Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Issues with tiered content filtering

I’m working on a new article for the TechEdge on tiered content filtering, which I wrote about recently in the post “Advocating for differentiated content filtering.” The basic idea is this: School districts as “best practice” should provide more permissive levels of content filtering for teachers on the school network, relative to students. As professionals, teachers should be trusted MORE than students to access appropriate content online. I do agree with those who advocate for more trust of students at school, but to move “this agenda” forward (promoting the constructive uses of read/write web technologies in our schools) I see tiered content filtering not as the “endgame” but as a step in the right direction for many schools. This must be done and CAN be done in U.S. schools in ways which keep schools in compliance with CIPA.

I brainstormed different issues that are coming up with IT directors and other school administrators today with a friend who is exploring these issues in his state, and these were some we came up with:

  1. Not understanding the issue (different levels for teachers and students) and seeing the entire proposal as bad because of objectionable content on some sites (like YouTube)
  2. Administrators scared to change their current, conservative network use policies because of CIPA but also perceived liability risks (see my post “When litigation fear rules the network” for more on this)
  3. Some IT administrators don’t know HOW to provide tiered content filtering: i.e. the specific hardware and software configurations on the network which can enable it.
  4. Some IT administrators don’t want the extra work and complexity which tiered content filtering would represent for them (after all, like business IT staff members many IT personnel in our schools continue to measure daily success by the metric of minimal numbers of “trouble tickets” at the help desk)
  5. Some administrators fear students will use teacher accounts, and teachers will not be diligent in preventing student network access with their accounts.
  6. Some IT administrators believe there is NOT any worthwhile content on sites like YouTube.
  7. Overall the perceptions of many IT administrators are VERY restrictive when it comes to content filtering, where (for example) ALL social networking websites are seen as inappropriate for EVERYONE, even administrators in many districts.
  8. Many IT directors come from a business rather than an educational background, so the entire idea of allowing more permissive access to network resources sounds like complete heresy.

Can you think of other “issues” or problems (real or imagined) with tiered content filtering that either HAVE come up or could come up in school districts implementing this idea? I’m doing research this week with some of our Oklahoma school districts who are currently implementing tiered content filtering, getting info about the specific hardware and software configurations they are using to do it.

We May Bite

One thought I had in brainstorming the above list today was: Why don’t proactive state education agencies publish officially endorsed “whitelists” of appropriate and approved social networking websites and share those with superintendents? If we don’t have advocacy for appropriate social networking websites at the state education agency level, how are the recommendations of the National School Board Association’s 2007 report “Creating and Connecting – Research and Guidelines on Online Social – and Educational – Networking” ever going to be advanced?

At this point, MANY of the school districts I’m working with here in Oklahoma block ALL social networking sites, including blogs. Two excellent sites I’d like to see whitelisted on ALL our Oklahoma school networks are the LeaderTalk team blog and our Celebrate Oklahoma Voices Ning Social Network. Does anyone know of a state or national government which has done this: Published an officially endorsed “whitelist” of social networking sites? If so I’d love to hear who has done that, and what sites are on their list. I don’t think sites like Flickr and should be on a list like that, since many would argue (with some reasonable points, I’d predict) that those sites are not appropriate for school networks governed by CIPA. I do think students and teachers should have access to those sites, but the network should require authentication so access to those sites is logged and archived BY USER. I haven’t seen a school district utilizing a networking scheme which provides that type of accountability for all user behavior online– YET. I’m looking for it.

Ideally, I think parents should be able to login to the web portal of the district’s student information system (PowerSchool or another variant) and in addition to viewing info on student attendance, grades, cafeteria balance, and homework assignments, parents (as well as students, teachers and administrators) should be able to view a COMPLETE listing of websites accessed via the student’s official district login account. That type of an accountability system is POSSIBLE with today’s technologies, but I haven’t seen it being implemented… YET.

