Created by Ruth Elliott

Welcome! Join me as I reflect on my learning journey with Web 2.0 tools. I'm sure I will find bandwagons to jump on along the way. Let's enjoy the trip.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Filter Frustrations: Why Block Google Docs?

Yesterday morning I rose with the dawn to descend to my basement office for homework duty. My basement is always chilly (1964 home with little insulation to keep out the cold). That morning my sweater, scarf, and blanket were not enough to keep away the shivers. I kept working, reading, and typing while sipping hot coffee to warm up. When my husband got up, he noticed that it was cold in our house. He checked the temperature on our set-back thermostat (which automatically lowers the temperature at night and raises it in the morning). 16.5 degrees Celsius (62 degrees Fahrenheit)! Normal household temperatures should be around 72 degrees Fahrenheit. No wonder I was turning into an ice cube!

Our furnace was not turning on. As I imagined huge repair bills and the need to call a furnace specialist out on a weekend (big $$$$), my husband went to look at the furnace. He pulled out the filter. It was totally clogged with debris filtered from the air circulating through our home. (That's a picture of it on the right.) Once the filter was removed and replaced with a new one, the furnace turned on. We had never realized that a clogged filter could cause our entire heating system to shut down.

Once my brain began to warm up, I had an A-Ha moment. I had been working on the topic of Filtering in the online world. Could there be any parallels with my own physical world filtering crisis? With the recognition that every metaphor breaks down at some point, here are some of the parallels that I noticed.

  • Filters are necessary to keep out harmful stuff (dust, lint, and bunny hair for our furnace; pornography, depictions of violence, and lewd language on the internet).

Most public schools (if not all) block sites which depict violence, graphic sexual imagery, or improper language. In the class discussion this week, it has been recognized that, due to Intellectual Freedom measures, many public libraries have a much lower firewall. I was disturbed to learn (via a video shared by Mark), that in a Chicago Public Library, the freedom experienced by adult library patrons to view pornographic images is impeding the freedom of other library patrons. The third floor of that library has become a "no-fly zone" for many women and families. Ideally, the freedom of access enjoyed by one person should not adversely affect another individual.

Since public schools routinely block this kind of harmful viewing, the question becomes: What do public school students do when using home computers? Many parents have software on home computers which blocks harmful sites. However, technology savvy young people often know how to skirt these controls. For this reason, students need to be educated about how to use the best filtering system of all--the filter between their ears. Vicki Davis (2010) worked with middle years' students to find safe sites for younger children to use. She taught her students how to create their own filters to detect harmful influences. Teachers and parents need to teach children how to develop their own filters. If you read the transcript of the presentation by Vicki's students, you will see how they learned to filter out harm and to evaluate websites.

As I thought about this aspect of educating students to erect their own filters, I could see that teacher-librarians may be the ideal candidates for teaching these lessons. Teacher-librarians could work with students of any age and with parents to explain some of the issues. Teacher-librarians could teach even the very young what to do when something inappropriate appears on the screen ("Hit the button to turn off the monitor and then call an adult").

  • Filters need to be adjusted or tuned up from time to time.
In a world where technology is always changing, the filters used by public schools must also be altered. As I read what people were saying about this issue online, I noticed someone complaining about their school system blocking Google Docs (a free online application that is similar to Microsoft Word). That teacher had to use a fancy work-around in order to get access to a Google document created at home. As someone who uses Google Docs for most of my word-processing work, I would be upset if I could not have access to that document at school.

