This idea has been rolling around in my head for the last few weeks. I have been trying to figure out how to write this with a feeling of anything less than sheer and utter frustration. It is mainly because my friend Cynthia wrote me an e-mail on Friday asking me to describe what our filtering system is like that I’ve been provoked into action. Clearly filters are an issue about which many of us in the blogosphere have written long and sometimes distressing entries. I have no intention of rehashing that although I think that you should visit the following blogs from David Truss’ entries here and here to get an idea, although there are many more! Beyond the fact that they are a reactive approach to controlling students web activities, rather than a proactive approach to the problem, I’m frustrated because ours really don’t seem to work all that well, and if we’re going to use them (as some educational directors resolutely maintain), shouldn’t they actually work?
They’re not very accurate.
First off let me say that I do understand that sometime and for some things there is a need to put in some form of restriction. What I can’t figure out is why we don’t think about the sites that we block. Maybe there should be some considered thought put into the reasons why something gets blocked rather than why they should be unblocked.
One reason why I would argue this is because I have seen a few sites blocked by the masters of the filters (whomever these people are) that simply have no reason being blocked. Earlier this year one of my colleagues was doing a project that he had been doing for a couple of years on the topic of dictatorships. He had his students use a website ‘the Dictator of the Month‘ which suddenly and inexplicably this year came up as inaccessible. When I looked into it, it said that it was because it was obscene/tasteless. What I would like to know is who decided this? I mean I understand that it isn’t exactly the greatest website (in fact it has not been updated recently), but really obscene/tasteless? I was able to get it unblocked, but when I asked why it was blocked, I was told that it was probably because of a mathematical algorithm. I really didn’t get it, and still while I sit here looking at it I don’t get it. It is my shining example of why the people who are doing the filtering are not doing the right job. Some might say that this is a rare occurrence but I can remember a couple of times in the past few years where I had students working on World War II projects and the sites would come up inexplicably blocked.
Another reason why our particular filter bothers me is the fact that it has a strange aversion to feeds. I have been trying to use Edmodo for my social studies class, but one of the things that I wanted to do was build up a collection of feeds, but whenever I have set one up I have found them blocked. There is a note about advertising/banner ads, but I’m not sure how that applies to my feed.
I have been told by some colleagues that teach mathematics that the filters have an itchy trigger finger for sites even remotely related to probability, apparently they are freaked out by gambling. Is this a good thing for our students?
Exactly how much time we have spent trying to correct this idiocies is not clear, but it makes me wonder if these are good value for the money.
Students get around them too easily
If they were effective students wouldn’t be able to get around them. Only they do on a very regular basis. I have seen all sorts of students on websites that they shouldn’t be. Students shouldn’t be on Facebook (that’s a debate for another entry), but there they are. They shouldn’t be on shooter games, yet I found one student playing a game called ‘Sniper Assassin’ apparently without even having to bother with trying to find a proxy to bypass the filter. They also shouldn’t be on proxies but they are there as well. I don’t know how many people in schools that have 3G phones, but I would say a lot of students do. How effective is a filter at blocking 3G cell phone towers? If I tell a student they can’t do something on one of the school computers, well that’s why they have a mini-computer in their pocket that doubles as a phone.
What’s worse is that these often block the teachers from accessing the most up-to-date or most useful information. I had a colleague who was regaling me with how the filters ‘worked’ at his school, finally one day after expressing this frustration to a class, a student volunteered to help him access what he wanted. This one time he agreed, and the student leaped over the filter and had the information inside of ten seconds. While I may question the speed reported in the story, I have no doubt as to its general validity. Again how is it that filters are supposed to work again?
Lastly I would point out that the Chinese government has tried desperately to erect an Internet filter, and with all the resources of the state behind it, it apparently doesn’t work well.
A final rant
This whole rant leaves aside the most important problems with filters that they are the wrong approach to the problem. I guess what I have been dealing with is the fact that if you are a supporter of filters then they should work and work properly. But the fact is they don’t, and that as technology marches forward they will become increasingly useless (there’s that 3G or 4G or whatever). What frustrates me probably more than anything is the fact that no one in a position of power seems willing to have a frank and open discussion about this. This last week the Calgary Board of Education announced that students would be able to use their cell phones in class, but they said that they would still control the websites the students had access to (make sure to read the corrections at the bottom). Seems a trifle over-optimistic if you ask me.