Thursday, October 04, 2007

More Thoughts On Filtering

My last post finished with a tame (for me) rant about Internet filtering, and specifically that YouTube and other similar sites are currently blocked in my district. Carolyn Foote – in the comments – pointed me to some parallel conversations going on. (Thanks, Carolyn, since I’m way behind in my aggregator.) For those of you who are interested in this topic, let me point you to a few of them.

First, Doug Johnson has a self-described rant of his own:
There is long held belief in libraryland that one selects a resource on the basis of it having some things of value rather than censored a resource based on it having some parts without value or which might possibly cause offense. In choosing to block YouTube, you are a censor. You violate your staff's and students' intellectual freedom, their rights to view. By arbitratily blocking other sites, you are violating your staff's and students' right to read. You are denying them their rights accorded by the First Amendment.
Doug’s post appears to have been spurred at least in part by this post by Miguel Guhlin:
Over the last two weeks, there's been a rash of emails from Texas Tech Directors asking, "How do you handle the use of YouTube videos by instructional staff?" Often, YouTube is blocked in school districts, but teachers (and others) find they want to use the content in their lessons. I enjoyed responding to these questions by other tech directors by pointing them to different resources they could use to get YouTube videos and save them to their computers.
You should also check out Miguel’s post for one way to fairly easily save videos from YouTube and similar sites locally. I have found several ways to do this, but this may be the simplest and the one least likely to get broken by updates to the hosting site (since Zamzar will presumably respond quickly to changes). (Note that you still have to be able to access the video site to get the URL of the particular video you want, so that requires accessing from home or overriding the filter at school if you have that option.)

A related post by Miguel then led me to two posts, one by Tim Stahmer:
In my spare time this week I’ve been submitting requests to have a long list of sites unblocked (fortunately, my boss approved them) but it’s not that effort that bothers me.

It’s the totally inconsistent classification and blocking of web sites which is very much symptomatic of the arbitrary, sometimes knee-jerk rules we often impose on students in the name of keeping them safe.

Instead of using the electronic filters sparingly (there are certainly sites that need to be kept out of the classroom) and then teaching the kids how to evaluate and filter the rest for themselves, we throw up a porous chain-link fence, offering administrators a false sense of security.
And, from a comment on Miguel's post, this post by Kurt Paccio:
I am a primary decision maker for web content filtering in a school. We continually see comments with the groans, and the sighs about schools who "over filter" or block entire sites. We also hear the frequent "they don't get it!" label slapped onto the decision makers.

I'd like to point out something of interest. Not one of those who sigh or are critical of filtering decisions has their job on the line should Johnny access inappropriate content. Would those who are frustrated sit beside me in court or defend me in the court of public opinion? They certainly would not have to sit in the principal's office and explain to the sobbing mother who is clutching her book of faith.

For those who can't believe that YouTube is blocked, have you approached the Superintendent and volunteered to assume liability for the District should a student, parent, or family launch a lawsuit? As it stands today, many AUPs identify the Technology Coordinator, Technology Director, or Superintendent as the individual responsible for safeguarding students.
The comment that led me to Kurt’s post was by Jim Gates, who adds to the conversation (coming full circle by talking about my post) with this post:

What's that? Allow teachers to override the filter? HERESY? An OUTRAGE? Impossible?... WONDERFUL! FANTASTIC! Imagine giving control of the internet to those people with whom we are entrusting our children and assuming that they will use good judgement in their choices. What's the worst consequence of this great idea? You might have a teacher who uses poor judgement, or you may have one who decides to follow her stocks all day long or to monitor their ebay account. What then? I liked what one principal said in a meeting recently. He said, "I want to KNOW which teachers are doing that when they should be teaching a class. At least that way I can get rid of them. But, to restrict the Internet to such a point that it interferes with the education we're trying to provide to our students just to protect the teachers from themselves doesn't make sense."