Thanks to everyone who shared ideas and feedback on this topic of tiered or differentiated content filtering already. If you have additional thoughts, links, or suggestions I’d love to hear them. I’ll be posting this article after I finish it later this week on my Tools for the TEKS website. My most recent article for the TechEdge, “Mobile Digital Storytelling,” was published in the Winter 2007 TechEdge with the title “Stories-To-Go: The empowering phenomenon of mobile text, audio and video.” For workshop and presentation links on that topic, see my wiki curriculum “Cell Phones for Learning.”

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19 responses to “Issues with tiered content filtering”

  1. Cindy Seibel Avatar

    As the senior IT administrator in a large Canadian district, I wanted to share with you our approach. I think your list of “not in my district” responses pretty much covers the gamut – I would note that in Canada we do not have an equivalent to CIPA tied to funding and so our filtering decisions are made locally with local accountability. Through conversation with our parent communities, we have implemented differential filtering. We block most categories for elementary, and few at the senior high level. All staff have the opportunity to override the block (with authentication), and can do so at a student workstation if they deem it appropriate. There is a core list that cannot be over-ridden relate to the security of the network (eg hacking, anonymizer) or overall inappropriateness (eg pornography).

    In order for a senior high school to qualify for minimal filtering, the staff must first participate in web-awareness training and the school must have a specific plan in place, which typically includes parent communication.

    We also have policies in place to address posting of student work online in keeping with our provincial privacy legislation and to address code of conduct for staff.
    This comprehensive approach has met with favour in our parent communities – whom I would argue are ultimately the arbiter of our actions.

    Legislation aside, there is an important conversation to be had between educators and IT professionals. I blogged this issue recently – Technician with (not against) Teacher. If the IT administrator has come from the corporate sector, then he/she will want and need to understand the “business of learning”. Let the conversation begin.

  2. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Cindy: Thanks SO much for sharing your perspectives and experiences. I love the fact that these conversations are taking place in an international context, which is often so enlightening… Do you have a link to your district policies that you can share? I’ll check out the post link you included. THANKS!

  3. Ken Pendergrass Avatar


    In regards to filtered content, we have a tiered filtering system for teachers using Bess; certain sites are flagged with a cautious green warning from the Bess filter and teachers must click through this warning page to view most blogs, wikis etc. Building ET’s can override any red Bess warning pages for teachers if needed.

    In a related area, our district has or had (it’s not being supported currently by our technology department?!) a great way for teachers to upload and share digital content for parents teachers, and students using a secure web portal. You can see a voice thread demo of it here:

    All moves in the right direction…

  4. Mark Ahlness Avatar

    I don’t think tiered content filtering is the step in the direction that will make a difference to this huge issue. The first step must be to get EDUCATORS in on the decision making on content filtering. Period. Technicians are not qualified to decide what is educationally critical, challenging, appropriate, stimulating, age- appropriate, and so on – for the kids in my classroom. – Mark

  5. diane Avatar

    I’ve been trying various methods to access select YouTube videos for class use. Our IT will unblock certain sites on certain days at certain times – very cumbersome. I believe teachers should have the ability to unblock content to either evaluate a resource or use it for instruction.

    Regarding Flickr: I’m trying to teach my students responsible digital citizenship. Rather than using Google images, I’m pointing them to Creative Commons. If Flickr were blocked, they’d lose that option. As with anything else, responsible use should be the goal, not filtering (which many of the kids know how to circumvent, anyway!)

  6. Rodd Lucier Avatar

    You’ve effectively encapsulated many of the issues I’ve noticed in my region of southwestern Ontario.

    The plan to incorporate web training along with differentiated permissions is a terrific idea. It’s one huge carrot that just might get teachers to participate in training that is long overdue…

  7. Art Gelwicks Avatar

    Tiered filtering is definitely an approach that can address a number of issues with content access within a school. I suggest refining the idea a bit further and creating the two tiers, but only allowing the staff to have the second tier by completing professional development training first. By doing this you can mitigate the liability issues present with broader access to internet content. Is it a perfect solution? By no means. Is it a good start? Yes.

    As for the comment about the qualification of “technicians” to decide what is educationally critical and appropriate, I would recommend rethinking that approach since it’s those very technicians who can or cannot make these types of requests happen. Never discount the abilities and insights of your IT staff.

