I shared the following today as a response to a comment posted on my recent rant, “Cognitive dissonance from the school internet filtering message.” I think the issues and questions highlighted here are worth extracting and sharing as a separate post. This is a VERY important conversation.

Blog reader “JJ” wrote:

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.

This was my response:

JJ: This rant was not an attack on all 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.

How would you respond to JJ’s comments?

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  • Chris

    Wes,

    We are a fairly liberal district, most web 2.0 sites open, but I disagree with you in your thoughts that the legal mandate to block YouTube is false. JJ pointed out eRate, a substantial amount of money provided through the Universal Service Fund (the little surcharge we pay on phone bills). eRate, or more specifically, the FCC, point to CIPA to follow to remain eligible for funds. CIPA, of course, mandates some type of monitoring/filtering of pornography. Many hide behind CIPA for everything, but really, it’s about porn. So in looking at flickr, YouTube, and other similar sites, how can you not say pornography/elicit sexual photos do not exist on these sites? To continue to receive eRate, we must comply, but I would think we morally may still block it without eRate, as we have no way to filter the good from the bad. Yes, it definitely falls to the teachers, but if they do not monitor, the Tech Department will hear the grief.

    So, maybe we’re not forced to filter, but we will lose eRate funds. Ok, so maybe not much of a problem in some districts, but in most, that sometimes quite substantial savings goes to administrator cell phones, phone bills for schools, and that very pipe of internet goodness coming in to the district. Unless someone will pay us $50,000, $100,000, and even more, that’s a fairly big bone to dangle.

  • Chris:

    It should be easy to take this conversation from the theoretical to the actual, when it comes to websites like YouTube and Flickr. How many schools do we have today which DO have YouTube and Flickr open for students as well as staff, and have any of these districts been audited by the SLD? In those audits, were the districts ordered to start blocking those sites to comply with CIPA? I don’t think that’s the case, but I don’t have the actual research to back me up at this point. I’d like to see data on this.

    CIPA requires that districts have a policy to block porn and they enforce it. Nothing is specific about the sites you must block. Again, if anyone thinks their district content filter is keeping all students away from all objectionable content, they are almost certainly wrong.

    There is a difference in students who are intentionally searching for objectionable content like porn, and those who might stumble across something accidentally as part of an Internet search.

    If students are intentionally searching for content which is inappropriate, then that is a discipline issue, not a technology issue. You are right that “many [districts] hide behind CIPA for everything, along with e-Discovery laws, FERPA, COPPA, bandwidth concerns, etc. In this conversation about “balanced filtering” we need to ask ourselves how we are providing opportunities for students to make good choices and act responsibly in the digital environment. By blocking YouTube at your school, do you think you are helping students learn to appropriately navigate the myriad number of ethical choices which the site presents? Most schools don’t want to be a part of that conversation, so they say, “We block YouTube.” But where are LOTS of kids spending hours and hours each day surfing? On YouTube. Left alone (in many cases) without adult supervision or input, what kinds of choices are these students making? We don’t know, because we’re not around (in many cases) to talk with them about it.

    When it comes to Flickr, here’s my biggest question for school leaders: How are you providing students with access to copyright friendly media which they can use for multimedia projects? To meet ISTE NETS, students as well as teachers have to CREATE content. Without content creation, there can be no creativity. The answer in many schools is, “We don’t let our kids create much of anything with digital media.” That’s not a satisfactory answer. In the past four years alone teaching hundreds of teachers how to create safely and legally with digital media in our Celebrate Oklahoma Voices project, I can say with certainly over 90% of teachers are VERY uncomfortable talking with students or anyone for that matter about copyright. Flickr Creative Commons has over 139 million photos available now. Are there some groups on Flickr that are not appropriate / objectionable? Undoubtedly. But should the existence of those groups, or some photos which fall outside the bounds of propriety in schools, mean we block the MILLIONS of appropriate and wonderful images on the site? It does in many of our schools. I think that’s flawed thinking.

    We don’t ban all driving because some people choose to drink alcohol and then drive. Driving is dangerous. But it’s something we need to be able to do, and we need to learn to make good CHOICES when we do it. Using the Internet is all about CHOICES. Content filters today in many schools are used in ways that try and PREVENT students as well as teachers from being able to make meaningful choices about content access. This needs to change.