And then this article came to me in the old fashioned way via email (yes, email delivery of a link to a web page is now “old-fashioned,” if not downright quaint):

The University of California, Berkeley, is posting course lectures and other campus happenings on YouTube.

Finally, Carolyn herself had a post recently where she talked about similar issues:

I find it upsetting because there are teachers out there who are committed and excited about education, and who really want to bridge the gap between the world many of their students live in (wired, connected, “on all the time”) and the world of education(me being one of those teachers). These teachers are pushing the envelope, eagerly trying new things, and trying to use the best tools they can find to connect their students with a world beyond the classroom walls.

Yet too many of these teachers are met with roadblocks, and an ever mounting frustration at being unable to convince administrators or their IT department, or their district leaders..or someone in their district, that what they are doing can be done in a safe manner and is valuable, very valuable for their students.

So my fear is, naturally, that we are going to lose some of the best teachers we have in the country. Because you can only stand expending half your energies “convincing” people for so long. And no one finds it rewarding to have their genuine love and enthusiasm for teaching reined in and constantly met with roadblocks.

And I’m sure there are many, many others. But this is just one set of examples of the many good conversations going on as we try to figure out how best to meet the needs of our students.


  1. Karl,

    Funny how that goes--this morning after reading your post and then stumbling over Tim's(which you included here), I almost delayed leaving for work, having decided that we needed to start a bloggers "support intellectual freedom" movement! I got dressed thinking about what kind of logo that could have, and what our goals would be...

    I got to work ready to post, and the entire server at our campus had gone down for the entire day! I guess I can't be that revolutionary today.

    My strongest response to all of this the more I have thought about it is this: To remove a book from a library, almost every district has a policy that requires you to convene a committee to discuss that decision, read the book, and examine its use in education.

    Obviously for websites, you need something a little more immediate.

    But frankly, I think that a committee also speaks to the concern posted above--

    The person charged with the filtering may feel like their job is on the line, like they are in line for a lawsuit if they make a mistake.

    The wonderful thing about a committee is that it takes the heat off of one person. If you have a committee that helps form the policy for the categories that are blocked, and reviews those categories when needed, then not only are the decisions more unbiased, but they are not one person's responsibility.

    Thanks for pulling all those threads together so well.

    By the way, Scott McLeod also had a great post about this the other day in his "letter to a superintendent."

  2. I'm amazed to say that I am a subscriber already to each and every one you mention here, and even Carolyn's last response--i had read that one too. I get so mad too. But I'm just a coward--I have to admit. You see I had an email in my gmail box last week, and that widget rides in my igoogle page (which oddly enough is not blocked). But trying to open gmail --I can only see five in the widget window--they are blocked. I knew all day long the other day I had an important message in it, but had to wait. Our district also offers teachers a security portal and if you know the login and password, you can bypass the block. I finally tried it right at the end of the school day, this nagging need to read that one email. But once again, a second block stopped me. I wasn't expecting it, nd was shocked and surprised, and even angered by it. After all, I waited until the end of the school day. I picked up the phone to call the IT desk and inquire about the 2nd block, and just as they answered, I hung up. You see, the fear that gripped me then was that they would literally start watching my online habits, and draw me in for questioning, or put me on some kind of review where I might cause the few web 2.0 tools that are not blocked to have their precious open window slammed. Isn't that cowardice? Me, and educator, with only positive reasons for being online ever, suddenly tucked my tail and ran because I didn't want to open myself to their scrutiny. They make me fear them. I'm sure that is exactly how they want all of us to feel. And what kind of message is THAT sending our students?

  3. Here's our policy guidlelines:

    * Teachers are recognized as the best filter of materials and resources for their students. Teachers should whenever possible preview and direct students to appropriate materials. Random searching using search tools such as Google or Yahoo may not provide the desired results. Teachers are encouraged to utilize and model effective research skills with their students.
    * Teachers need to be proactive in teaching students about appropriate use, privacy and potential dangerous activity on the internet. This should include:
    o Specific lessons on safety and privacy
    o Continued discussion throughout the year
    o Close monitoring of student activity through physical presence and random access of internet histories
    * Content Filtering software is not intended to teach students about appropriate use of the internet nor should it be seen as an exclusive monitoring system. The accessing of inappropriate materials will occur. A teacher's role is to limit this and also provide students with skills and information to make good decisions.
    * When considering sites that are distractions or “off task” activities as opposed to inappropriate, teachers should be prepared to deal with this as they would any other off task behaviour.

