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.

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