Making Filtering Decisions

I just finished listening to the “Multimedia” episode of the Web EdTech Podcast. At one point in the conversation, John Rappold and company were discussing web filtering in the schools. They struggled with the question of what types of content should be blocked by the web filter, and who should be making those decisions. In most school districts, when teachers disagree with the filtering decisions, they generally appeal to the technology coordinator to get sites unblocked. Here’s a short piece of the conversation:

John Rappold: Schools that block Flickr, who’s making those decisions?

Ryan Collins: I’m assuming the tech coordinator.

Alvin Trusty: Usually. I think that’s right.

John: Who should be making the decision?

Peggy Whyte: I think it should be a committee of teachers and administrators in conjunction with the tech coordinator, and there should be a well-defined process to go through to get sites unblocked, with some pedagogical reason for the unblocking.

Ryan: I concur. Excellent.

John: And how do you make that happen?

Yesterday, I had almost an identical conversation at a meeting of area technology coordinators. We often get pushed into the role of “Information Gatekeeper,” just because we have the technical ability to block and unblock resources. Most everyone agrees that the technology coordinator shouldn’t be the ultimate decision-maker when it comes to Internet filtering, but most schools don’t have a better solution.

Thanks to Kick_Start on FlickrWe struggled with this issue last year, and came up with a solution that works really well. In our district, any staff member may request that a web site be blocked or unblocked. Maybe there’s some site that has really valuable content that they can’t access. Maybe they’ve seen students accessing inappropriate content that should be blocked, but isn’t. They can make a filter review request by filling out a web form. Basically, the form asks for the address of the site, whether they think it should be blocked or unblocked, and a justification for their request.

When they submit the form, an email is sent out to everyone on the review team. The 7-member team currently consists of the media specialists in all of our schools, plus one principal and the technology coordinator. We initially invited all of the principals to join the team, but only one was interested. These people can review the site and enter an opinion to either approve or deny the request. Their decision is based on a set of defined guidelines that reflect a desire to provide reasonable access to web resources while still protecting students from accidental exposure to inappropriate content. Review team members can also enter comments, which are eventually sent back to the request originator. When four people agree, a decision is made automatically, and everyone is emailed the outcome. If filter setting need to be changed, the tech coordinator is responsible for taking care of it at that point.

The whole process generally takes about two hours. In some cases, it can all happen in a few minutes. Since starting this procedure in December, 2006, we’ve had 85 review requests, including 80 to unblock sites and five to block them.

The interesting thing is that about 44% of requests are denied. Some of these are cases where the teacher has the wrong web address (“Can you unblock please?”). Others are cases where resources may be acceptable for high school students but inappropriate for elementary students. Having the committee allows us to make filtering decisions that reflect the needs of the entire school system, rather than relying on the sole judgment of an individual.

2 thoughts on “Making Filtering Decisions

  1. Hi John,
    Sounds like you have nailed down a great system for filtering decisions in your district. I hope that other schools will be able to come up with something similar to this model….

  2. I liked Ryan’s comment about the filter being… “a technical solution to a social problem”. I unblocked YouTube a couple weeks ago. We had it blocked due to bandwidth issues in the past. We have fiber in all schools except one, so bandwidth is no longer an argument to block the site.

    After reading your blog post, I turned on the filter review feature in Bess. I removed it because I was getting requests to unblock Myspace everyday. I don’t care now. I will share the feedback with our tech teachers and administrators.

    I will be attending training on Web Washer next month. I hope it is able to handle the secure proxy sites!

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