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Instant Or Filtered?

January 11, 2009

This post started life as a quick comment for the Education2020 wiki about internet filtering in schools. As you will notice, it got a bit longer so I decided to post it here as well!

islay2020logoIn case you don’t know, the Education2020 unconference is being organised by Ian Stuart and Andy Wallis of Islay High School to discuss the future shape of education. The best definition of what it represents actually came from John Connell on his blog:

If you want to attend an informal, congenial, stimulating event in an amazing location with brilliant and insightful people (including you, of course), then pop along to the Education2020 UNCONFERENCE wiki and get your name on the list.

Not only will you be able to enjoy a great educational debate and discussion, you will also be travelling to one of the most beautiful places in Scotland.

And please don’t feel either that you must have an abiding interest in all-things-techie (if it were that kind of event, I for one would not have signed up) or, indeed, that you need to be an educationist. The focus will be very much on education, but every perspective is important, whether parent, teacher, academic, education manager, or just an interested observer from whatever quarter!

There is a current conversation going on on the wiki about the role of internet filtering in schools. This is something I feel we are getting profoundly wrong, here’s why:

It’s very easy to make sweeping statements about internet filtering in schools, and goodness knows I’ve certainly done so myself, but the issue is one worthy of some serious consideration and discussion. In doing so, I think we need to consider the reasons why we have filtering in the first place, and then look at how the current approach could be improved.

Reasons for Filtering

404sheepThere are a number of reasons why filtering is deployed. In schools, we filter the internet because we are, as Ben Plouviez has pointed out, supposedly providing “protection for kids”. This sounds like a reasonable premise, after all, there is no shortage of unsavoury content on the internet and a school is not a suitable place for it. However, this argument for filtering is based on the assumption that the filtering actually works… and anyone who works in a school knows that the pupils are more than capable of using proxies to circumvent any measures put in place by the school or authority. The irony is that if a member of staff used a proxy to access a site like YouTube for educational use, they’d be liable for disciplinary action and so they make a ‘responsible’ decision to not to.

Of course, more and more pupils are turning their backs on the school for internet access anyway. The rise of mobile phones with internet access has taken care of that. Why use a crippled school computer when you can access the whole of the internet on your phone, download whatever content you wish, and then distribute it by Bluetooth?

Having said that, I still stongly support the use of filtering to weed out wholly inappropriate content, but this has to be applied sensibly and not in the somewhat cavalier fashion that it is at the moment.


Hack Attack

CC By = The Original Jeff Martin

CC By = The Original Jeff Martin

The second reason we filter is to protect the school’s networks from ‘attacks’. What I find interesting about this reason is that, like the ‘protecting the kids’ argument, it is plausible, but I question whether the sites that are being blocked are likely to be the source of attacks on the network. Judging by recent news reports, we would appear to be more at risk of security breaches because of flaws in the browsers we use. Rather than being involved in constantly trying to find more sites to block, I think the technician’s time could more effectively used by making more of a concerted effort to make sure that the browsers and operating systems are kept up-to-date. Being honest, I have long held the belief that if a pupil was intent on bringing down a schol network, he or she is much more likely to bring in something malicious on a pen-drive. In a sense, filtering is, again, an ineffectual tool given its stated purpose.


Impact of Filtering

We live in a world where, as conscientious teachers, we spend a lot of time cultivating friendships and professional relationships with a view to being the best educators we can be. This has always been the case. What has changed is the methods we use to do this, namely, the internet. Since becoming an active learner in a connected world, I can say that I have discussed and thought about education to a much greater depth than I have ever done before. I pick up ideas and knowledge from educators around the twitterworld and not just those I meet at an In-Service Training day. And most of this has been done ‘off-the-clock’ because many of the tools I would wish to deploy are filtered out. As an example, one of the most powerful of all the tools I use has got to be Twitter. When I am on Twitter, I am never more than 140 characters away from an answer. In school, I am reliant on my own resources and thoughts…

Filtering means denying access to some of the most fantastic and free lesson resources in the world: need to see what Barack Obama thinks about the economy for a Modern Studies or Business class? — go to YouTube. Need to share data for a science project? — fire up Google Spreadsheets. Need a fantastic site with flash-based Maths games for a cover lesson in a hurry? — ask a question on Twitter… except, of course, you can’t because these are just some of the sites and tools that are actively discouraged in schools.

By taking a blanket-ban approach to filtering, we are denying teachers and pupils access to tools and knowledge they could and should be using. We are also being neglectful in our duty to ensure they know how to use these tools safely and responsibly, after all, how can we model good practice if we, the responsible adults, are denied access? What message does this send out to the pupils — especially if (as noted above) they have their own access to the internet sitting in their pocket?