    Back to your original point, it would be great if the FCC came out with clear guidelines on this. Do schools need to block YouTube to comply with CIPA, yes or no? I doubt they’ll do that. The draft of the new national educational technology plan includes language about opening up content filters in our schools to a greater degree. We’ll see if that pans out. I’m not optimistic.

    Who has lost e-Rate funds because they failed to filter? I challenge anyone to provide ONE example of a school that has had a BASIC content filter in place, and lost eRate funds because they didn’t block strictly enough. I’m sure there must be someone who has, because this refrain is frequently invoked. In one of our largest districts, that excuse was used recently to justify blocking all Ning.com sites, even though LOTS of teachers in the district as well as our own state department of education are using Ning sites for productive educational networking.

    Again, I’d like to get facts and figures on this. If schools are losing all their e-Rate funding because they are NOT blocking sites like YouTube, then we all should know about it. I don’t think those actual cases exist, but if they do we should be able to find out about them.

    When I worked for AT&T for 2 years as a state education advocate, I was very involved in eRate issues. I know some districts that WERE audited by the SLD only used the built-in content filter which Internet Explorer provided for “rated” sites. That, of course, was a laughable way to address content filtering. Yet despite that fact, my understanding was that the district passed the audit because according to CIPA, they just needed a policy to block porn and to prove they enforced it.

  • JJ-Wesley; I am also an IT director. I’ve had the same reaction to your comments associating filtering and IT directors. I guess we’re a sensitive lot 🙂

    If you (Wes) weren’t so INCREDIBLE I think I would have turned away from your blog long ago. Instead, I’ve learned to listen closely to your words when talking about filtering. It is a community problem (administrators, teachers, parents, IT staff). The problem is… most of the community doesn’t swim in this water much less participate in the conversation. In a void, schools tend toward the conservative (avoid lawsuits) manner.

    I can relate to all of the dilemmas described by JJ (long hours, juggling priorities, people who think it should be easier to deliver). It is easy to get bogged down with daily operations rather than take on a new process (convesation about filitering) and project (finding, configuring and maintaining and new filtering system).

    Thankfully, with the help of my crack staff and some thoughtful teachers, we have evolved our filtering/blocking policies and technology over the past 13 years. This has required intense conversations, many demonstrations, more money, testing, and finally implementation. It wasn’t easy to fit it into our other priorities but we got it done.

    Just as JJ described, we now have a new problem… bandwidth. As a rural school district we have few options. Thankfully we have a community of technology professionals who value public schools who are mentoring us toward a new solution – no thanks to the “big telecoms” I might add.

    I feel your pain JJ. As “middle managers” we get the pressure from all sides. The system we have now allows teachers to authenticate beyond the filters provided for students. Teachers can access YouTube content. We’re trying to teach them to download this content in the off hours. There is no quick and easy solution but I think we have managed a compromise that works. I hope you find support for a solution in your school district.

  • I think you are right Wes. Districts have to have a policy certifying that we have a safety policy and protection measures. Beyond that it is not specifically defined. Given that there is no definitive database that can provide perfect protection, I figure that we are free to use a method/technology that we choose. Here’s the requirement in a nutshell http://bit.ly/RSaO

    Reading this page you will see that if you are only receiving erate for Telecommunications, you are not required to comply with this at all. Also, you can allow adults “access for bona fide research or other lawful purposes.” This would be your teachers. So allowing them to authenticate past the firewall is a pretty easy call – though not so easy to afford and deliver in some districts.

  • This is an important conversation and one that needs to continue as we all struggle to find the filtering balance. CIPA compliance is the “hot-button” issue in this debate, but I am curious as to why no one has addressed JJ’s other concern:

    “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.”

    Protection against malware and viruses is another big reason I hear for filtering. I have worked in a situation where personal email was not blocked at school, and I watched the latest and greatest virus spread through our network more than once as a result. Since blocking personal email sites, that problem has all but disappeared.

    Where I currently work, all shortened URLs are also blocked, so we cannot access links shared with us via Tiny URL, bit.ly, etc. My understanding is shortened URLs can be used to proxy around the filter as well as redirect to malware sites. Twitter also remains blocked because it has been used as an avenue for malware/virus infection.

