Content Filtration: A little dirt for your health?

This was literally my first post on Tech Learning back in November of 2006 and I forgot to cross post it over here. I find myself referring back to it a lot as content filtration policies come under review and I wanted to share it here. I believe it is still relevant today.

Content Filtration: A little dirt for your health?

Modern science has invented numerous methods of removing allergens from our lives. We have air purifiers, hand sanitizers, and anti-dust mite methodologies. What should have happened is a decrease in allergies, but what has happened is a dramatic increase .

When asked about how to help kids with allergies, researchers have made the bold statement , “Let them eat dirt! ” As I read these articles, I was struck with the parallel to the content filtration debate that rages in education today.

Who can resist “sex”?

I am a believer in having some sort of filtration in place, particularly to prevent the inevitable teen curiosity about sex from finding inappropriate websites. I mean, what prepubescent boy can resist typing “Sex” into Google?

In the above analogy, notice that allergists say “play in dirt” but do not say “play in sewage.” Playing in sewage would kill children. Likewise, I consider pornography, hate speech, weapon construction, profanity, and the “dark” areas of the Internet to truly be the sewage of the Internet. This type of thing should definitely be filtered and we should protect our children from it.

The Dark Side of the White List

However, I believe that the practice of “white listing” (only allowing websites to come into your school which you specifically permit) is going to create more problems in the long run than it will help. Just as the body needs exposure to dirt to create immunity, students need exposure to the real world to create discernment.

I believe that students will suffer from their own ignorance as they emerge into the world uncognizant of the “virtual tattoo” they are creating in their on line spaces and naively trusting every site they view. Ignorant students post inappropriate pictures and subject matter, and just do not understand how to thrive in our socially connected world. (Just take a look at the Gossip website that takes the Myspace pages of public officials' children or the son who is taking teenage rebellion to new heights as he throws a wrench in the AT&T / BellSouth merger.)

What do teachers say about filtration?

I was stirred by Bud Hunt‘s keynote for his strand in the K12 online conference two weeks a go. He was talking about a captivating discussion that he and his students were having about the problem of school violence. As they typed in “school violence” it triggered the filter.

Bud says,

“It is frustrating to teach information management when you can't find answers. Driving into a filter is like driving into a brick wall, it stifles interest in continuing the journey.

I teach using the Socratic method (by asking questions) and Google is a key part of this method. I am fortunate because I do control the filter at the school and am able to unblock things if it is necessary to class instruction. When students emerge from my class, they must be self teachers. They must be able to use RSS to aggregate information and discern both sides of the issue and objectively discuss issues.

If you are in charge of filtration, listen up!

Solutions can emerge on this issue, but professionalism and trust must be present if improvement is to occur. To me, this discussion boils down to several things:

  • If you want students to treat teachers with respect, treat teachers with respect.
  • If you want students to treat teachers as the authority, give them some authority.
  • If you want teachers to act professional, treat them like professionals.
  • If you want to hold others accountable, accept accountability for your part of the equation.
  • If you want your teachers to be innovators, allow them to be connected to hotbeds of innovation. (Excited teachers are better teachers than bored ones.)
  • The morale of your classrooms is related directly to the morale of your teachers. (This issue is a morale killer!)
  • Good learning is fun and exciting! It is OK to laugh and learn!
  • Sometimes it is more important to do the right thing than to be right.
  • Spend your time removing roadblocks, not being one.

I am fortunate because I have absolutely incredible administrators. Not everyone is so lucky.

