Sunday, October 07, 2007

Even More On Filtering

Okay, I’m about done with this topic, I promise. But I keep finding more and more thoughtful folks talking about filtering and responsibility and what/how/why we should be teaching our students about this, so I just wanted to add to my previous two posts by pointing to a few more resources.

First, Kimberly Moritz over on LeaderTalk (if you’re not subscribed to LeaderTalk, go do it right now):

How do we do more to educate our parents and students about the danger of this sort of personal exploitation while encouraging teachers and students to utilize all that is good about the web? In my experience, the response is often that adults conclude the web is a bad thing all together, because if its misuse in a case like this one.

As an adult learner, I have no problem discriminating, considering the source, looking at the possible bias. I have no problem avoiding the million and one websites out there that focus on nonsense. I don't think blocking access to the web at school is going to teach our kids how to do those things. I'm certain that opening it up completely to students who are still developing their good sense and judgment isn't the answer either.
Carolyn Foote adds to her earlier thoughts:

ALA quotes the National Research Council whose report insightfully points out:

“Swimming pools can be dangerous for children. To protect them, one can install locks, put up fences, and deploy pool alarms. All these measures are helpful, but by far the most important thing that one can do for one’s children is to teach them to swim.”

So, what can we do? Some ideas (feel free to add to these):

1. Create a committee to collaborate on the filtering decision-making process. While the day-to-day decisions will probably have to be made by one person, the general policy decisions can be reviewed quarterly to make sure that the responsibility for the decision making is shared. This removes pressure from one individual, as well as taking into account differing philosophies and experience in the district. (I think such a committee should include teachers, tech directors, librarians, an administrator, IT people, etc.) Gathering all the parties also has the added benefit of starting a shared conversation about technology use.

2. Develop a quick and timely process for responding to teacher requests for unfiltering sites. If the process is not timely, teachers will “give up,” thus essentially “censoring” the site.

3. Advocate a professional approach for staff. It is likely to be appropriate to provide less filtering to staff than to students. Most filters allow for this. No more than we would penalize an entire class for 2 misbehaving students should we penalize an entire staff or student body for a few who do not observe the AUP policies.

4. Understand that there is a difference between classroom management and filtering. (This is part of the purpose of having a committee approach or a process for unfiltering sites.) If students are misusing computer resources, this is a discipline problem, not cause to discipline all students by filtering a site. If students are giggling and hiding a book on sex education in each other’s backpacks as a joke, I don’t remove it for the whole campus. I deal with those students.

5. Develop a policy and atmosphere that treats students and staff with respect. Again, the majority of your students and staff deserve that.

6. Become very familiar with the laws involved. For example, the law does allow for the filter to be unblocked so teachers can use sites for bona fide research. In how many districts is this policy not being followed? or is so time consuming and slow that the point of need passes?

7. Promote the idea of intellectual freedom on your campus. Your librarian can be an ally in that.
And in the comments on Carolyn’s post, Doug Johnson points us to an article he wrote back in 2005. I would hope that the filters have improved since the research the led to the following statistics was done, but I wonder if anyone has any more recent studies that would be helpful as we think about this.

Studies, like those of the Electronic Freedom Foundation (2003) that examined nearly a million web pages, fueled our concern. The researchers found the following:

* For every web page blocked as advertised, blocking software blocks one or more web pages inappropriately. 97-99% of the web pages blocked were done so using non-standard, discretionary, and potentially illegal criteria beyond what is required by CIPA.

* Internet blocking software was not able to detect and protect students from access to many of the apparently pornographic sites that appeared in search results related to state-mandated curriculums.

. . . Another study of Internet filtering conducted by the Electronic Freedom Foundation (2002) revealed some other interesting numbers:

* Schools that implement Internet blocking software with the least restrictive settings will block between .5% and 5% of search results based on state-mandated curriculum topics.

* Schools that implement Internet blocking software with the most restrictive settings will block up to 70% of search results based on state-mandated curriculum topics.

Another study conducted by the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School (JAMA, 2002) examined how well seven Internet filters blocked health information for teens at settings from least restrictive to very restrictive. They found that at the least restrictive setting only 1.4% of the health information sites were blocked and 87% of the pornography sites were blocked. At the most restrictive setting, 24% of the health information sites were blocked with still only 91% of the pornography sites blocked.

Doug delineates some of the decisions they made to try to protect intellectual freedom yet still protect their students.

1. We based our choice of filters not on cost or convenience, but on features and customizability, and chose the least restrictive settings of the installed filter.