    We can educate end users over and over again, but in the end, it only takes one misinformed click, which even the most tech savvy among us can make, to bring a whole host of trouble to your network. What ideas does anyone have on this score as it pertains to filtering?

  • Good point EdTechSandyK. Filtering is one issue, content and port blocking is another, virus protection another, worm detection another, spam detection is another. As you are, we are conservative when it comes to protecting computers from intrusion. That’s one reason we prefer Macintosh or Linux over Windows. When we use Windows or M$oft products on the Mac we have to install virus protection software. We also selectively limit mail protocols (sorry I can’t remember what we allow).

    These issues are deep and not easy to surmount. Every district will have their own approach to what they allow matched with their protection scheme. That said, the only safe computer is one that is not on the network 🙂

    I think filtering is THE BIG issue. We found that once we addressed filtering (gave teachers some trust and a method to get to what they choose) many complaints fell away. We still have to make adjustments in our firewall when a site uses a plugin we don’t allow. We have a process (a Google Form) for teachers to submit an exception. If it’s educational, we step out of the way and make the change. Now we aren’t the ones standing in the way of digital learning, collaborating and creating. At least I hope not.

  • Good additions to the conversation, all.

    The discussion about malware/viruses does point to several things. One, as David highlights, running Macs (at least at this point) means FAR fewer issues with malware. I know there are known security flaws that get patched for Mac, but I’m not aware of any viruses/malware “in the wild” for Mac that would justify running antivirus software. My perception is that Ubuntu is similarly virus free… though I don’t have personal experience with this. Perhaps others can confirm or refute this.

    Second point is our need for “smart networks.” We have mostly rural schools in Oklahoma, and this additional cost is expensive. It CAN be erateable, however. Like most college networks, our K-12 networks need to be configured in segments so administrative bandwidth is separated from student/teacher bandwidth. Separate VLANs can segment off public Internet access. Intrusion detection systems are expensive, but with students (and teachers) bringing devices from home onto the network I think it becomes a requirement. Before devices get an IP, they get port scanned and if they are spewing stuff they shouldn’t, they get quarantined and denied access to the rest of the network.

    Multiple issues here, yes, and they do go beyond filtering. I keep going back to the leadership piece. It shocks me how some superintendents will completely abdicate responsibility and decisionmaking for technology issues to the IT director, when they would NEVER do that with school finance. I think there is often a BIG knowledge gap between administrators and IT folks, and this is something which needs to be bridged. The filtering issues are an important part of that conversation.

    David, I’m glad you’ve stuck with me and the fact that you value my ideas means a great deal. Although I’ve seen a lot I am the first person to admit I don’t know it all and have so much to learn. Our schools vary widely in their situations, and I am sometimes guilty (I’m sure) to over-generalizing. I really do want to play a constructive role in conversations like these. I sense these are issues which are transcendent: all districts, in all states, are facing similar issues. I’d like to identify and amplify districts and states who are doing the best job bridging these gaps and encourage others to do the same. I think we (as a broader school community) are ripe for a social action campaign which would catalyze these conversations, and empower leaders at different levels to improve filtering situations in schools.

  • Certainly there is a learning gulf between administrators and IT. I sit in admin meetings and listen to their concerns and initiatives (they have many). Almost all of their concerns could be addressed with or have a technological component (fidelity of instruction, student achievement, student engagement, testing, testing, testing). They use technology very traditionally. Seldom to collaborate or communicate in the way Wesley describes in this blog. I mention it here and there in the meetings. Over time I have convinced a few but progress is painfully slow.

    Last week (after a very short demonstration) our Maintenance and Transportation departments decided to adopt Google Apps for submitting work orders and bus requests. This means that every administrator will have to login to our Google domain, open a Google form, fill it out and submit it. Confirmation will land in their gmail box. I’ve waited for the day that the admins would have a religious conversion to technology. I’ve found that covert ops are my primary tool.

    All that said, my covert ops do little to give them an appreciation for the overall conversation we are having. I need an evangelist I guess. I’m just one of the congregation. Can you tell it’s Sunday.

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