  4. Karl....surely the idea of censoring and filtering is a big issue with everything that is on the web these days, and I can see from a liability standpoint where some admistrators are coming from when they impose such restrictions. However, (before everyone starts composing their responses), I whole-heartedly agree that by removing these valuable resources, you are removing a student's chance to learn, and their chance to engage in learning.

    On another note, it is amazing to me how, in the matter of one topic, you were able to navigate to at least 5 or six different blogs and posts regarding your topic and learn valuable perspectives about filtering. This would be a great way to teach students how to dive into research on a topic. However, the same filtering that does not allow YouTube is also blocking sites like blogger and other blogging sites. If these sites are blocked, then you are taking away a valuable learning network for teachers and students.

    In the end, we need to continue to teach students to be responsible citizens on the web and lobby for our students to gain access to these valuable resources.

  5. Hello Karl,

    It's been interesting to watch your struggles with YouTube filtering. In light of receiving student video feedback, I've asked TeacherTube to include a video response feature in the future if possible. They have yet to reply, but we'll see where that goes.

    In my district, we've been fortunate enough to have a network administrator that actually listens to our suggestions, as YouTube is not yet blocked (personally, I use YouTube in many of my classes - the ability to easily embed video is priceless). While most of YouTube's content is not educational, I think it always boils down to teacher responsibility (in both monitoring student use and teaching responsible behavior).

    Keep your head up. Two steps forward, 1.8 back still yields progress - slow as it may be.

  6. Karl & others,

    I sympathize with decision makers who fear losing their jobs over an irate parent who seeks publicity in a hot topic related to the "think of the chilllldren" diatribe.

    I would suggest that Kurt and other decision makers realize the power really is in their hands. Make it the school policy to hold the teacher liable...not the tech director. Teachers then at least have the choice as to whether they are willing to risk the liability. At least then the teacher can educate not only the student, but the parent. Tech directors, with all due respect, do not have time (and many times the expertise) to lead a productive educational session for parents. They should understand that they are support staff for teachers, as should superintendents and others in CO leadership position.

    They have the power to change policy, teachers really do not, no matter how much we hear that teachers are a part of the decision-making process. At this point teachers do not have to influence to change policy or the opportunity to risk an angry parent conference with technology tools as the issue.

    And, again, who suffers for all this? The students who sit back and laugh at the older generation...who really don't get it after all.

  7. Interesting point: “To remove a book from a library, almost every district has a policy that requires you to convene a committee to discuss that decision, read the book, and examine its use in education.” Well, the reverse is true, too. Most districts, and in fact some states, also have committees on educational materials adoption (textbooks, novels). These committees determine the educational value and appropriateness of the resource in question to decide whether or not to adopt it for classroom use.

    In the case of Littleton Public Schools, we are using a similar approach in regard to the filter policies. We have convened a committee comprised of administrators, teachers, computer coaches, librarians, and students. In fact, there is only one IT person on the committee, me, and I’m on the Instructional Technology side with a decade of classroom experience behind me. I might add that I was a Language Arts teacher, and have served on district committees working toward keeping challenged novels in our curriculum.

    Concerning the YouTube question, the committee agreed, by an overwhelming margin, that YouTube was not appropriate for Littleton Public Schools. They clearly pointed out that most of the redeeming content could be accessed in other places, and YouTube’s very layout is distracting at best and offensive at worst. I’m sorry that some work in places where educators are not part of the decision-making process, as Ric notes. However, I can emphatically say that is not the case in Littleton, which has taken a very progressive and inclusive approach, as indicated by our committee membership.