2. We generously use the override lists in our Internet filter; and we make sure media specialists can override the filter or have access to a machine that is completely unblocked in each media center so that questionably blocked sites can be reviewed and immediately accessed by staff and students if found to be useful.

3. We treat requests for the blocking of specific websites like we would any other material challenge.

4. We take a proactive approach to ensuring good Internet use by students.

He expands on all this in that article, so I’d highly recommend you visit and read the entire article.

Overall, my district has done a good job with this, implementing many of Doug's suggestions above. I obviously disagree with the decision they’ve made about YouTube and similar video sites, and I think we have some issues with “timely” responses since our committee only meets quarterly, but those are relatively minor complaints compared to what folks in most districts are going through.

But I still have a basic concern over the idea of the filter (in its present incarnation) in the first place. That some outside, not-educationally-focused company that must answer to its shareholders, not our stakeholders, is making decisions about what is appropriate for our students to see and not see – and then implementing those decisions with a tool that’s not up to the task at a granular-enough level.

And I also question the basic assumption that so many folks are apparently making that our students are not capable of making good decisions on their own, that if they see an inappropriate thumbnail on YouTube that one of two things will happen. Either they will be irreparably harmed by seeing the thumbnail itself, or they will feel compelled to click on the thumbnail and watch the inappropriate video, and then be irreparably harmed.

I think our students can handle more responsibility than that, that more often than not they will make the right decision. As I’ve said before,

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.

At my school, at least, that approach seems to work well in many, many different areas, so why should we treat this one differently?

Finally, to go back to Doug Johnson’s words:

There is long held belief in libraryland that one selects a resource on the basis of it having some things of value rather than censor a resource based on it having some parts without value or which might possibly cause offense.

I guess I still fall firmly in the camp that believes we shouldn’t block an entire site simply because some of the content might cause offense. I believe that not only disrespects our students and compromises their education, but is also a very slippery slope . . .


  1. Thanks for sharing some excellent ideas and input. Some Aussie educators I know laugh at our assumption in the U.S. that students cannot learn to judge good from bad and instead choose to filter everything for them. As I recently posted regarding an e-School news article, if parents are getting more involved in monitoring their children's safety -- thanks to the alarmist media -- the next step is to educate them about evaluating content on the web -- so they can model that and begin to build JUDGMENT at home that we can build upon at school. This will be a huge mountain to climb, but look how far things have come in the last five years...first, we educate the media.

  2. Y' know what's sad is when you get asked to do a workshop on blogs, wikis, etc and your OWN BLOG is blocked at that location. I asked what was wrong with it. Nothing that they knew, but they just block all blogs. :-(

    I think that as long as our courts continue to punish the well-meaning districts every time someone pretends to be offended by something that was seen on the school-supplied Internet, we'll continue to have these discussions.

    Are you SURE you won't accept the nomination? We'll collect a buck from everyone who has seen "Shift Happens" and your campaign coffer ought to be good for a while, don't you think?

  3. I have followed this thread with interest and ire. I even shared in an earlier comment how I was afraid to ask permission around sites blocked (even tho we can do that) for fear that i would draw attn and have the few 2.0 tools closed that i did have access to. Ok NOW im fuming. Twitter had its door slammed shut today, so I can't seek help from my network at school now. I had to be the only one using it at 8:00 this morning. And what's so funny is I was asking for help with a school project. Bummer.

  4. Filtering is a hot topic in Vermont at the moment. Thanks for posting this info. On a school listserv a wild array of filtering practices have been revealed. I've been researching what is required by CIPA aka ERate. Thus far, if you subscribe to ERate (telecommunicaiton reimbursement / funding) you are mandated to filter. Schools re reporting that blogger, twitter, and even once school reported that all search engines are blocked at their site... if you can imagine.

    Having been at this for a bit in education I'm saddenned by the lack of progress made. SPin a controversial report on NBC and fitlers tightened up.

    I suggested blocking pornography, hacking web sites and game sites as a place to start. It met wild resistance.

    How do filtering mandates go unchecked in schools ?

  5. I think everyone is taking this topic on filtering too far and maybe you need to step back and use a different set of glasses to look at the issue.

    What if you had no filter?
    What if 16 year old didn't have hormones?
    What if everyone used good common sense?
    What if the distict didn't have to protect itself from litigation, because someone showed a YouTube video that was not appropriate for kids or school.

    Do you spend as much time discussing why the speed limit in only 25 mph in front of the school or why we have traffic lights or why the FDA doesn't approve stem cell research...

    May if everyone used the common sense filter inside his/her brain we wouldn't need filters or CIPA