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EdTech Update




« Fear mongering | Main | Why I love tech-using kids »

Due diligence

Filter.jpgNot 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. Kurt Paccio, Filtering Dilemma, Tech Ruminations.

I find Kurt's comment worrisome. (First, go read the entire post for context.) How many tech or IT directors have taken on the entire burden of making sure no student in their district finds anything disturbing on the Internet? I'll bet more than a few.

If schools are relying on filters (and tech staff) alone to protect students from inappropriate content, I hope the superintendent gets canned rather than the IT director. But both ought to know better. If Kurt has promised that his filter by itself keeps kids safe or if his administrator has the expectation that he will keep kids safe by filtering alone, both ought to find other work.

(Oh, my remarks are about public schools. I have no issues with religious or private schools in regard how or if  they choose to filter.)

Why you can't rely on filters:

1. Kids get around them. 

A 16-year old boy speedily found a way around a new porn filter provided by the Australian government's NetAlert internet safety initiative. Tom Wood, a student in a Melbourne private school, told media outlets that it took him just over 30 minutes to bypass the filter, either the Spanish Optenet product or the American Safe Eyes filter. His technique kept the filter's toolbar icon in place, fooling parents or teachers into thinking the software was still working. ... After NetAlert officials discovered the bypass, they installed an Australian-made filter called Integard, which Wood promptly disabled in another 40 minutes.American Libraries, October 2007, p 42.

This is not an unusual circumstance. Check out SchoolBoredom.dom. Look up old Playboy websites using the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine. Students can circumvent filters by:
•    Disabling stand-alone software through simple keyboard combinations.
•    Using specialized software such as that available from Peacefire's website.
•    Changing a browser’s proxy to an unfiltered site.
•    Using an anonymizer like Akamai.
•    Logging into the filtering server using a default administrator’s password if not disabled

2. Filters are not 100%. Studies, like those of the Electronic Freedom Foundation (2003) that examined nearly a million web pages, should fuel Kurt's 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 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.

3. Kids have access to un-filtered Internet access outside of school. We are totally derelict if we don't tech kids how to navigate and discriminate sites that are not appropriate for them. There is wide-open access at the coffee shop, at the public library, at their buddies' homes, and through their cell phones that have data access.

As in so many areas of student safetly, I will practice due diligence. I will take what steps I can and that are reasonable to protect kids. But I cannot guarantee anyone will never see a nekk'd body on the web from a school computer. Bad things will happen to kids and teachers despite our best efforts. Any individual's control is limited. Do what you can and sleep well.

We make it very clear that filters will not keep kids completely out of harm's way and that teachers need to monitor kids' use just as diligently as if there were no filters at all. And we teach kids not to click on links that look suspicious. The responsibility is shared for appropriate use - as it well should be. You'd like the approach, Kurt. Give it a shot.

Oh, I wonder what "the sobbing mother who is clutching her book of faith" was sobbing about? Access to information about evolution, gay rights, family planning or the Wiccan religion? I have yet to see a kid harmed by simply reading or seeing anything on the Internet. And heaven forbid we expand their minds with different points of view.


Off to Orlando tomorrow to speak at the FAME conference and take my grandson (and his mom and my son) to DisneyWorld for a few days. As much as I would like to dislike DisneyWorld, my stupid grin starts the moment I walk through the gates and doesn't leave the entire time I am there. Yes, it does feel like a giant mouse picks one up by the ankles and shakes until it has one's very last nickel, but what the heck. I'm taking my camera so be warned!


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Reader Comments (7)

We are currently filtered twice in our school district, first through our state and then at our district level. Last Friday, I found a classic example of how filtering can go wrong. Currently, one of our state databases (WilsonWeb) is being blocked at our local level as "spam" and so far my requests to unblock it have not been answered. On Friday afternoon, I went to close down an open browser window and much to my surprise the window was open to South Park site, where students could access the chat room as well as video clips. Now, how ironic is this I ask? Then, I go to access some sites to teach students how to evaluate websites for misinformation and am blocked to certain sites. How can I teach my students to be critical when the choice is taken out of their hands? They can't practice the skills I teach them because they are in a controlled environment. What happens when are out from behind the veil of our filters? Are they going to take the time to be critical consumers of information when all along they haven't had time to practice? Maybe I'm just frustrated and angry with the whole thing to be completely objective. I find it amusing that in our technology standards we state that we want our students to be ethical users of technology and yet we are not teaching them to be ethical, we are trying to get them to be ethical through control. Oh, I could go on, but I'll stop there.

October 8, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAngie

I read this tonight as I seeth b/c twitter was slammed closed on me today--JUST as I was getting great suggestions for a dilemma. I think I'll tlk to the 8th grade kids to see how to get around the blocks too. OOPPSS I did not say that!

