Sunday, January 31, 2010

To Filter or Not Filter? Question for Administrators

I have thought about writing on this subject for quite sometime. I even did some research in advance, hoping that I might find some kind of inspiration or direction. I have found none. Part of the problem is that no matter what the federal E-rate funding regs say, I am, and always will be against Internet filtering. Regardless of what those who advocate Internet filtering say, I can’t agree. This might seem strange coming from a school administrator, but I just do not like using filtering when it comes to Internet access. Honestly, I have not met an Internet filtering product I like. Some would argue that personal preferences should not play a part; we should focus instead on effectiveness. I disagree with that argument because there a number of products out there that effectively do what they are supposed to do. They filter out web sites. The problem is, they do not do so flawlessly. Some good is filtered out as well, and the end result is a compromised Internet experience. Take Lightspeed Systems product as an example. Their product is highly effective in what it does. It has a high octane web filtering system. For example, it is set up so school systems can completely lock users out of all social media sites. Just try to access Twitter behind their filter and this enormous “ACCESS DENIED” screen hits you right between the eyes. Makes you almost feel like you tried to break the law or something. No doubt Lightspeed’s “ACCESS DENIED” is quite effective in letting a user know, “Back off Bud! You ain’t allowed there.” But there are two problems with their filtering system that become rather obvious should you find yourself on the wrong side of their filter. One is obviously the “ACCESS DENIED” screen message when you try to access a forbidden site which makes for one miserable Internet experience. Perhaps they could tone it down just a bit. I could go for a Internet filter message that is a bit more polite, like, “Sorry, I really hate to bother you, but I can’t allow you to go there. If you really think you should be able to access this site, call your system’s administrator.” The second problem with filtering systems like Lightspeed it is too easy for school administrators to rely on the folks at Lightspeed to determine what is acceptable and unacceptable.  Perhaps my inner distrust of corporate America is coming out here, but I just think before something is blocked, we should know why we are blocking it. Administrators and teachers are just ultimately in a better position to protect our students from inappropriate content. After all, teachers have been blocking inappropriate content from their classrooms ever since Billy, a student in my high school English class, had his Playboy magazine confiscated by Ms. Bartholomew (names changed to protect the guilty and innocent).

What would I propose instead? It has to start with our teachers and us. As administrators we are going to have to trust our teachers are effectively monitoring students while online. We have to provide them with the tools and resources to help them do this. We have to train them on ways to keep students safe while browsing. You know, what is funny about this solution? Bet it’s much cheaper than purchasing Lightspeed Systems!

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