    And to clarify a point of Karl’s, YouTube was in fact blocked by our previous filter, the one that did not have teacher bypasses built in to it. The fact that that filter was so porous as to allow numerous work arounds should not be construed as past policy.

    I’m proud to work with and for a district that has relied on educator judgment and discernment, not one that has, as Karl suggests, “abrogate[d] [it’s] responsibilities and turn[ed] over control of the resources their students are allowed to access.”

  8. @Mike - Thanks for joining in (although you still need a blog of your own!). I was going to comment on the fact that LPS does have a committee that helps make the decision (although I believe the final word is the CIO's), but I'm glad you beat me to it. And the committee did agree by an overwhelming margin, but that doesn't make it the right decision. :-) (And, for the record, the rep from my school was the noble dissenter.)

    As far as whether YouTube was blocked last year or not, I still maintain that it was not. It wasn't a matter of the filter being porous, we could type and get to it. That's not porous, that's unblocked. And, as I've mentioned previously, we did not have one single complaint from anyone when it was unblocked. Yet I had multiple teachers complain as soon as it was blocked, because it impacted their instruction.

    Can you find some of the content on YouTube other places? You bet, but not all of it, and not always easily. I can find all the content in my school's library somewhere else as well, perhaps we should reclaim that space. After all, it has offensive stuff as well. Both of our major Denver newspapers are in our library, and they both include a ton of offensive stuff, from ads to increase your sexual performance, to horoscopes that undermine our scientific literacy, to cartoons and pictures that offend people every single day. Why doesn't our district screen the newspaper each day before allowing it in our buildings? (And don't get me started on Cable TV, which comes into our building unfiltered every day.) Does YouTube have "offensive" stuff? Of course, but the key point is, who decides what's offensive?

    Which leads me, finally, to state that the "abrogated" comment still stands as well. Tell me how 8e6 decides to categorize websites? Tell me how they find and categorize new websites? Tell me who makes the decision that searching on "Model United Nations Conference" is blocked because it has the word "model" in it? Show me how the folks who are doing this at 8e6 are viewing this from an educational perspective, and explain to me how they are experts on the policies and educational philosophies of all of the school systems' that use their filter, and that the filter than adjusts itself on the fly to match each district?

    The Internet is the greatest information source, the biggest flattener, and the greatest connector of human beings in history. And school districts are letting someone else decide which pieces of it are appropriate for our students. Abrogate it is.

    And I say all this while acknowledging that 8e6 appears to be the best filter out there, and it appears to be doing as good a job as is probably possible with today's technology. Unfortunately, it's still not good enough for our students. The fact that our district is doing a better job than others is fantastic - and I believe my original post was very positive, was it not? But that doesn't mean that we can't do better, must do better, or we're doing our students a disservice.

    How about we invite Doug Johnson to come to our district and lead some discussions on this topic?

  9. Karl, good commentary here.

    I agree with you that there is a lot of content on YouTube that can't be find elsewhere.

    As I mentioned, the compromise in our district was that teachers can access YouTube, but students can't(but nonetheless the teacher can act as the portal for a student in a particular situation, like uploading a video, because the teacher has access.)

    While this isn't ideal, it allows an avenue.

    I think when we wall off one of the most used sites by teens, then we wall ourselves off from a whole part of their lives.

    Not to mention--YouTube is an excellent teaching tool. I imagine if you put this question out in the blogosphere--you could find 100 great examples of it being used in a very constructive educational way in the classroom, and you could find that many teachers supporting its use.

    My two cents worth.

    Glad to hear you have a committee process, at least.

    I admire you for speaking up and questioning the policy. I think these are the kinds of discussions it is very important for us to continue having.

  10. Thanks for your important post here, Karl. I've recently posted a couple things related to this.

    1) Spoke about how I helped some teachers get past the filtering system using "freedom sticks".

    2) How to use Miro video player to both download and play Youtube videos in schools.

    Thanks for the continued great thinking!