October 8, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterCathy Nelson

I thought that my District had gotten better this year. I could finally access the majority of educational blogs and wikis. This weekend I needed to create a wiki for class. I discovered that there is only one site that is not blocked for creating wikis! And, I think the only reason it isn't blocked is because the filter hasn't picked it up yet. Grrr... The one that has sneaked past the censors: I have my wiki but for how long??

To open a blocked site requires the completion of a form that then goes to a committee which meets QUARTERLY!! Heaven forbid, you should need something immediately! Crap! Crap! This school year our IT department has gone bonkers with control issues. It is not just the Internet but the school management system (SchoolMaster). Things that people have been able to do in years past have been blocked. Our school registrar is tearing her hair out every other day. She can no longer create reports (no access to filters to create one!) She can enter new students into the database, but can't transfer students' records from another school to ours. I don't know what meeting IT went to this summer, but it shook them up tremendously. Any suggestions out there??

October 8, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterLinda


I like your subversive streak!


Sorry to hear about your troubles. For what it is worth, we unblock at any professional's request immediately, but if someone wants something blocked it goes to committee.

Wish I had an answer. Don't understand the rationale behind blocking wikis at all. I suppose they should block Google Docs then too!

Thanks for writing in,


October 9, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

The disclaimer: Kurt is a friend of mine.

I think we (those of us who begrudgingly live in a filtered world) need to be careful that we frame our arguments in the context of what IS, rather than what we firmly believe OUGHT to be. We've all heard stories from the courts that make us want to scream, "WHERE DO THEY FIND THOSE BRAIN-DEAD JURORS?" And, when we read the court-based best sellers we are all horrified of the insanity that seems to rule our courts. Those things SHOULD NOT HAPPEN - but they do.

Tech directors are CHARGED with the task of providing a safe (a jury will decide what's safe, ultimately) environment, free from the nasties on the web. It's an unwinnable battle. And, it's so subjective. If it weren't we wouldn't hear that one district allows youtube while the others in the same area block it. But, suppose (stay with me here) that a tech director HAS allowed a site through he filter and someone DID want to raise a fuss over something that was seen. Yes, we can stand on our soapboxes and yell all those arguments you just made about it not being filterable and that it's the duty of people to filter themselves. But, that's the world we WANT, not the one we live in. You KNOW that a jury would rule against the district. We ALL know it. We all HATE knowing it, but we all know it. (And it's too easy to get back on the soapbox and yell, 'HOW do we KNOW it?' You DO, if you'll admit it.)

Kurt happens to be one of the more 'enabling' tech directors that I know. He blocks when told to block or when it's obvious to block. He's not sitting in his office looking for reasons to block sites. He WANTS them open. But, he also knows his reality.

So, please try to keep the arguments framed in the messy legal reality that we know exists, and try not to bash someone who is grounded there. We work in the real world, not the one we WANT. And I'm right with you on wanting more things open.

October 9, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJim Gates

Be careful! That mouse will also take your camera if you're not careful. Squeak, squeak.

October 9, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterken

Since I am a librarian and now the director of technology - I have spent enormous amounts on time on this issue. I have replaced filtering software three times. I now have found a product I actually like!
I use Lightspeed -- now some of you may groan but it is all in the configuration.

I have an adult group - an older students group and a younger students group.
I then have different filtering for those groups based upon age.
For adults only sites that would be an issue with CIPA are blocked.
The older kids have a few additional restrictions - then younger kids have more.

I allow all users to request to have a site unblocked. For students I only respond to school email addresses and only respond to a statement that makes sense (note does not have to be exactly polite) but it can't say Reason: because I want to see or I think I shoud be able to go there...

If they do those things -
I personally go to the site and see what it is
If it is a legitimate site
I unblock it and tell the student they were correct.

If it cannot be unblocked such as youtube -- I tell them why
such as youtube does have some good material however it also has inappropriate content that is not for school. if they want to see youtube -- they should do it at home and talk to their parents. I also send them a link to our webpage about Internet safety.

I do the same for social networking and tell them about good people on the sites and bad people on the sites.
I refer them to articles and web safety sites.

It is also a fabulous teaching tool. Last year a student asked me to unblock -- they wanted to apply for a job
What an opportunity for me to tell them about fake websites, spyware, etc. Give them the correct Walmart website and I copied and pasted the information from the website that you could not apply for a job online.

All of my adult users in Lightspeed manage their own whitelists and blacklists.
Everyday they receive an email summary. It indiactes what was blocked as spam, what had viruses, and what went through as good email.
They can whitelist or blacklist.

Nothing is perfect but I try to give my users some control over their own Internet experience

October 10, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterpaula

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