Put simply, filtering is preventing real learning taking place. Thanks to Karl Fisch, we know just how connected our world is and we know how important it is to be life-long learners. The Education2020 wiki and unconference are an attempt to start coming to terms with what education (as opposed to technology) will be like in 2020, but we need to re-evaluate filtering and start taking a new approach to how we ensure that children are safe on the internet.


One Step Forward — The Tipping Point:

I think there is a strong case for saying that the reason many teachers do not wish to use the new tools is ignorance. They have heard that YouTube/Twitter/Wikis are bad/evil/pits of depravity, and so they have no place in schools. We have to change this opinion, but to do so, we need to support our colleagues and give them a more realistic idea of these tools. Rather than merely complain, I believe the time has come to be more proactive about how educators use the internet in an educational setting. One youtube_logoreally important way we could do this is by having access to (and even producing) guides to some of the most common tools from an educator’s point-of-view. Yes, there are already plenty of guides out there for the tools, but remarkably few address the filtering aspect of them… they assume you have already have access to the tools.

Take, for example, a tool like YouTube.

In its favour YouTube has:

  • plenty of content,
  • many excellent examples to illustrate a variety of school subjects,
  • pupils are familiar with it,
  • you have the ability to create channels that a class can subscribe to,
  • the ability to highlight worked answers,
  • more and more ‘official channels’ such as the BBC, the Queen, EUTube, National Geographic… the list goes on and on.

The negatives of YouTube include the fact that:

  • there is inappropriate content on it,
  • the comments on videos can be vile,
  • there are issues with copyright material.

A Solution:
Pre-select your YouTube videos (think of it as lesson preparation!) and make sure you can sign in to YouTube. This will allow you to set the access levels of the videos you are presented with. The reality is that you really have to try to encounter inappropriate material. Something that is not really likely to happen in a class.
There are tools to block the comments, and, realistically, you are unlikely to be scrolling down to the comments in class anyway.
Use the copyright issues as a learning point. Make a lesson out of them. There are plenty of resources that will give you reasons why this form of copyright theft is wrong… but don’t forget that there are also some very persuasive arguments for saying that these are examples of ‘fair use’.

Final Thoughts

As a classroom teacher I wish to do the best for my pupils. I want them to become curious travellers with the skills to learn anywhere and everywhere. I want them to create and grow their own Personal Learning Networks just as I have done over the past three years. Unfortunately, the current attitudes towards filtering and how it is applied in schools means that I am balked at every turn, and I am not alone in this. I am hearing more and more teachers within my own school and across the world saying exactly the same thing: Let us use the internet to make our teaching better… and trust us to do so responsibly.

Filtering does have a place in schools, but when it is preventing learning, it needs to be changed.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Richard Anderson permalink
    January 11, 2009 4:58 pm

    One of the issues I perceive is that control over filtering may be handled on a Local Authority basis, rather than within a school itself. Thus, making changes to filtering policy becomes a long-winded, bureaucratic exercise.

    There need to be proper systems within schools to promptly handle requests and monitor changes in filtering policy.Trust teachers! A teacher should be able to make a judgement on the merits of a particular web service and request access to it, whether permanently, or in a time-limited manner. This process should not be onerous.

    In our “blame” society, school leaders need to be prepared to stand up for the educational benefits of the Internet, instead of fearing the retribution from parents in the event that their child accesses something inappropriate. This is tough. Parents may have different views on what is deemed “appropriate”, for a variety of moral, religious or cultural reasons.

    There are no easy answers. Educators have to make the case, loud and clear, that the Internet is the most powerful educational tool of the 21st Century, and that filtering will only be used for the more extreme corners of the web.

  2. January 11, 2009 5:26 pm

    I think there is a further problem with regards to local authorities in that the Corporate Policy for the Council/Authority as a whole is not likely to be compatible with education’s requirements. To illustrate, I know of a council who (at authority level) allow employees to access their personal mail on services such as gmail/yahoo/hotmail etc, yet these same services are blocked to teachers.

    Perhaps it requires a forward thinking authority to devolve internet access to the education department. Let them make the decisions that are best for educational use.

    Of course, there needs to be dialogue for this to happen. Unfortunately, too many people have entrenched views and are making policy decisions based on their own fears rather than on any arguments or points made by the people who will ultimately be responsible: the teachers.

    I love that East Lothian have enabled YouTube access to all their schools — staff AND pupils. So far, they don’t seem to have disappeared into a den of iniquity.

    The next step is to make the wifi in schools open to all. This is something that Karl Fisch did in Arapahoe in 2007! Again, Western Civilization hasn’t really collapsed (well, there is the credit crunch, but I don’t think pupils having access to wifi at school was the cause of that!).

