Filter Connections, Not Devices

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Published on: April 25, 2013

When we go 1:1, I have no intention of putting filtering software on student devices.

Shocking, I know. I can hear your collective gasps and the skips in your heartbeats from here. I’ve been told this is everything from crazy to stupid to liberal. I counter with filtering every device is a poor method of playing CYA, satisfying only district lawyers while putting an additional burden on technology staff, on staff and students who follow the rules, and on district budgets.

If we measure a content filter’s effectiveness as being able to block objectionable content without preventing access to legitimate sources, then there’s not a single one on the market nearing the 100% effective mark. If the tech staff leaves things too loose, the filter may as well not be there. If the filter is tuned too tight, then students are blocked from research material. In my opinion, we need to have something in place to cut down on pornography and blatant obscenity, and I also enforce Google Safe Search to cut down on accidental exposure in searches.

Notice the use of “cut down on” in that last sentence. We can limit access, but total prevention is a myth. Yet if we tell our parents their child’s device is filtered, they’re going to expect it to be 100% effective. The first time little Johnny stumbles across something objectionable, we’re going to hear about it.

The next problem is the definition of “objectionable.” Where do we draw the line? I’ve had teachers report students looking at objectionable material, only to find a student was browsing a celebrity gossip site with tame (in my opinion) photos of actresses in bikinis on a beach. The student would see the same thing on the covers of the magazines in the checkout line at Walmart. Blocking hardcore pornography is obvious, but expanding into glamour shots, pinups, and fashion photography starts bringing in broad ranges of materials and interpretations.

And that’s just photos and videos. We haven’t gotten to music yet, or to literature, or worse yet, to ideology. Before you tell me it won’t happen, or doesn’t happen, go have a chat with your librarian about parents and social groups insisting certain books be removed from the library.

If we receive federal funding, we must comply with CIPA. The smartest part of CIPA? Not telling us what needs to be blocked. If that’s a can of worms the government refuses to open, then why should we pick up the can opener? We have a filter in place. Done. If we filter our connection, we are compliant.

At this point we’ve covered configuration: what to block. Now let’s move on to the practical side, how to block. First, there are few filters that can’t be circumvented, whether through defeating the software on the device or by using an outside source, such as a proxy connection or website, to get around the filter. In the case of a lockdown browser, a determined student will turn to an app. Or worst case, they’ll start hacking the device. If we’re not going to give the students some flexibility and ownership of their device, they’re not going to use it.

Now, instead of troubleshooting one connection, the tech staff is faced with troubleshooting hundreds—if not thousands—of devices. It’s just not worth the hassle. We are better off focusing that time on professional development and digital citizenship than we are chasing moving targets and reloading stacks of jailbroken devices.

Finally, let’s discuss cost. The most effective filters also cost quite a bit of money, often requiring per-student subscription fees. This raises the cost of entry into a 1:1 considerably, and obviously I question the value. The open source filter on my connection is just as effective and it doesn’t annihilate my ever-shrinking, rural Illinois budget. I can not in good conscience let a major education initiative die in my district because we can’t afford to make sure a child won’t accidentally stumble across a nude photo at home.

Will this raise questions and concerns from parents? Absolutely, and I’m prepared to handle them. Might it affect policy? Probably, and I’m prepared to tackle that, too. I prefer both of these scenarios to wasting my time battling others’ demons.

A Quote for Teachers and Students Alike

Categories: Philosophy
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Published on: April 23, 2013

I felt this quote applies equally to teachers and students:

“We need to not be afraid to grow.”
—Joyce Meyer

Technology can be scary. It’s new, it’s intimidating, it’s something we’re not all used to.

We can’t fear it, though. We have to accept we won’t have all the answers right away, and we have to accept we may make some mistakes.

What’s the worse thing that can happen? We know better next time?

All part of learning, and part of leading.

Securing User Data

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Published on: April 18, 2013

The webcomic XKCD posted a one-panel strip that serves as a good lesson to our users, and a good reminder for administrators:

XKCD: Authorization


When tech directors and school admins talk about securing a laptop (or desktop, iPad, etc.), we tend to think about securing the laptop itself against misuse and mischief. We want to make sure the user can’t accidentally download a virus, mess around with other users’ settings or files, install unauthorized software, or disable hardware or features. For the most part, we think of it as a matter of our own convenience: preventing vandalism and tampering results in less downtime for the machine and, to be honest, less hassle for us.

But what about securing the user’s own data?

We send teachers and/or students home with laptops and make sure they can’t cause too much trouble, but how often do we give them advice on keeping their data safe should they lose the machine or allow someone else to use it? And when I say advice, is there training for the how and why, or is it just a list of rules they can ignore? As the XKCD illustration shows, it’s very possible a user is logged in to multiple services on their laptop, and in many cases all the thief has to do is open the lid to gain access.

Consider the following list of security measures. This is not necessarily an exhaustive list, just something off the top of my head:

  • Password-protected screen saver or lock screen (with strong password)
  • Encrypted home directory
  • Two-factor authentication (where available)
  • Logging out of critical services (credit cards, PayPal, etc.)
  • Not allowing the browser to store passwords or personal information
  • Remote block/signout of services (where available)
  • Account/password recovery email and phone numbers are current
  • Knowing all of your own passwords, or at least having them available! Also…
  • …Secure ways of creating and safeguarding passwords (i.e., no printouts or Post-Its)
  • Backup, backup, backup!

