Friday, December 23, 2005

filtering the internet

In South Australia a filtering tool has been imposed onto all government schools as part of the eduCONNECT service. It's based on the N2H2 filtering system, however, by examining the interface it appears that some functionality of that system has been removed.

There was a lengthy discussion about the eduCONNECT system on the South Australian IT teachers list in May 2005. I'm presenting here an overview of my objections to this filtering system from a number of perspectives. If necessary I'll elaborate on some of the points that follow in more detail later.

1. This particular filtering service and its implementation:

It does not distinguish between adults and children or between students of different ages or enable different filtering regimes to operate on different machines. Whatever is blocked for students is also blocked for adults and is blocked on all machines on a site. There is no way around this.

These categories are blocked by default:
  • Message/Bulletin Boards
  • Web Mail
  • Web Page Hosting
  • Games
There are 39 filtering categories . Of these categories 30 are blocked. I am lobbying for the unblocking of the above 4 categories because they are educationally beneficial.

At the time of its implementation in my school eduCONNECT blocked a range of sites which were a part of my curriculum. They were: (game making forum) (photo sharing) (blogging) (my personal blog) (my web mail)

Schools have the ability to unblock individual sites and keywords but as stated above it is all or nothing. So, for example, if a school has a policy for blocking webmail for students then webmail cannot be enabled for the teachers without breaking that policy.

The rationale here I gather is to maintain the ability to track all communications within a school site. The privacy issues here need to be explored.

Another point I would make is that defaults are important because they set expectations and in practice many sites never transcend those expectations.

In this case the expectation being set is that there is something wrong about wanting to write to the web. All ability to write to the web has been blocked by default.

Another expectation being set is that there is something wrong with playing computer games at any time during the school day (including lunchtimes). I would argue that many computer games are beneficial.

2. Understanding the web, what it is, what it is becoming:

The web is for writing, conversation and collaboration, not just searching and reading. This was the original purpose of the web as envisaged by Tim Berners-Lee as described in his book, Weaving the Web, but this purpose has only come to fruition recently.

This future is here now, search the web using these words and you will find it: web 2.0, web2MemeMap, Web as Platform, the architecture of participation, the software paradigm shift, small pieces loosley joined, web applications, the other road ahead.

The future is using the web as platform with web applications such as delicious, flickr, blogger, bloglines, gmail and the hundreds of other applications that are flooding into web space.

We are currently witnessing an irreversible cultural change to more unrestricted conversation and collaboration through the web, including mobile communication with wireless, wifi, mobile phones, etc.

The default settings of eduCONNECT block all of this and sends the completely wrong message about the way to go.

It makes it much harder for innovative teachers to introduce innovation into their curriculum.

Will the citizens of the future thank us for being cautious now? We should listen to futurists like Alan Kay:
Another problem is that we don't have a very good concept of the future itself. McLuhan's line--one of my favorites--is, "We're driving faster and faster into the future, trying to steer by using only the rear-view mirror." ....

But McLuhan was saying something else, that when change changes, you can't predict the future in the same way anymore; you have some second order or third order effects. So the biggest thing we need to invent ... is the invention of the future itself. In other words, to think of the concept of future not as a thing that comes from the past--although it has come from the past in a way--but to realize that the forces that are bringing about change right now are so great that it's very difficult to sit down and make simple extrapolations.
For students it makes school seem more irrelevant, out of touch and restrictive. A PEW Report in the USA in 2002 has already found that there was "... a widening gap between internet savvy students and their schools."

3. Child access and safety:

My response to the "it's better to be safe than sorry" or "proceed with caution" argument

With exciting new web applications coming on line every day, the general stance of "proceed with caution" means in practice that schools will lag behind the cutting edge of innovation. This will disadvantage our students in a world where innovation and keeping up with trends in technology has become more important. To play safe, to be cautious may not be always in the best interest of students.

Equity considerations: Quite a few students do not have access to this web based software at home. If we block it at school we are doing them a disservice compared with wealthier students who generally do have internet at home.

Concerns about child safety are important. By using web based social software we can proactively train students in safe usage. By not using it we play safe but do not protect students in what they might do outside of school hours. By not using it schools may be minimising their chance of being sued by a parent when something goes wrong but this may still not be in the longer term best interests of children, especially those who are naive internet users and need advice from teachers about safe practice.

Resiliance is better than avoidance. It is just crazy to think that with the incredible growth of mobile peer to peer communications that we have the option of locking young people out of exposure to illicit or dangerous material distributed through the internet. Irrespective of the merits of the blocking strategy with each day it is becoming less realistic.

Does blocking material to children which parent or teachers perceive as undesirable do more harm than good? The arguments against censorship need to be considered. Read Why we do this? by Peacefire, an organisation devoted to Open Access for the Net Generation.


Anonymous yank said...


3:09 PM  
Anonymous Graham Wegner said...

Bill, you have outlined the major stumbling blocks with the Educonnect way of doing things and I have a strong suspicion that some of the decision makers are yet to realise that the read/write web is here. I've posted about the filter before on my blog. What can we do as concerned educators here in South Australia to have these categories loosened up. I think it is ludicrous that staff can't be given different priveleges to students, otherwise the other option will be give all staff administrator status so that the filter can over-ridden. I have that password and override it on daily basis - it shouldn't be this way or we are kidding ourselves as a education system that we are anywhere near the cutting edge.

9:47 PM  
Blogger Bill Kerr said...

Thanks Graham,
I followed the links on your blog to edublogs-being-blocked

There are a great many very encouraging comments and interesting links in that thread. It seems to me that an organisation will form to oppose the censorship.

There is a new thread on James Farmer's site discussing the name of such an organisation

1:56 PM  
Blogger Leigh Blackall said...

Good on you Bill. Great to see such strong solidarity on this issue in Australia. Good post! Merry Christmas/happy new year.

9:17 PM  

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