    It’s all down to trust, and at the moment, no-one seems to trust the pupils or the teachers…

  3. January 11, 2009 7:34 pm

    Some countries do not filter their school internet. Given the number of anonymous proxies the fact they have unfiltered internet at home and on their phones it is an upward battle.

    Schools are responsible for the children in their care so I guess filtering is seen as a necessary requirement.

    I think logging is essential as a minimum and see a lot more teachers actually using YouTube as part of their teaching as a way of presenting pupil work. YouTube is the confusing area though.

    Definitely a hot potato.

  4. January 11, 2009 10:30 pm

    @Mr W: Not only has YouTube access not led to us disappearing into a den of iniquity, we’ve been delighted to receive many positive emails from teachers telling us how they’ve been using it to improve teaching and learning activities. Christine Gilbert would be proud of them.

    Re the next step, making wi-fi available in schools – I don’t know if you know what we’ve been doing on that front in East Lothian.

    Due to the prohibitive cost implications of providing and maintaining individual student computers for all, such as proposed by the Learning Hubs project, we are exploring taking advantage of the devices children are increasingly bringing into school with them. Now it’s phones, but they’re getting smarter, and before long it will be netbooks, hence the “One Netbook per Child” project. And of course this might currently also include DS, Nintendo Wii, xBox etc.

    As part of exploring this, our IT colleagues have been researching possible models. The front runner at the moment is a separate wi-fi network, independent of the existing school network, which students could use just like a wi-fi hotspot in a cafe, but free of charge, to connect their devices. This poses no threat to corporate systems, and adds the new bandwidth capacity in a relatively “cheap and cheerful” way, via individual school ADSL broadband services.

  5. January 11, 2009 10:59 pm

    Neil, there’s another important point here which is a hobby horse of mine, but which I’ve never yet seen mentioned in any on-line discussion. That’s probably much more to do with my lack of reading than anything else, but as this thoughtful post is likely to become compulsory reading on the topic, this seems a good place to add it.

    The point is that by creating a work environment where you’re not only working alone – you know what I mean! – but disconnected from your personal network and many of the resources the people in your network might point you to, we are creating a work environment which will be a complete turn-off to the very people we need to attract into the future world of teaching.

    It won’t be any good spending money on glossy job ads if everyone knows going into teaching in your LEA is a sure-fire way to cut yourself off from your personal network, and the very resources you’d want to use. You can see this starting to happen now, amongst the current generation of teachers. Many see East Lothian as attractive for that reason, and it’s one of the reasons why we’re doing it.

    Glow is definitely a step in the right direction, but it’s not the answer to this one. There needs to be a constant osmosis of ideas between teachers and people outside schools, and for that to happen we need to encourage use of tools like Twitter (where I’m dgilmour).

  6. January 11, 2009 11:36 pm


    Spot on. In fact, it’s worse than that. Employers – yours as well as mine – are going to be going out to recruit exactly the people who have spent their youth and university years building up networks, developing their creativity through FB and Twitter and so on – only to tell them as they come through the door: That’s it, we’re cutting off contact with precisely the networks that make you valuable to us.

    The sad thing is that, ludicrous though it seems, this scenario is all too likely…

  7. January 12, 2009 2:53 pm

    DigMo!’s comment about logging is an important one (I think). I know of one computing teacher who, two or three weeks into the first year ICT course, shows the pupils a printout of the sites they have been visiting while in school. There are a couple of important teaching points behind this, not the least of which is that you are NOT anonymous when using the Internet – you leave little digital footprints wherever you go. Not only is it not true that “On the Internet, nobody knows you are a dog” ( but it’s probably the case they know whether you prefer dry biscuits or meaty chunks! ( This is a lesson that all Internet users need to learn – not just first year users of the school network.

    I have talked about the wider issues you discuss before. The two main points I tend to make are:

    1) I am for some filtering in schools for the kind of reasons you list, e.g. the school’s duty of care to its pupils.


    2) Teachers should have permission to override the filter when appropriate.

    By this, I don’t mean they should be able to contact someone asking them to unblock something because often you need access there and then and for that one occasion only. What I mean is, if a website comes up as blocked in the class, the teacher should have permission to enter a password (to be identified as a teacher) and then unblock the site then and there. Perhaps it is only unblocked for that machine and that lesson but it should happen at the point where access is needed and under the supervision of the person best placed to make that decision – that is the classroom teacher.

    {Sorry, got a bit ranty there!}

  8. January 12, 2009 3:32 pm

    Interesting points here Neil.

    Are you able to make the TeachMeet at BETT this Friday?

    Happy New Year to you!

    Tess 🙂

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