Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Two Steps Forward . . .

It seems like a recurring theme in my school and district, two steps forward and one (or sometimes 1.8) steps back. By the end of this month, my school will be offering access to our wireless network to “personally owned devices.” Anyone who owns a device that uses the standard wireless protocols (802.11 a/b/g right now) will be able to connect to our wireless network and access the Internet (although not our file servers and printers). This access is still filtered by the same filter that school computers use, but is not password protected or restricted in any other way. Users have to accept an agreement each time they launch their browsers, and teachers have full discretion over their use in classrooms (much like we handle cell phones and iPods right now).

For those of you paying very close attention, you may recall that we had this briefly last fall until we realized that the licensing for our Internet filter did not cover these personally owned devices so it was switched back off. Over the summer the district purchased a new filter (8e6) and this was part of that agreement. This means that our students (as well as staff, parents, and other visitors to the building) will be able to bring their laptops, or iPhones, or Palms, or iPod touches, or whatevers and be connected. We have theoretical wireless coverage for about 95% of the footprint of the building, although I suspect that we will find quite a few dead spots as students start bringing more and more devices. We may also have density issues, although we did put extra wireless access points in our media center and cafeteria, figuring those areas would see heavy usage. (Because of our variable schedule, our students have a fair amount of unscheduled time at school to work on assignments, seek out teachers for additional help, meet with counselors, and use our media center – including the computers. While we currently have 35 computers available in our media center, they are still often all being used, so this will begin to help students have access whenever they need it, not just when the computers are available.)

The second step forward has to do with the filter itself. One of the reasons my district chose 8e6 was because of its ability to include overrides. There are actually two levels of override, an Active Directory override and a Building Level override. The Active Directory override allows all staff members to enter their login credentials and override many of the sites that the filter blocks. This allows them to use their discretion about using a site that may be blocked but is still educationally appropriate, and also allows them to get to a site to evaluate if it is appropriate. The Building Level override then gives an even higher level of access. I’ve questioned whether there is a need for two levels of override, using the seemingly incontestable argument of why would they trust me more than my staff. Those discussions are still ongoing, but I’m hopeful that they will eventually give all staff the same override rights as the building level override.

This is a huge improvement over last year, where we did have a building level override but no individual overrides, making it much easier for teachers to do their jobs “just in time.” If you are using 8e6 in your district and don’t have these overrides, you might ask (nicely) why not. This is built-in to 8e6, so I don’t think there’s a huge technical hurdle to implementing it. Keep in mind that it does keep a log of all overrides, and that log is attached to the login override that’s used, so there is still some “tracking” that can be done.

So, what’s the one step back? With the implementation of the new filter over the summer, they had to re-setup the categories of what was blocked and what was allowed. As part of that process, we now have lost access to YouTube, Google Video and other similar video sites. Previously we had had full access to those sites, and many teachers and students had used them effectively. Now, they’re somewhat crippled. Yes, teachers can access them with their override, which is annoying but still workable if they want to show a particular video to their classes. But what they can’t do anymore is have their students watch videos on their own, or find videos, or work on presentations that include videos, or upload their own videos. With our variable schedule, this is something that teachers had asked students to do in the past, but now we can’t.

I’ll spare you the long, drawn out arguments I made, as most of you can probably make them better than I did. But I will say this much. This completely contradicts the philosophy of my high school (and I thought my district). Our philosophy is to have high expectations for our students, to educate them to behave ethically, responsibly and safely and then expect that they will do the right thing. When they don’t, they know we’ll have a conversation and try to learn from the mistake, but we don’t assume they are going to screw up. In other words, our philosophy has been to educate, not ban.

It appears to me that the basic problem is that the filter, as much as I like some of its features, still cannot do what it purports to do – which is block inappropriate content (however that’s defined and whoever is doing the defining, which is a whole different rant). As it is, the filter is only capable of blocking categories and all of YouTube, not just inappropriate content on YouTube. While I understand that that is technically daunting, I don’t really care – that’s not my job, that’s the filter company’s job. Until they can do that, I think we should stop calling it by the euphemism “Internet Filter,” and instead call it what it really is, an “Information Censor.” It still amazes me that schools are so willing to abrogate their responsibilities and turn over control of the resources their students are allowed to access, the information and ideas their students are exposed to, to a third-party, for-profit company that does not hold education as its primary mission. What's next, are we going to start buying textbooks? OK, so maybe I shouldn't be so amazed.

So, as one example, our students won’t be able to learn from and participate in Pangea Day while at school. From the TED blog:
On May 10, 2008, Pangea Day, sites in New York City, Rio, London, Dharamsala, Cairo, Jerusalem, and Kigali will be video-conferenced live to produce a 4-hour program of powerful films, supplemented by visionary speakers, and global musicians.

