To filter or not to filter?

There is a debate out there and it has been going on for quite some time. The debate is whether schools should filter content on student devices. This is a bit more complicated than saying yes or no. For example is the school using a BYOD approach, should schools filter content at school level but not at home should schools monitor but not filter and it can go on and on and on.

I admit, I have flip-flopped on this issue more than once. Usually experience and reflection cause these changes of thoughts, but before we get into all of that let’s talk about what I mean when I say filter.

I am talking about content filtering. This is a process of blocking certain content from the Internet so users cannot access that content. This can be done a variety of ways. Sometimes there is a physical device that does this on a large network that uses keyword and various websites (like Cisco’s Talos) to determine if a website is OK or not to view.

The way I see things, there are two reasons (besides being compliant with the law) we content filter:

  1. To better control network traffic and bandwidth limitations
  2. To keep students from going to bad places
  3. To help parents at home monitor their children

The first reason is more logistical than anything. I once worked at a school were students decided that the best way to keep in touch during class was to Skype their buddies in another class.

Skype – I kid you not

Now, most weren’t actually video chatting back and forth during class. They just had their camera open, the sound muted and were texting back and forth and then getting live reactions. Kind of clever, but oh man did our network suffer. We eventually had to block Skype from the student network. We did it to help keep students focused but mostly just to keep our network humming along, as it was a huge drain on resources.

We also blocked streaming sites (not YouTube or Vimeo) but other streaming sites because if everyone was using Netflix it would simply cripple the network. I know that a number of schools out there have Gigabit Fiber Internet, but I would think that is not most. I think most people would be OK giving up Netflix if it met they would experience a more stable speed and connection.

Actual Content Filtering

Now onto blocking specific sites due to the content they publish and not how it detrimentally effects the network. There are some sites that an (American) school is required by the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). This law says that we must adhere:

  • Access by minors to inappropriate matter on the Internet;
  • The safety and security of minors when using electronic mail, chat rooms and other forms of direct electronic communications;
  • Unauthorized access, including so-called “hacking,” and other unlawful activities by minors online;
  • Unauthorized disclosure, use, and dissemination of personal information regarding minors; and
  • Measures restricting minors’ access to materials harmful to them.

I suspect that similar laws can be found in other countries around the world.

At our school our middle school students are 1:1 with Chromebooks. They are our devices that we provide our students. Keeping that in mind I feel that we do have a responsibility to our families when their children bring these devices home. I don’t like leaving our families to completely fend for themselves, so extend our content filtering outside of school.

We use a service (GoGuardian in my case but there are others) that extend pretty decent content filtering to our Chromebooks even away from campus. It also gives us more granular control over YouTube which is nice. We can whitelist specific videos or channels while blocking everything else. This service also provides parents a way to view what is happening with their chid’s Internet activity and the ability to do some blocking or set up restrictions at home.

So what’s the deal?

At first blush this seems like a no brainer. It seems like schools should absolutely block all this stuff, but this is a more nuanced conversation. So let’s take social media for example. Schools block these sites for the following reasons:

  • It’s not educational
  • It is a distraction
  • It allows students to communicate in class
  • Students can bully other students
  • There are plenty of inappropriate postings on social media

Again, this seems super straightforward but consider social media. Social media (whether you like it or not) can be a really big part of a student’s social life. It is not crazy to think that what happens on social media after school and off the school network can definitely have an impact on what happens at school (for better or worse).

In our school we talk about students taking responsibility, treating each other with respect, and utilizing good critical thinking skills. Almost all of these examples are how students should act when faced with these situations. It’s almost always a face-to-face or you are involved in a situation, but are we teaching them to utilize those skills online?

Some educators argue that it is important to unblock social media sites so educators and students can have honest discussions and view real examples of how to properly behave and handle situations in these settings. That learning how to handle confrontations, bullying and basic communication skills online can be  just as important as how it is handled in person.

Not only that but colleges, universities and employers look at social media accounts of people interested in their organizations. I don’t know if they all look at this or how much weight it factors into making a decision, but I know a lot do and we have seen in the news of students getting kicked out of school or have their acceptance revoked for what they have done on social media.

The question I am asking is, should high schools prepare students how to use social media responsibly to better equip them for their next step? That’s a tough question. Social media doesn’t just connect people anymore. It now serves as a place where many people get their news and are informed on issues.

Privacy?

Whether you agree or not, student privacy is not an issue. I use the term student and not child specifically in that statement. As a student they receive their email account from the school. The school creates and manages that account and has a responsibility to take action if the account is abused or used in a way that is not appropriate.

Think of it as a business email account. If you abuse it or use it in a way that in a way that company does not want it to be used they have the right to suspend or terminate that account.

The same goes for personal email accounts. If you use it for a purpose that Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, etc. says not to, they can suspend that account without notice and you may never get access back to it.

This is true for for school owned and issued devices. I feel that the school does have some place to monitor these devices, even outside of school.

What gets tricky is a school who has a BYOD (bring Your Own Device) program. Do you monitor their device when they will certainly be using it with their own personal email/social media accounts? I don’t know. I feel uncomfortable with schools that go to these lengths because the device is not their’s. They didn’t pay for it, don’t manage it and I wonder if it should be monitored outside of school hours and if it is to what extent?

Personal accounts?

No . . . unless the actions of those accounts directly affect someone at school. If someone is bullying another student and that student does not feel safe at school because of the bullying, I don’t know how to school can stand idly by. They should get involved and work with those families to resolve it.

Again, this can be tricky and a slippery slope. Schools should be as transparent as they can in what they are monitoring, why and how. Then again, what if a student uses a personal Gmail account on their school issued and owned device? Tough questions. In that last case I think schools

What we do

We do block social media for all students and off campus on our Chromebooks. The argument that is what students use to communicate just doesn’t hold water here. There are plenty of other avenues of communicating that is available to our students – Gmail being the most notable option.

We also don’t feel that social media is a solid place to find information. While there are real and valid news stories that are shared through these sites there are also plenty of unverified opinions that are being passed off as actual facts or news so I can’t think of a good reason to allow students access to it.

Wrapping it up

There is a lot to think about it here and there are lots of views out there that are quite different to mine. I wish I knew who was correct or right and follow those guidelines but this is something that we have all been trying to figure out and I am sure we will be working to figure it out tomorrow as well.

I wouldn’t be too surprised if I look at this post next year and shake my head, but this is not just a yes/no question and technology is always changing, so one thing I can say for certain is that I will always need to keep an open mind when approaching this topic. I hope you do too.

1 thought on “To filter or not to filter?

  1. Pingback: Covid 19 – Never going back | Technology in the Classroom

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