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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