  8. […] Issues with tiered content filtering » Moving at the Speed of Creativity […]

  9. Joselyn Todd Avatar

    Wes, I am at a 1:1 private school where we have a totally wireless network- 6-12 grades, 700 students- basically no filtering.

    “Ideally, I think parents should be able to login to the web portal of the district’s student information system (PowerSchool or another variant) and in addition to viewing info on student attendance, grades, cafeteria balance, and homework assignments, parents (as well as students, teachers and administrators) should be able to view a COMPLETE listing of websites accessed via the student’s official district login account. That type of an accountability system is POSSIBLE with today’s technologies, but I haven’t seen it being implemented… YET.”

    We are doing just this. We have been in a totally 1:1 laptop initiative for 2 years now at CA (1:1 for 11 years with desktops and laptops combined) and students must authenticate to get onto their laptops at home or school and from the very moment they get onto the web, their every move is monitored and recorded. All parents have access to this information as well as school personnel. We block only Facebook for bandwidth reasons on campus and try our best to educate responsible Internet use through classroom policies and our school AUP. We haven’t prevented every breech, but once a student realizes that inappropriate use of their laptop will be associated with loss of it for a week or so- there is often a dramatic change in behavior. Parent monitoring and buy-in has also been helpful with this. I believe we developed the code for this in-house.

  10. The Virtual Teacher Avatar

    I teach in a school board in Quebec, Canada with 1:1 laptops from grades 3-11 throughout the board. We also have basically no filtering.

    The basic philosophy is that we will never filter everything out, therefore, we should concentrate our efforts on educating the kids about how to access the web responsibly. Every year we have a few students who visit inappropriate sites, and the typical consequence is loss of the laptop, or possibly keeping the laptop without any access to the web. As far as I am concerned, this approach has worked relatively well. There are always calls from small groups of parents for filtering, but they tend to remain isolated groups.

    I do believe that we need a better plan for training the teachers. It is fine to say that we educate the students about responsible use, but many teachers don’t know enough to do this well. They basically say “Don’t go to bad sites or you will use your laptop.” What about sharing too much info on Facebook? That type of thing is probably not mentioned by the majority. Even if the kids are not visiting Facebook during school time, we are providing a laptop and hoping that they will use it. We hold them responsible for appropriate use of the laptop at home, so we should be preparing them to use it appropriately in a variety on contexts. I think that we could do a great job if every teacher was trained to teach the kids responsible use, then given refresher updates every year or two as new technology develops.

  11. Charlie Roy Avatar

    I think loss of privileges is the best medicine for students who access inappropriate content. I’ve seen filtering software crush the love of learning when large numbers of sites are blocked because of a certain word string that they contain. If teachers are alert to what is going on their shouldn’t be much of a problem especially if the consequences are high enough.

  12. steve mccabe Avatar
    steve mccabe

    I’m currently taking an on-line course “Web 2.0” and asked the IT administrator if they would give me access to Blog sites etc. I was told “No”. They said that if they gave me access all teachers in the school would have access. They stated teachers can’t be trusted not to allow students on their computers and students might “see” something they should’nt. They did say they would give me access to selected sites temporarily. Its all about the fear of litigation. Schools need to be protected from this type of litigation and a clear school policy would dictate professional standards and appropriateconsequences for teacher/student violations.

  13. Mick Sharpe Avatar

    My company provides “tiered filtering” to more than 5 million staff/student terminal devices worldwide. It is a core business segement for us, so my observations will have an obvious bias.

    First the issue of censorship vs. trust. At a January education technology conference, I was asked to justify the “censorship” inherent in Internet filtering. The keynote address focused on the “Information Super-highway” so I took that as my start point. Would any responsible Driver Ed instructor hand the keys of a sports car to a 12-year-old, sit him in the driver seat with a couple of buddies in the passenger seats, send him out on the Santa Anna Expy. (read Hwy 401), at rush hour and feel completely confident with the safety of this young people because each had signed a note promising to obey all the rules of the road. Of course not. The issue is not trust in the students or censorship. The issue is a level of development and judgment that allows a person to make good decisions and to protect themselves. The Internet can be a scary, dangerous highway for a 12-year-old.