The adjustment of the filter requires mechanisms for removing blocks to sites and for adding a block to a site. Buffy Hamilton shared her procedure for requesting access to a blocked site:

"Just this week, I had to spend some time making a case for a tool I wanted unblocked so that students could access a powerful social bookmarking and sharing tool. I thought it was important enough for my students that I took the time to compose a professional letter of request complete with links of articles that outlined the educational uses of this tool and an explanation of how it was endorsed by AASL on their Top 25 Websites for Teaching and for Learning, which included a great explanation of how the tool was tied to one of the 21st Century Standards for Teaching Learning. I took time to explain how I planned to use it and why it was important to our research project. I even offered to go to the district office and do a demonstration of the tool. Because of the efforts I made, I fully expect the tool will be unblocked next week." (Comment on blog post, Nelson, 2009)

Who is in charge of adjusting the filter and fine-tuning its parameters? Some have complained that it is the technology people in school board offices who are erecting the filters. It would be ideal to have technology-savvy teachers and administrators working on a committee with the technology wizards to implement filtering decisions. In some systems, filtering decisions are made at the school itself. If a teacher wants a site unblocked, the administrator at that school has the authority to lift the filter for that site.

In some school divisions, the requirements for unblocking a site are so onerous, that teachers give up even asking. One teacher (Nick) at a huge high school (1700 students, only one fax machine) was required to fax in a request to unblock a site. After sending two faxes along with numerous emails regarding the status of the requests, both requests were denied. No wonder that teacher gave up for that year. (Comments, Warlick, 2009)
  • If I banned air or furnaces in my house, the furnace filter would remain perfectly pristine. No dust mites would cling to its surface. The filter would be clean but I would have no air or heat.
If tight controls are kept on internet use at school, this impedes students from using technology to its fullest advantage. When many sites are blocked, it is like "teaching traffic safety to kindergartners by banning roads" (Abram, 2007, p. 21). Just as air and heat need to circulate in my home (which will lead to a dirty filter), technology needs to flow quite freely in schools. We need to "stop letting paranoia, combined with laziness, block teachers...and students from the internet resources they deserve to access at school" (Bell, 2008, p. 37). There needs to be a balance of freedom and checks on the freedom, a balance of privileges and acting responsibly with those privileges.
  • Draconian filtering can cause the entire system to stop working.
After our furnace stopped working because the filter was stuffed-up with junk, my husband mentioned that he had recently put in a filter that caught more of the small bits. This filter was plugged up more quickly than any filter in the past. Thus, our furnace ground to a halt.

In the zeal to keep students safe, the firewall at a school may be far too high. It may block most of the "new, innovative tools that allow students and teachers alike to leverage technology in powerful new ways" (Hall, 2008, p. 26). With the many Web 2.0 tools, there are more opportunities than ever before for on-line collaborations between teachers, students, and classrooms. I remember learning about one teacher who invited people from around the world to Skype with her grade one class. She asked her Skype guests to share what they remembered learning in grade one. This interaction took place on the second day of the new school year. Imagine the impression this would leave on those young students! However, if that teacher's school system blocked Skype, this online interaction would never have occurred.
  • Filters come in many shapes and sizes. You need to use the one that works best for your system.
Since furnaces come in all shapes and sizes, furnace filters come in an array of shapes and designs. So too, the appropriate filter must be selected for a school. Recently Janet French (2010, p. A3), an education journalist for the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, reported that my school division has chosen to lift Internet filters for teachers and high school students. (Read the entire article underneath the Reference list for this blog post.) The powers that be in my school division have recognized that filters come in many shapes and sizes. They are making choices to apply those filters in different ways depending on the age of the student.

One of the articles I read for this assignment, talked about the Virtual Wild Wild West (Hall, 2008). When I think about the wild and crazy side of the internet, one application that comes to mind is YouTube. However, even YouTube has decided that it is time for some filtering. A YouTube visitor can select the level of filter that they want (Ingram, 2010). Here is their video about how to filter YouTube if you want to do that.