What Schools with Overly Strict policies Might have Missed This Week

For those who believe in strict filtration, let me tell you about how you might be missing out:

  • Math videos organized by NCTM math strands (on Google Video and YouTube) (from last week's k12online wiki project .)
  • Discussing Time Magazine's Invention of the YearYoutube(I don't advocate just surfing youtube, but teachers should be allowed to display these great videos.)
  • Google Earth – They have added featured places this week. You can literally fly from your home to the great wall of China. You can go in the crater at Mt. St. Helens. You can fly through cities and look at the deserts of the world. Social studies, history, current events, and social awareness teachers have so many exciting resources here.
  • Newsmap – The incredible visual display of current news based on Google news aggregation (it has different country and world views) – This is incredible for cultural literacy and should be used in all social studies classes. I use it to create my questions of the week on classblogmeister.
  • Skype – This is fun to use software that turns your computer into a telephone/chat machine and has been a great addition to my classroom. My students can chat me questions (even if I'm out at a conference), I can hand out files to the class, and they can collaborate on team projects across the room. It makes for a quiet but exciting classroom. The business world is integrating chat into every workstation so that employees can work better together. Students need to know how to use it effectively as well. We don't use it all the time but every day in my Computer Fundamentals Class.
  • Netvibes – I use this incredible RSS aggregator with my students. They can sign in and have it read my blog, their classblogmeister assignments, changes to their wiki projects, and keep up the latest technology. They will not always have me to help them “keep up” with innovation. They have to become aggregators and assimilators themselves! (This is part of my strategy to teach them to be lifelong learners.)
  • Gliffy – My students used this amazing online tool to complete a Spanish project. In this project, they were to design their dream home and label it with the correct spanish words.
  • My students use and love tools such as Airset to manage and share their calendars (including homework and test calendars). It sends them text messages on their cell phones to remind them of upcoming tests and projects and their calendar. It will also synchronize with PDA's if they have one. (I use it and it synchs with outlook and my PDA!)
  • My students have begun using MyNoteIT to create and share their class notes.
  • My students use Librivox to download public domain works (like William Shakespeare) onto their iPods. (This is an essential skill for auditory learners!)
  • As part of information literacy we often use Wikipedia and contrast it to other sources of information to determine fact and error.
  • My students use Google Video, youTube , and very soon will be using SlideShare to integrate meaningful content into their wiki projects on Wikispaces.
  • My blog — Teachers e-mail me from around the US that they have to go home to read my blog. They have to print it and take it back to work to follow the tips, ideas, and instructions. Somehow, “blogs are evil” and are blocked carte blanche from their system.

In Conclusion

When I blogged about this topic , I got many responses. I'd like to share a few with you (added emphasis mine):

“This is hot hot hot issue at our school. Emails have flown back and forth for the last two weeks between frustrated teachers and administrators about too much blockage! I lost half of my class time the other day because my students were blocked from my moodle and personallearningspace blog – which I had asked to be unblocked (and permission was given) last week. I had to give up on my plans to communicate with some students in Israel and move to plan B.”

“My son is in debate and has repeatedly had problems accessing sites at school that contained evidence needed for a debate case. When the teacher has requested that particular sites be unblocked she has met with a brick wall…if a student is trying to access a site that is educationally sound and the only answer we have when it is blocked is “sorry but it is blocked by the software” then I think we are telling our students that we are not capable of making judgment decisions ourselves. I think that filtering is great for protecting our students but it needs to have a human factor.

“Many of us are out there working within the system, one in which technicians determine access for the students. When requests for more access are met with LESS access, you learn to keep your mouth shut. It is about power, and teachers have none in this one.

Being effective educators requires facing tough issues

This is my first post on TechLearning, and I know this is a controversial issue. I understand that there are bandwidth issues as well as control issues here at stake as well as some real (or imagined) sue-happy parents who would love to have “little Johnny” come home complaining. However, we have lessons to teach, high stakes testing, and we must be relevant to the children we are teaching.

The easy answer is to block everything; good education is never easy.

In my opinion, in schools where people care, filtration must begin having a human component. The easy thing to do is to just turn it all off.

In businesses that overconcerned about cutting costs, the saying is — “OK, cut it all off — close down and that will cut costs.” I think that is what some educators have done; they have cut it all off: and cut their classrooms off from meaningful, relevant education.

So what should we do?

