The vexed subject of web-filtering in schools has raised its ugly head in the educational blogosphere again. Two recent examples: Doug Dickinson and Ewan McIntosh. It's a subject which I have to be careful about lest I descend into my usual "They don't know what they're doing" rant. As someone who has been an ICT co-ordinator for ten years and as a trainer for various software companies I have seen the inflexibility of filter systems in action all too often:
- This week I was trying to teach web searching using the Olympics as an example. Nothing controversial about that until you realised that the school's filters blocked the string "pics";
- I've trained in a nameless NW LEA which purchased a hugely expensive online content system for its schools, then proceeded to block half the content, including all resources ending with the file extension .mp3. Podcasting is a challenge;
- I've been in far too many schools where teachers don't use the web much anymore: they can't be bothered to search for resources at home only to find them blocked in school;
- And here's the clincher: I ask them, "Why don't you get the resource unblocked?" And the response is all too predictable and will take one of two forms, "I don't know how," or, "It will take weeks, and I can't be bothered."
This is a depressing situation; but what could be done to improve it? First, at the risk of stating the obvious, those responsible for the filters should consider the wider government agenda of getting children to access the internet from home in order to use tools such as their school's learning platform. Do they imagine that these children will be using heavily filtered and monitored web services while they are doing this? Secondly, as we move to a 3G internet world in which children are accessing the web via mobile devices, do people consider that these will have a largely unfiltered view of the web? In such a world, web filters are rapidly becoming redundant.
The answer is surely not more filtering, but education. I consider the Acceptable Use Policy to be one of the cornerstone policies in a school, right up there with behaviour, anti-bullying and special needs policies. It should be reviewed annually by all staff; it should be actively promoted at school and to parents; and above all, it should be ACTIVE! By that, I mean that schools should be actively monitoring their web connections; they should be holding transgressors (staff and children) to account; and they should be educating everyone about internet safety and developing a responsible attitude towards the web.
In too many schools I have visited the attitude towards computer safety is utterly complacent (I don't use that phrase lightly), and it manifests itself in various ways:
- Children don't have individual logins to school computers (how is this going to help accountability? How is it going to help children understand the importance of keeping PIN numbers and logins private?);
- No monitoring of the internet;
- Everyone signs an AUP on entry, and it is never seen again;
- If web safety is taught, it's often a one off project.
I believe that making local authorities responsible for web filtering has engendered this attitude. Schools simply take the easy option and rely on the local authority to provide a "safe" web connection, ergo it's one less thing to worry about.
Monitoring your school's internet use need not be difficult or time consuming. Most modern cache boxes include monitoring tools and the ability for the user to block sites and users very quickly and simply. Many, if not most, schools have such technology, but often haven't been shown how to use it. This well established technology can be very effectively backed up by the use of keystroke monitoring software which records violations when banned strings of letters are entered by a user. In other words, if someone types an inappropriate term into a search engine, it will record it, regardless of whether the user actually hit the enter key! This software will give you a comprehensive idea of what is happening on your school's network at the expense of about 5 minutes a day. I used just such a system at Crumpsall Lane Primary School as ICT co-ordinator, and I can honestly say I wouldn't be without it. It meant our school's AUP was active, and our users knew it was active. The result was a fairly liberal internet filter which allowed teachers to teach and children to learn while at the same time developed a responsible attitude towards the web. For more info about this, read my comment on Ewan's blog post. Note that I can't find the software that was used at Crumpsall, but I believe this will achieve something similar.
So, what's the solution? Actually, it's quite simple, make schools responsible for their own web filter and not local authorities. That way schools can discuss what's acceptable and what's not with their own communities. Meaningful discussion will hopefully result, and an AUP that is a purposeful and active document.