So why is filtering a pointless exercise?

Filtered, sensibly restricted internet access via cable and wireless should be available in all schools. It should be an attractive option within school grounds based on: ubiquitous access, high access speeds, uncapped capacity, extremely high reliability, large file storage capacity, reliable backup and support from sound educational software.  This isn’t generally the case. Over zealous wowser appeasing and plain old arse covering fear usually dictates what is and isn’t allowed. Make it attractive and there’s no reason to look outside the boundaries. Filter sensibly and not punitively and no one will be unhappy. Make it so restrictive that it’s failing – everyone will instantly look for a way around. If filtering means that educational activities become impossible in school – the minute a kid has to say “I had to do {insert educational activity here} at home because I couldn’t do it at school” filtering has gone too far.

It’s nearly impossible to get perfect – I’ll list why in a minute, but the option of block everything – just in case – doesn’t work.

It’s never possible to get it right to suit everybody but trying to account for everyone means no one wins…
Consider granularity – this refers to the level of detail to which content can be filtered. This cannot be based on age or year grouping. Children reach different stages of maturity at different ages. School work crosses many class or form boundaries and sometimes includes non-school study, and filters cannot differentiate. The better solution – parental and teacher supervision plays a large role in the success of filters that cannot “think” so recognise this and let it be the criteria.
Current filtering technologies rely heavily on the accuracy of text-based descriptors to classify content – text entries are being superseded by multimedia graphics, video, podcasts, audio files, etc. It is not possible to automate the classification of these, and human intervention is not feasible and could be too subjective. Another reason technical filtering is not a good solution.
Filters cannot be changed on an ad hoc basis so can never be pitched perfectly. Another reason to look for an alternative to blanket blocking.  Don’t forget the issues of living in a multicultural society; what is appropriate to Australian culture may not suit others. For example, the internet doesn’t “understand” irony, colloquialisms or slang.
All these reasons point to teaching kids how to have their own filters, a level of sensibility that carries with them no matter where they are; prohibition doesn’t work (ask the American tea cup parties) but developing sensible coping mechanisms and appropriate behaviour does.
Besides, filters are easily bypassed; hundreds of new proxy servers appear every day and the jungle tom toms quickly spread the word. Put a TOR application on your home PC, access your home PC from school (all perfectly legit looking) but have access to the world.
The majority of filters work on meta data or text descriptors. Use the IP rather than the URL and filters are confused. Don’t forget instructions for VPNs are readily available with a few Google searches, they are free, simple and very effective at hiding activities even from ISPs and filters.
Filtering should also be considered in the context that a significant and growing portion of the student (and staff) population has 3G mobile devices (mostly phones) with independent internet access. Tethering is becoming easier and easier. Monthly access fees are coming down in price and bandwidth increasingly cheap.

Don’t forget there are multiple leaked wireless signals from local dwellings around all schools mostly with unfiltered and unprotected access. A quick scan with a NetStumbler reveals enough to cover you. Illegal, certainly, easy, just as certainly. These sources provide limitless access to all internet content. They are controlled by the subscriber and not by the school authorities. Schools cannot stop this – short of a giant Tesla coil around the school of course. Like that’s going to happen.

Students are inventive, curious have heaps of time, determination and a technical support community worthy of an IBM. Hide something and they’re sure to want to find it. Remove internet access and they will go looking for it. And it’s all too easy…

Does filtering encourage independent learning?
It is no longer desirable or feasible for teachers alone to cater to the diverse needs of a class in their journey from knowledge and recollection to achieve the necessary deep understanding and creative application that are required for success in the world of their future. More than ever before schools need to prepare students to become effective and independent, life-long learners who can respond to the ever growing knowledge landscape, the dynamism inherent in 21st century learning, the consequent shortening use-by dates of all qualifications and the expectation of multiple career directions, that will mark their lives.

The advent of the internet has enabled rich, targeted learning experiences to take place unbounded by institutions or geographical boundaries or timetables, and which compliment and go beyond classroom activities. These may be delivered by school directed On-line Learning Environments or by various independent internet communication tools, sourced by either students or teachers. The most effective 21st century learners will be those who are “connected” to diverse resources comprising their Personal Learning Network (PLN) and who have developed the digital literacy and academic and ethical skills to apply their learning with creativity and wisdom.

Schools therefore need to take up the challenge of helping our students to develop these necessary life-long education skills and to model learning as the building of rich personal learning networks.

Modern teachers should be able to model appropriate use of information technologies and their content and to provide guidance to students as part of their normal professional duties.

Schools need to develop independent, self-disciplined, digital citizens – capable of being self-protecting, sensible and responsible users of digital internet-based content.  Rather than blanket ban internet access and not only allow inadequate white lists, they should foster age-appropriate knowledge and skills necessary to develop self-protecting, sensible on-line behaviours.

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