Ed Tech: To filter or not to filter?
I have been working in Education Technology for sixteen years now. In that time, there have only been a handful of things that haven't changed. The most obvious one to me is the fact that Internet access needs to be filtered for our students and staff.
Living and working in the US, we are held to a certain law called CIPA. Actually, there are a couple of other ones too including FERPA, and COPPA, but CIPA is what I want to talk about today.
At some point in time, the government decided it would be a good idea to tie funding approval to a district's compliance with CIPA. For example the federal E-rate program gives districts discounted pricing for telecommunications services. Part of your requirements for this program is that you verify and have a policy in place to ensure you are CIPA compliant.
There are countless other government title programs that also have this rule or stipulation. Basically, they are saying if you are going to use government funding to provide Internet to a student, you better make sure that it is filtered. This is one of the key reasons any "1 to 1" initiative where a student takes a device home will have some form of filtering.
As I said before, in my time I have seen many changes to how this is implemented, but the fact that it needs to be implemented has not changed. I have used Linux based and open source products for filtering like Dansguardian and Squid. More recently I am using an appliance by a company called iBoss for my entire district and a cloud solution called Securly for my Chromebooks.
It never fails that there always seems to be a debate about "what" actually needs to be blocked.
A little background
First let me start by saying your district or whoever provides your district with Internet probably has two separate devices at their facility (or head end). The Firewall is mainly there to protect the network from incoming traffic or attacks. The Content Filter as its name implies controls the content that end users request and actually shows up on their screen from the Internet.
I mention this because I occasionally have staff members refer to whatever is blocking a webpage as the Firewall as opposed the Content Filter. It's a sad fact, but knowing the proper terms will give you a little more legitimacy when you are talking to your tech department.
That being said, there are times when a service on a web page requires a certain port to be opened, and in those cases it is usually an issue with the Firewall (you wouldn't see a blocked page though, the site just wouldn't load).
The great debate
If you ask 50 tech directors in a state what kind of content they filter, you will probably get 50 different answers. There are three or so things that should always be common between them...
These are pretty much non-negotiable's: Things like porn/adult content(in it's various forms), violence, hate, etc.
In fact, since our content filter is housed at our local ISD (Intermediate School District also know as a RESA Regional Education Services Agency) they have those categories locked down so even at a local level we can't bypass them.
Then, there are the other things, stuff like drug and alcohol content, games, or social media sites, things that are mildly objectionable or just a waste of time. This is where the real gray area starts.
On one level you will have districts who choose to block everything that is not educationally relevant. Others, (like me), will simply block the minimum required content necessary for our funding to stay intact. The rest of the districts will fall somewhere between those two.
Here is the reasoning for my approach:
- The Internet is a big place and there is a lot of crap out there. I feel it is more important to teach kids digital citizenship and responsible behavior online rather than simply block everything. As individuals we need to be able to learn and discern what is valuable content and what is not. Is this legitimate, does this edify my soul or my pursuit of knowledge?
- Many times a teacher will come to me and say a specific kid is on a specific site and not paying attention in class, "can you block it?". More often than not, I will say no. A student not being on task isn't a technology issue, it is a classroom management issue. I know that may be hard for some teachers to hear, but even if I were to block that site, the student would probably just find a different one. The problem isn't the Internet, it is their disinterest or inability to engage in what is being taught or how it is being presented.
As I mentioned before, the Internet is a big place and it is changing all the time. It is inevitable that at some point a new site is going to pop up that the filter hasn't added to it's blacklist yet or just slips through the cracks. It is important to have a policy in place to handle situations like that and that this policy is very transparent to your staff and your community members.
Being clear about what is expected and what can occur goes a long way if you find yourself in one of those "how could this happen, I thought we had filtering" scenarios.
For the most part, the students and staff in my district have the same level of filtering. This does vary a small amount, in fact, I needed to add Steempeak to my allow list because it was flagged as "Adult Content" for some reason.
The fact is, students or staff may be doing a lesson the dangers of drugs or suicide or any other topic that might be blocked by overly strict filtering. Additionally, new teachers are coming out of college being taught to utilize resources in their class like Facebook and Twitter. Why would I tie their hands by blocking such tools just because they can be misused. I can stab the person next to me with a pencil yet we still use them every day.
A simple glance at the news will show you any number of instances where it might have been a good idea for the staff to have the same level of filtering as the students. It's my job to make sure that news story isn't about my district!
This went on a bit longer than I had anticipated but if you made it to the end, thank you. Do you work in education? What are your thoughts on content filtering? I'd love to read your comments!