Web Filter Band-Aids

It’s getting harder and harder to use the web in schools, and we’re getitng close to a breaking point.

Friday afternoon, a teacher came in to my office. “Who do I need to yell at? The principal? Will that work? Should I call the superintendent?”

She’s generally pretty easy-going, and it took a little while to figure out what she was talking about. It turns out there’s a web site with a video that she wanted to show on the first day of school. But the site was blocked by the Internet filter. She tried several different versions of the same kind of video, on several different sites. They were all blocked. She used the same resources last year, and didn’t have trouble accessing them then. The filters have evolved (or maybe devolved).

Internet filters protect us from informationIn reality, the video she wanted is hosted on Google Video. That whole site is blocked by the Internet filter. We have a review procedure in place where teachers can request that specific web pages be blocked or unblocked. Unfortunately, on most of the video sharing sites, it’s nearly impossible to unblock one video while continuing to block the rest of the site. We tried to do that with YouTube last year, and gave up after several attempts.

For this teacher, and many others like her, technology use is becoming an increasingly frustrating activity. Why bother to find online resources if those resources are just going to get blocked by the filter?

The web is becoming more and more interactive. Users have more control over content. We can post comments on web pages. We can upload videos and audio files and pictures. It really is easier to interact online now than ever before. But that also means there’s less control over the sites online. It’s increasingly possible to accidentally encounter inappropriate materials on the web. And charged with the task of “protecting” our children, the filters end up blocking nearly everything that’s useful or interesting.

I can sense that this is all going to come to a head this year. This teacher wasn’t trying to download dirty pictures. She wasn’t trying to find out how to make meth in her basement. She wasn’t trying to play a first-person shooter at school. She was trying to do her job. And I had to keep her from doing that because that’s my job.

I don’ t know what the solution is. We’re definitely going to need to look at current policy, and re-examine it in the context of our community’s expectations, the law, and the changing nature of the Internet. But it may be possible to loosen the reins a bit. We may also be able to change our network configuration (not a small task) to allow different levels of filtering in different locations. One of the problems we currently struggle with is the fact that everyone has the same filter. So the K-3 buildings have the same rules as the high school. That doesn’t serve either group very well. I don’t have any answers yet, but I think it’s important to keep asking the questions.

In the meantime, there are a couple things we can do. In the past, we have circumvented filtering problems by hosting a lot of things locally. Since our web server isn’t blocked by the filter, we can put things on it that would be blocked if they were elsewhere. For example, we host a number of blogs on our web server. If we used an external site, that site would be blocked. But because it’s a school web site, it’s not. We wanted to use del.icio.us, but it’s blocked by the filter. So we installed Scuttle locally and used that instead. While this isn’t a scalable solution by any means, it has helped us put off the debate for a while.

All staff members have the ability to request a review of a web site if they disagree with the filtering decision for that site. This process is imperfect. As I mentioned, there are some cases where it’s not practical to unblock access to specific resources. It’s also not immediate. But does work pretty well, and I’ve been pleased with the decisions made by the review team.

Products like YouTube and Google Video are frustrating. Because you can easily embed videos from these sites into other blogs or web pages, a lot of really good resources end up being blocked. That video the teacher was trying to access looked like it was on a science web site. But since it was actually an embedded Google Video, the filter’s rule against Google Video blocked it. If you have access to a computer without the filter, you can sometimes extract these videos and save them for use in the classroom. Several of the state technology coordinators have recommended Zamzar for extracting embedded flash movies from web sites. Just paste in the YouTube or Google Video web site address, and it will extract the video and convert it to a format you can use on your computer. Predictably, Zamzar is itself blocked by our web filter. But for those who use the web outside of school, it’s an easy way to extract videos for classroom use.

It’s certainly not a solution. But it’s a start.

4 thoughts on “Web Filter Band-Aids

  1. Floyd Geasland from Wichita Public Schools emailed me with this comment:

    I’m not a wordpress member so I decided to a comment the hard way.

    Our district also blocks a lot of video sites and it’s a pain to try to get something for your class. I have found the following to work fairly well.

    1. While I’m at home find the video I want on You Tube or wherever and write down the URL. I do this the lazy way by copying and pasting into a word document with a short description of the video. I keep this word document and add any other videos I want. This serves two purposes, if I lose the video file its easier to go get it again and it documents what I am doing if I’m called into the office to CYA.

    2. There are several free web sites that will convert You Tube videos (and others) that are free on the Web. A simple google search will pull up several. At this website you type the exact URL in set your chosen format and follow any other directions. The web site will then link to the video so you can download it to your computer.

    3. I then transfer to my IPOD or flash drive, depending on where I’m going to use the video. Some sites save as a .flv file (you can load a .flv viewer for free) but others will convert straight to other formats. It does help to have a dependable media converting program (normally requires a purchase) but not absolutely necessary.

    4. You have to experiment around with the different sites and formats. Some combinations work better than others. What works for me on my laptop doesn’t always work as well on my desktop. (Still trying to figure that out) :<

    Another option is to set up your filter to not block the whole domain, just certain category folders and the search program. Our district is trying this on You Tube this year.

    I’m not responsible for the filtering so I not know the details but I know it is possible to do.

    F Geasland Wichita Public Schools

  2. I read somewhere that people passing a police officer will typically drive five miles an hour under the speed limit.

    The web filtering problem can be solved using the same principle. Install an authenticating proxy. This requires each user to login to use the web (or any other Internet port). The server logs each click with username, time, and URL.

    If a student goes to Google and searches for “breast cancer” the log shows

    StudentName, Sept 9 2007, 1:55PM, http://www.google.com/search?q=breast+cancer

    If there is ever a question of how a student managed to end up at an objectionable site, the log shows all the details.

    You would put the proxy behind a filter to stay compliant with federal laws, but if every student knows he is being “watched” 100% of the time, he will not try to find objectionable sites. Those that break the rules can be easily found and cut off. Once a username no longer has access to port 80 (controlled by the proxy), you can let that user use a computer all day for Word, Excel, etc and the Internet will be inaccessible.

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