You Tube Safety Mode Demo
  • Now, here's where my metaphor or the parallels between filtering the air for my furnace and filtering the internet for students breaks down. My furnace is never going to develop the wisdom or mechanisms for filtering the air for itself. My students will need to develop the wisdom or mechanisms for filtering the internet for themselves.
We need to move from "policing the way students use the internet to educating them about using it more safely" (Villano, 2008, p. 54). Once students leave the more protected digital environment which may be in place at school, they need to know how to deal with the possible dangers of an unfiltered setting at home or elsewhere. Teachers and parents need to work together to educate students. According to Villano, in Finland there are no filters at schools for internet content. They believe in educating students so that the filters exist in their minds.

Before I leave this topic of filters, I have one more thought about filters. This blog post so far has examined the filters in place for content incoming from the internet. One last aspect of filtering is to have a filter in place for personal content that is going out to the internet. In the summer, I interviewed a 15 year old boy about his use of technology. He said that many of his friends used YouTube as their main way of communicating with each other. However, he said that many of the conversations on YouTube were rude and contained profanity and vulgarity. This week, as I have followed the Olympics online, I have been very interested in the concurrent Facebook chat for each live event. (For an example, check out this CTV site for hockey coverage.) I have been horrified by the nasty comments in the chat. If someone dislikes another person's comment, he or she begins to critique the other person's spelling, attitude, and nationality. There were even people who made negative comments about the profile picture of the other person (e.g. You look ugly in your profile picture). Admittedly, there were some people who were saying nice things and trying to calm the vitriol. These were strangers who were interacting on the chat. Where were their filters? Why were they being so rude and nasty to each other? I believe that teachers need to educate students to filter what is going out online as well as what is coming in.

The filter problems that stopped my home furnace from working were easily fixed with the insertion of an brand-new filter. The issue of filtering digital content in education will not be so easily resolved. Let's help our students develop the best filters of all--the ones between their ears.


Abram, Stephen. (January/February 2007). Justifying the Social Tools: Improving the Conversation. In Multimedia & Internet@Schools, 14, 1, 21-22. ProQuest Journals.

Bell, Mary Ann. (September/October 2008). I'm Mad and I'm Not Gonna Take It Anymore! In Multimedia & Internet@Schools. ProQuest Journals.

Davis, Vicki. (January 28, 2010). Super social safety: Digiteens share the best (and worst) in social sites for kids. In Cool Cat Teacher Blog.

French, Janet. (February 10, 2010). Division lifts Internet filters. In Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, page A3. (Copied in full at the bottom of this blog post)

Hall, Don. (May 2008). Web 2.0: The Virtual Wild Wild West. In Learning & Leading with Technology. ProQuest Journals.

Ingram, Matthew. (February 10, 2010). YouTube Gets Violence and Profanity Filter. Blog post at GIGAOM.

Nelson, Cathy. (October 17, 2009). Filters? A Problem of Complacency. Blog post at Techno-Tuesday. Online at

Warlick, David. (July 11, 2009). Filters Work. Blog post in 2 Cents Worth. Online at

Villano, Matt. (May 2008). What are we protecting them from? In T.H.E. Journal, 35, 5, 48-54. ProQuest Journals.

Copy of Article from Saskatoon Star-Phoenix

French, Janet. (February 10, 2010). Division lifts Internet filters. In Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, page A3.

Public school students can now access websites that were once blocked. The virtual wall keeping Saskatoon public high school students away from Internet distractions while at school has come down. As of Feb. 1, Saskatoon Public Schools lifted a significant portion of the extensive Internet filters it has had in place since the 1990s. It gives students at the division’s 11 collegiates access to previously blocked sites, including video-sharing site YouTube, social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, file-sharing sites such as Napster and the ability to chat online using instant messenger programs.

Similarly, last September, the division also loosened Internet restrictions for teachers and other school staff.

“If we’re going to invest in technology — and we have — then let’s make sure both our teachers and our students are learning the strategies and the available resources that are going to maximize learning in the 21st century,” said public division superintendent of education Barry MacDougall.