Now ask yourself, how many of these do you practice? How many are you even aware of? If you are a user, are you trained in any of these? If you are a tech leader, are you training your users in any of these? Do your students have any idea what they are, and how they might protect data?

I’m thinking now I might have some ideas for future professional development sessions, or at least information for technology newsletters.

Thinking Like a Student

Categories: Philosophy, The Classroom
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Published on: April 16, 2013

“I don’t see any use for this.”

Sound familiar? Whether teacher, administrator, or technologist, most people tend to evaluate new devices or software from their own perspective. If it engages them, it will engage students. Conversely, if they don’t see the value in it, they don’t think students will, either.

This is not the case.

Many adults say they hate reading on small screens, but our students are used to working and playing on handheld devices. They might have their own iPod touch or Nintendo DSi, and I find it’s not unusual to see three or four children huddled around a 3″ screen.

I’ve been told on-screen iPad keyboards are useless and phone keyboards are impossible to use, yet some of our students’ word counts for a month of text messaging is probably equivalent to a semester’s worth of written work.

The same goes for software and services. A teacher hates Evernote because he thinks it’s too cumbersome. A tech director doesn’t see what can be accomplished in Google Docs that can’t be done in Word. An administrator writes off Facebook as a liability issue due to cyber bullying.

We can’t look at these things from a purely adult perspective; we need to think like a student and look for the possibilities. Or, even better, we need to let the students show us the possibilities.

One student may enjoy the extreme organization capabilities of Evernote, while another may embrace the perceived chaos Evernote’s ubiquitous capture and tagging. I’ve seen students embrace the collaboration capability of Google Docs before their teachers were even aware of it, and other students may find accessing Google Calendar and Tasks via a smartphone is more convenient than lugging an agenda book around. Sure, students are going to use Facebook for leisure time and communication, but that also includes collaboration and sharing notes and homework reminders.

There are going to be times budgets and legal policies dictate some of these decisions, and there will be times where it’s impractical to involve students in the evaluation process. However, we must be as open minded as possible when we look at new technologies, because there’s a good chance our students will see possibilities we missed.

Student Engagement Score

Categories: Philosophy, The Classroom
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Published on: April 9, 2013

Our district band director, Steve Hayes, is very proactive when it comes to technology, and he is very good at showing teachers how new devices and software can be used in the classroom. He also understands student engagement is key to learning, and he knows leveraging technology is a great way to engage today’s students.

Yesterday, he posted a great article about a teacher finding his or her Student Engagement Score. It’s written in a simple scoring format, and there’s no rubric, just a final number that is relative to the teacher. Really, though, it’s the questions that should make a teacher think.

Even better, it’s not all about technology. Yes, it deals with students being allowed to use their own devices, or having acces to communication with students in other schools, but it also covers things like student stress levels and the freshness of classroom content and lesson plans.

Every teacher should take five minutes out of a planning period to find their score. It may give them a few ideas while they plan out the rest of their day.

It’s Not Only About Technology

Categories: Miscellania, Philosophy
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Published on: April 8, 2013

Your EdTech Samurai is officially a black belt now. Studying for my black belt test at my karate dojo took up all my spare time through the first quarter of the year, so I haven’t been around much.

That time away gave me a chance to reflect on something: as Tech Director, my sphere of influence does not have to stop at technology.

I teach from time to time at my karate dojo, and it’s a very different interaction than what I have with students in my day job. Instead of “that guy who sneaks around fixing computers,” I am a teacher. I am a leader, an advisor, and someone who sets an example, both to children and adults. In that role, I see students of all shapes and sizes. Many of the kids who enroll in karate are already athletic, but there are several more who sign up because their parents want to get them active and improve their health.

Unfortunately, I think this step needs to start at home and in schools, in that order. I can’t really help everyone else at home, but I can at school. Honestly, I’d love to see certain elements of the martial arts taught in schools. The Japanese did it for decades, which is a big part of how karate spread throughout the world. The high school I attended in the Chicago suburbs offered judo as an elective (sadly, I moved before I was eligible to take it). The flexibility and general fitness, the mind-body connection, self defense & dealing with bullying, and more, all tie directly into the basic concepts every PE course should include.

Of course, the great State of Illinois would never let me teach a class because I’m not “highly qualified,” despite working in schools for 15 years now and having a few years of experience teaching kids of all ages in karate. My own instructor has over six years of experience running a dojo (teaching), many more in the martial arts, and he’s a chemical engineer, yet he’s not even qualified to be a substitue teacher in our state. It’s an unfortunate consequence of legislation steering education rather than vice versa.

So we must influence where we can, and to that end I’m going to share with you Jamie Oliver’s TED talk on food and food education (or lack thereof) in our schools.

My own kids don’t eat hot lunches at school for many of the reasons Oliver discusses. It’s not because our kitchen staff are bad cooks; far from it! Our head cook used to run her own restaurant. The ladies put together great spreads when they do an Institute Day lunch for the staff, or when they have special taco salad days or potato bars, neither of which are regulated by law because they’re not going to the students.

Yet we’re forced to buy and serve crap food from the state. The only saving grace may be the miniscule portion sizes. Some kids go home hungry, and the athletes in particular ask for seconds, even at the junior high level.

It shouldn’t have to be that way. Watch the video and spread the word, and maybe some of our administrators and legislators will look into solving the problem.

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