The purpose: to use the power of film to promote better understanding of our common humanity. A global audience will watch through the Internet, television, digital cinemas, and mobile phones. Yes, of course, movies alone can’t change the world. But the people who watch them can.

To start the process, a short Pangea Day trailer (2:30 min) has just been given front-page exposure on YouTube, inviting anyone to submit their films. Pangea is seeking films "that provoke, entertain and inspire". "Images are powerful to divide, but also to unite", says the trailer.

Here’s the trailer. Note that while the trailer can be viewed on the Pangea Day website, films are submitted to a group at YouTube, meaning our students won’t be able to view them, or submit their own.

Sorry, LPS students, you won’t be able to view this at school. Please go learn – and change the world - at home.


  1. Karl,

    8e6 is extremely flexible - that's why I choose it - and those override accounts are awesome, but I have mine set up a bit differently.

    Using Active Directory, students are filtered at one level (CIPA compliant) while teachers have a bit more freedom. If a teacher comes to a blocked site and they need to look at it for bon a fide research, then they can override it (if they came to the training to get an override account - we have to at least tell them the responsibility of keeping that information secret). Obviously, there are some categories that can't be overridden (porn, malicious code, etc.)

    The problem is - we rely much too heavily on the technology (filter) to do the job of the teacher (lead student learning). The key is to get the "keys" to the filter away from the IT guy :)

  2. Great post Mr. Fisch. I totally agree.

    About a week ago I was doing research for a paper I was writing on marijuana for Zisch's Intro to Human Behavior class. The filter blocks NORML (A pro-marijuana legalization group), which from looking at the site at home I know has plenty of good statistics, arguments, and information. That annoyed me, but I eventually did my research at home.

    It absolutely is censorship-- if dissenting ideas and views are blocked, it is censorship with the purpose of keeping people believing one way and to not think too hard or too critically about things.

    If the school is trying to raise "life-long learners", as they say, they should be encouraging students to research things and think for themselves, not to go with what some higher authority tells them what is right or wrong.

  3. Thanks for your post. I found it very informative. We too use 8e6 but didn't know that I could create individual or group override accounts. I'm going to look into doing that for teachers. On the whole I like 8e6. It's much better than another product we used a couple of years ago called "ScreenDoor." I built our own filter about six years ago using Linux, Squid, Squidguard and Dansguardian. That was the best but I lacked the overall knowledge to do transparent proxying.

    I'm a first amendment person and I don't really like filters but I'm enough of a realist to realize that we have differing ideas of what is appropriate and different classes of students in a K-12 setting. What's appropriate in high school may not be appropriate in elementary school.

  4. Karl,

    This seems to be a theme lately around the blogs, which indicates what a frustrating problem it is becoming for schools.

    Glad to know there is a filter that allows teachers to override, as ours does not(or if it does, isn't set up that way). One thing we did was get a "filter free" station set up in the library just for students like the one who posted here, who were facing unreasonable blocks from the filter, so at least we could provide them access for uploading materials, checking personal email for their papers, or looking at sites for research papers. While limited, at least it was a small compromise.

    Another thing we have done(sounds like your filter may be set up similarly is filter different amounts for different groups, like teachers are now filtered much less than students, and can use YouTube, all blogs, etc. so they can provide the students the access.) It took a couple of committee meetings with all parties meeting with the "filterer" to get that change made, but it has eased the frustrations somewhat.

    But I agree with you completely and the conclusion of your post really resonates. And I do wonder why we allow filterr companies to dictate to our districts, and I also wonder why we don't start writing those companies demanding better tools, since we are the customers. YOu are right that we settle.

    I also posted about a similar issue(as did Clay Burell who had a quite bemusing rant about it). I'm looking for tools, policies, statistics, etc., to share with others as a means to help them if their districts are very restrictive. Too often it is about fear--sitting in a meeting with our own decisionmakers, it was clear that some categories were blocked out of fear and lack of understanding what the category even really blocked.

    So I think educating not only students but also educating those who "control" the filters and bringing them into these conversations is really important.

    We trust teachers with live students, trust them to make appropriate film and book selections, and even trust them driving busses full of children, so it seems unreasonable that we don't trust them to make good judgments about internet use, doesn't it?

    And we need to be teaching students good habits of mind, not trying to wall out the real world, because they certainly have access to it outside the campus walls, and who is guiding them there?

  5. By the way, if you haven't seen Doug Johnson's post on this, it's also well worth reading.