Returning to the adage about allergies, filter out the sewage with software. But allow teachers the authority to have some sites unblocked and hold them accountable for the appropriate use and the results of that use. If you trust them with the kids, you should trust them with the Internet.

Let the teachers teach students how to discern accurate, appropriate sources of information and do not over sanitize the Internet. Its not possible and its not healthy. We are an information society. That is what we are producing. The best filter ever invented is the human brain. The best supervision is the teacher, not a piece of software. If teachers aren't responsible, they shouldn't be teaching.

How will history label our generation of educators?

Robert F. Kennedy said:

“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”

How will this generation of educators be labeled? What do you think about this issue? Does your school have a solution that works for you?

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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diane March 29, 2008 - 1:43 pm

The problem with filtering is that it’s usually done via keywords.

That means that our biology class couldn’t access sites, even those from the U.S. government, which discussed sexually-transmitted diseases. Many social studies sites are blocked because they exceed the acceptable word count due to violence, guns, etc. All humor sites, including those examining political cartoons, are likewise blocked.

I can no longer us YouTube videos in class because the entire site has blocked. (TeacherTube loads very slowly, and the content is very limited.) The IT can unblock YT for specific times & dates, but he is not always available; teachers are not granted any extra access privileges.

Many of our children go home to unsupervised computer time. I still believe that the best “protection” for them is education in cyber safety coupled with immediate consequences for inappropriate use.

If we don’t arm our children with knowledge, we leave them ignorant and vulnerable.

doug0077 March 29, 2008 - 1:51 pm

Hi Vicki,

As you probably know, this is a pet topic/concern of mine as well. I appreciate your views and agree with you on most points.

What you didn’t mention is that there needs to be a process in every school to help determine acceptable/non-acceptable resources available.

If the decision is left to the judgement of a single individual, the chances (and charges) of censorship are too high, and the default will always be to over-block.

All the very best,


Robert March 29, 2008 - 2:10 pm

Our filtering, unfortunately, is done at the Intermediate Unit for our area. That means, not only do the teachers not have control, but the district itself does not have complete control!
I’ve used YouTube and to download the videos and show them offline. I use sms to connect to Twitter for help/polls/advice. And thankfully blogs are for the most part not blocked, but commenting on them is.
I agree that education of safe internet use (and how to “wash your hands” should you encounter dirt or sewage) MUST be taught, whether the schools filter it out or not.

Vicki A. Davis March 29, 2008 - 2:04 pm

@diane – Yes, there are inherent flaws in filtration — it seems like there could be some sort of massive educator filtration operating system based upon our ratings and views, doesn’t it?

@doug – If I had written this post today, I certainly would have included the packet shaping thing we’ve discussed.

And yes, you’re right, the decisions are best made in groups on this sort of thing. Even though I’m IT director, the curriculum director and principal and I often discuss this at length when we have sites in question.

James Christensen March 29, 2008 - 5:33 pm

Or some districts farm our the process to places like “dans guardian” which blocks all sorts of useful sites…

Debi March 31, 2008 - 11:04 pm

Thank you for including Gliffy as something not to be missed – we take that as quite the compliment!
debik at gliffy dot com

Anonymous April 2, 2008 - 9:54 am

Alex Becker- Teacher Ed. Student

This is a really tough issue to address.

The problem with filtering the internet is, of course, you lose sites that are useful for the student. I believe that the internet should NOT be censored in schools. This day and age almost every home has internet and current students are not oblivious to its use.

I think we need to place students on the honor system. If they’re assigned to do internet research, let them do it. If they want to search for “sex” they have more than enough time to do that at home. Make the students accountable for their own time spent in class.

If they’re old enough to be doing independent research, they should be old enough to be on task while they are in school.

HOWEVER you always get those few who are not. In this case why can’t you just walk around once and a while and make sure students aren’t looking at porn or checking their face/space?

also, I think teachers should give a crash course on HOW to search effectively so their students don’t accidentily run into mis-information or inappropriate websites.

my 2 cents

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