no– I do not ascribe to you as a technology director the powers of God. You are in a vitally important role, and I cannot put myself in your shoes to feel how difficult it must be at times to be caught between angry parents and your school administration. These are not easy issues, and I’m not trying to paint over this with a brush which would oversimplify things that have developed because of complex interactions.

    I do want to say THANKS for your service and commitment to our kids as well as educators. Educators are SO often not thanked enough, and the work you do makes a difference for many. Please understand I am NOT attacking you personally. I am trying to uncover and bring to further light a BIG problem which we need to fix together. I don’t have all the answers to this, but I am committed to working with others (like you) to find them.

    Thank you for your response, and taking the time to share your views. I am listening and paying attention. Only by working with all our educational constituents can we hope to find workable solutions to issues like these.

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