Should the web be filtered in schools?

If yes then where is the line?

David Gilmour

(East Lothian)
First, all social s/w sites are not the same. Distinguish blogs/wikis from Bebo etc as a first step. Next establish that Web2 is now mainstream. Queen, GB have Youtube sites, not just happy slappers. Have a paper I did on this...

Ben Plouviez

(Scottish Government, personal capacity)
Some very random thoughts: this is an area where I think we should make waves, and I'd like to understand more about how filtering works (or doesn't) in local authorities and schools.
This Guardian article is a good place to start: it doesn't work, it can be broken, it provides almost entirely spurious reassurance.
The question for schools, and I don't know how to address this, is that of offering "protection for kids". But when little Janey or Johnny hits a blocked site at home s/he can turn to parent and get it unblocked there and then. So argument there for moving towards device-based rather than "corporate" filtering.
Agree that the categories Websensed out need revision. Websense actually advertises itself (in current incarnations) as the Web 2.0-friendly filtering software (see their website). So how come it doesn't feel like that?
Inconsistency is one of the worst aspects. If Child A knows that some schools (in another area) allow access to a site, that undermines the pretence of objectivity. So if using filtering, blocks should only be put on those categories where there is almost no room for doubt or debate: not on those where differing judgements will ensure that inconsistent and random practice will develop.
When we challenged at work why exactly filtering was a good idea, the answer was: "for any or a combination of 3 reasons, a technical security threat to our network, conflicts with our HR policies including the IT Code of Conduct, and bandwidth limitations we have". The problem with this is it's a very blunt instrument with which to deal with three largely unrelated problems.
Final point: the people who most should not be managing this and making decisions on blocking/unblocking are IT people. Since when is policy on conduct an IT function? At work, it's HR people: they have a professional responsibility for judging what is and what isn't appropriate to the work environment. In schools, the equivalents are surely... teachers!

Neil Winton

PT and Glow Mentor - Writing here in a personal capacity)
This started as a quick comment, and ended up a full blown blog post!

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
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404sheep
There are a number of reasons why filtering is deployed. In schools, we filter the internet because we are, as Ben 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.
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
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world 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
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really 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 out 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.

Just a quick update: I noticed today that the Vatican is about to start its own YouTube Channel. As I said on Twitter, "If it's good enough for the Catholic Church, then surely it's good enough for schools". (18.1.09)


Andy Wallis

(writing in an very personal capacity!)
Some great points have already been made, many of which I completely agree with. I just want to make some (subjective and random) observations about how WebSense has been implemented. Since this method of filtering has been introduced within my LA, it has been met with derision from every teacher I have discussed it with (whether they are ignorant of the "dangers" of the net, or not) and has also been met with extreme disdain from every pupil.

By giving a blanket ban on any site that is 'uncategorized', the LA are limiting the education that pupils are receiving. We are unable to teach them about internet safety, because we are having to deal with internet censorship on a daily basis. The pupils have almost given up on using the internet as a research or learning tool, because they are aware that they will not be able to access many sites that will be usefel to their education. I can only imagine that when they log on at home, they are quick to access those sites that they were unable to access at home - whether these are appropriate sites or not.

Many pupils have had the assumption that staff are able to access all sites. When they realise that this is far from the case, they automatically assume that we are able to get sites freed up. Alas this has not been the case. Instead each site that has been requested to freed has had to be assessed by 3 individuals. This therefore says that teachers are not responsible individuals. Does a librarian have to ask 3 people before they order a book or an inter-library loan?! At present no one is able to access the Google Image search, so are we not allowed into museums or exhibitions unless 3 people within the authority give their consent?!

There does need to be some filtering, perhaps in terms of levels where there is strict filtering for P1 pupils, and this is gradually relaxed all the way up to S6. What really needs to be done is for LAs to understand how the internet works in 2009. More people need to shout out about it. If not, education will be very bleak in 2020.


Armin Grewe

(not a teacher, just a blogger. Writing in a personal capacity)

Just a general thought about the message filtering sends out to the people whose internet access is being filtered, regardless if in a school or any other environment: "We don't trust you! You are not trustworthy! We think you are only out to abuse this system!"

Not being a teacher I don't know if this is actually workable in a school, but I think I'd prefer something like this: While I would understand it if a limited number of sites (e.g. sites flagged for trying to install viruses or otherwise dangerous for computer security) were blocked I would hope for an as much open approach as possible combined with a strict "code of conduct" and appropriate sanctions if this code is broken. That way a message to the students (or anyone else, e.g. company employees, for that matter) would be given the message that they are trusted but that with that trust also comes responsibility. The responsibility to use that freedom wisely and not to abuse it.


Lynne Horn

(PT Languages Tobermory - these are my own opinions + not those of school)

The daily frustrations of living with the current level of filtering cannot be emphasised enough. A couple of years ago I was asked what piece of technology I couldn't do without, I said the internet - as a language teacher the ability to connect to anywhere in the world and find any piece of information at the click of a button brought language teaching up to date in a way that nothing else could - instant access to French pop music and video clips, pupils were going online to find these clips themselves and listen to them in their own free time. I could encourage more autonomous learning by setting internet challenges, allowing pupils to access more francophone pages. Now all spontaneity is gone, everything has to be checked weeks in advance, if I find a site one night I would like to use in school next day the chances are it will be blocked, by the time it is unblocked the moment has gone.