The decision came after a division sub-committee that looks at technology in learning studied the practices of other school divisions and recommended opening up more of the Internet, says Patricia Jamison, co-ordinator of curriculum and instruction at the public division. The students have access to the Internet both on school computers and by logging on to each school’s wireless network with personal laptops or cellphones.

Filters still exist that aim to block sites such as pornography, Internet gambling and other content not appropriate for schools.

Jamison says loosening up restrictions has allowed classes to take part in activities such as chatting with Canadian soldiers stationed in Afghanistan or an Australian bug expert over Skype, and giving students and teachers the ability to watch videos online to back up what they’re learning in lectures. One teacher is going to be blogging from the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, and another school set up a blog that allows students to post their work, then get feedback from other students.

Although students technically could use school computers and Wi-Fi networks to fool around, they’re not supposed to, Jamison says. Students are supervised while using computers at school and the division has posted an “acceptable use policy” students are supposed to follow. The rules say kids and teachers aren’t supposed to use the Internet for “personal” activities, such as sending personal messages or watching video; playing games or looking up information that’s “not for learning” or using the web to say mean or hurtful things.

The consequences include having Internet and computer privileges revoked or paying to replace broken or damaged equipment.

Trusting students to police much of their own web activity is part of the learning experience, MacDougall says.

When asked if the expanded web access could be another distraction in classes, MacDougall said students determined to avoid paying attention will find a way, with or without the Internet.

“I don’t think the issue has changed,” he said. “It might be the medium that’s changed, but there have always been alternatives to listening.”

Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools, meanwhile, is sticking to a different philosophy.

In 2002, Catholic division administrators decided to install software to limit web traffic on school computers, blocking sites that had to do with pornography, hacking and other perceived threats.

Students and teachers also have different levels of web access in the division. Teachers, for example, have access to Facebook and YouTube, whereas students don’t, says superintendent of education Brendan Bitz.

However, if a teacher finds something on the Internet he or she wants to show in class as part of a lesson, and it’s blocked on school computers, Bitz says the division’s technical team can quickly unlock a web address for an appointed date and time.

“We’d rather stand protected and release these sites as they are required, rather than leave it out and worry about the difficulties that are created by inappropriate access,” Bitz says.

Limits on bandwidth and computer terminals also prompt the Catholic division to restrict students’ time online, Bitz says.

Other differences between the divisions are that, unlike public high school students, Catholic students don’t have access to wireless Internet in schools on their own laptops or cellphones (except one special program at St. Edward elementary); if legal, public division students can upload or download music, videos and other files using peer-to-peer sharing software (such as Napster), where Catholic students cannot; every Catholic high school student who uses a school computer must first have permission from a staff member; and each Catholic school sets its own “acceptable use” policy for computers, whereas Saskatoon public has a division-wide policy.
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1 comment:

  1. You bring up some good points, but unfortunately they are all hypothetical and I must live in my fixed reality. I used to be a teacher until I decided the hours and pay are too terrible - now I work in tech support for a school district, where the pay and hours are still terrible, but at least I don't have to grade student work on the weekends! I set our filter to be fairly draconian, and I make teachers log in to a very simple help ticket site to request a site be unblocked. I get 2 or three requests a week, down from a couple dozen a day at first. I look at the sites, and if I don't see anything obviously inappropriate, I assume the teachers are doing their due diligence before submitting, and I unblock that site (unless it's internet radio. Screw your bandwidth-hogging music, other people need the internet for learning).
    This is as painless and accessible as public school internet can ever be, because anything else would bring the state down on my head like a ton of bricks.

    Am I teaching students to have the wisdom to filter the internet for themselves? No, absolutely not - that cannot be my job. Teachers in the classroom need to teach students what good sources of valid information look like, and how to recognize and disregard scams and lies. Meantime, once these students are 18, they can look at all the pornography they want on internet connections they pay for themselves, as do the vast majority of people.

    It's not wisdom I care about here - I could get fired if a 17 year-old sees a woman with no shirt.