    Next, regarding “tiered filter”. Our company manages the content filtering for the London Grid for Learning. This is a 2,800 school, 1.5 million student/device Internet-based network stretching across the Greater London region. The student users range from 6 to 46-years of age. There are vast differences in culture, religious and developmental sensitivities, as well as the obvious age differences.

    To manage this, more than 200 different filtering policies (the rules by which a specific user may access resources on the Internet) were created. These rules are set by the individual school boards, but centrally data based. There are more than 7000 different “groups” of users. Samples of “user groups” include:
    1. Each different grade is a group,
    2. All teachers are grouped by grade level,
    3. All Principal/V.P./Department Heads are assigned a separate group,
    4. There are more than 1,000 “special” groups (E.g. Sex Ed. specialists),

    The simple arithmetic indicates more than 1.4 million filtering variations are available. Even these can be “overridden” by authorized teachers and/or parents who wish a young student to have access to specific sites/data that the policy denies. All of this is centrally supported by network experts in terms of technology, but the system is locally administered at the school level, using just an Internet browser and authorised passwords.

    This London Grid is filtering technology to the nth degree, but it is a useful demonstration. The national government was committed to advanced technology as a key component of 21st century learning. But they had been advised that the legal and political liability was too great. By developing this capability, Internet filtering became an enabling capability, not a limiting or disabling one.

    Finally, there is a wonderful opportunity to “filtering in” (create allow lists) specific sites for specific grade levels, subjects or lessons. Our company’s particular method includes reviewing and categorizing more than 1 million new URLs each day. We have created databases of specific education sites for specific purposes. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to “target search” all the Grade 8 math lessons posted in Liverpool, England; or Grade 10-level history sites from Chennai, India; or show Grade 5 level students the wonders of marine biology, presented on-line from the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. All these can be pre-categorized and allocated to education sites.

    A final, light-hearted note. In the first week of school, last September, our technical support desk reported more than 20,000 new “proxy anonymizers” sites every day. These are “fake” websites set up strictly to hide identity and allow students to bypass the filtering system. Our system seeks out these “fake” sites and denies students access. It becomes a great game to stay ahead of inquisitive, energetic, young minds. When we asked the authorities if this obvious attempt to bypass the system was a concern, they thought the opposite. These are the bight, technical minds of tomorrow. These are students getting a little “Cyber-exercise”.

  14. diane Avatar


    That’s all well and good, but I’m not 12 years old. I don’t understand why teachers can’t have a different level of access from students.

    Trust is very much the issue.


  15. Alec Couros Avatar

    No tiered filtering? Teachers/students will often find a way –

  16. Henry Thiele Avatar

    I have worked in settings with both tired and non-tired set ups. I have had the opportunity to choose in my new setting what type of set-up we have. I have chosen to have teachers filtered at the same way as students. Not because I don’t trust teachers, but because it helps in lesson planning. It is terrible to plan a whole lesson that is based on kids accessing sites that they cannot get to when the lesson occurs.

    I have provided areas where teachers can have unfiltered access and teachers know that these areas function differently.

    I am only blocking what CIPA requires. Other than that, someone who goes somewhere inappropriately will be dealt with through the procedures outlined in the AUP. Inappropriate use is a discipline issue – not a technology issue.

  17. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Henry: How do you (and your school) interpret CIPA, when you say “I am only blocking what CIPA requires?” For some districts that means access to all free email services (Yahoo mail, Hotmail, etc) as well as all IM services, including Skype. I have found “interpretations” of CIPA vary widely, so I’m just curious how you interpret its requirements and what you base that interpretation on.

  18. […] there should be more filtering in primary grades and progressively less filtering in higher grades. Wesley Fryer has written about tiered  content filtering issues where he proposes differences between teachers […]

  19. […] there should be more filtering in primary grades and progressively less filtering in higher grades. Wesley Fryer has written about tiered  content filtering issues where he proposes differences between teachers […]