Today I found myself with some extra planning time - I looked for websites to look for some bits and pieces of information on a unit of work I am planning for S3, many were blocked, I've asked for them to be unblocked, in the meantime it is apparently ok for me to spend hours at home checking the sites to see if they are useful, if they are useful by the time they are unblocked we will have moved on. If they are useful but someone else decides that they are unsuitable then I have wasted my time - not only that, I am not considered professional enough to decide what is suitable for the pupils in my charge. I would never presume to say what is suitable for other subjects, so I can't see how non-language specialists can say what is suitable in mine. Moreover there is the false situation of having to justify why you want a particular site unblocked - "because I want to use it in class" not being considered enough. However the same does not apply in reverse. When one site was refused for unblocking I was told it was because it was a blog and because there was streaming video on it, however other blogs, other videos work perfectly.

When it comes to using the internet all trust seems to have been taken away from staff as well as pupils. I said these were my personal opinions - in fact one thing I have never been asked is what I want from internet use in school, what I want for my pupils and what they might want for themselves.



Sean Law ("The Bass Player")

(Author @ Students2oh.org/thebassplayersblog.blogspot.com, recent school leaver)

I was considering making a filming myself chatting on the subject, putting it on youtube and then on here, but then I realised if anyone was planning on looking at this in school, they wouldn't be able to see my contribution... which really sums up how tecnologically backwards filtering makes our classrooms.

Being a recent school leaver I'm going to chat about this from the perspective of a student, and thinking back I remember it being incredibly frustrating not being able to access some sites during school (for multiple reasons). In 5th year, my English teacher at the time Neil Winton (above) prompted me to start a blog, and in the aftermath I begun experimenting with things like twitter and wikispaces at home, and soon realised how it could help with my education. The thing was though, the new tools I'd discovered which allowed me to collaborate and obtain information in a way I never could have dreamed of previously, were unavailable in the environment in which I needed them most. The thing I found most annoying though, was not being able to access my own blog during school, and there's one reason for this; before my blog came in to being I hated writing, and in school never obtained any form of good grade for my writing (I have the report cards to prove it!), and it really annoyed me that the only kind of writing I actually enjoyed and was given some form of praise for was something I couldn't do within school - the place meant to be developing my skills, and fueling my passions. In this respect I believe that filtering should be minimal, and only enforced with the truely dangerous or honestly innapropriate material out there on the web.

Let me move to a different point. Throughout my 6 years at secondary school we were given homework diaries every single year. I don't think I could imagine the amount spent on these during my time there, or count the number of people that either threw theirs away or lost them. In a time where the world is facing a global economic crisis, and worrying about the environment do half the schools in the country really need to be spending money on the paper and plastic the government are telling the general public to be weary of wasting just to make school planners half the students never use? Why not spend a fraction of that money on unblocking hiveminder or remember the milk in schools, or even just using google calender? That way there's no recurring fee, or environmental issue for some ex student on a wiki to frown upon? Even if some students don't have access at home, they could still print out what they need on school computers.

Now I know my contribution to this is short, and not a complete piece of writing! but I just wanted to get a couple of points off my chest and hopefully add something useful to this.


Kathy Gryta

I am a campus-level technologist at a Middle School (grades 6-8, or children ages 12-14). While I agree that for lower grades (ages 5-11) it may be appropriate to use an Internet filter to prevent accidental access to inappropriate websites, I find that at my grade levels, the access is far from accidental. The presence of the Internet filter tends to be viewed as the 'software nanny' by teachers who then do not provide enough human monitoring of their students' behavior online, and when an inappropriate site is accessed, the filter gets blamed instead of the child being held accountable for accessing it. We already have in place a Technology AUA that prohibits accessing non-district email, streaming video or audio sites (which impact our limited bandwidth), non-educational games, or social networking sites, so why can't we just do away with the filter and treat violations of the AUA as the disciplinary problems that they are?


David Noble


I'm going to contribute a couple instances of blocking which have frustrated some teachers that I collaborate with. I have been running the Access Network (http://accessnetwork.blogspot.com) via Flashmeeting and Blogger over the last couple of years. This allows educators to meet after the school day to share and discuss. Many who expressed an interest subsequently got in touch to say that one or both sites were blocked. Only one teacher was able to get the block removed. The doctoral research that I am carrying out into learning professionals' use of the social web uses a Ning social network site (http://edonis.ning.com) to help co-ordinate the parts of the study. Despite many education-related Ning sites operating, this too is blocked for many educators, many of whom are not interested in using time in the evening to access these resources from a personal computer. Beyond this, I appreciate the many reasons for not opening up networks (see the podcast on blocking that Krysia Smyth and I produced at http://tinyurl.com/6bjnyn) and that there will always be significant differences from authority to authority.

Lynne Lewis

In many respects I do not feel qualified enough to comment on this issue since I do not understand how websense works. I think there is a defnite argument for needing something particularly at primary level. I think in East Lothian with the current unblocking of youtube we need to have a rethink. From the point of view of primary teaching websense only seems to block very often sites that we need to access for educational purposes. Up until a few weeks ago believe it or not Barrack Obama's website was blocked until I requested it become unblocked. I have also come across many other sites 'mid lesson' being blocked particularly anything with a political slant. Unfortunately as a class teacher we do not have the time to wait for sites to become unblocked and therefore move on and often have to resort to wikipedia as a 'quick fix'. I think more information as to how websense works and can be tweaked is definitely top of the agenda. Wonder if 10 Downing Street is blocked..........