Teachers Teaching Teachers #95 - Locating the Tyranny of Filtering - 03.12.08

It's happening in small, geographically dispersed schools in rural Alaska. Three people are responsible for doing it for over a million public school students in New York City. An independent school in Milwaukee uses the same software that is being used in NYC to do it. In Colorado, an outspoken opponent of it was recently hired for a district level job, and now he is on a small committee that gives the thumbs up or down. In North Dakota, a secret password is emailed each week to a group of thirty teachers who can then undo it in their schools, when needed. In rural Virginia, a teacher carefully measures her arguments for the educational benefit against the possible risks each time she requests for it to be undone. Because so many schools do it in so many different ways, the developers of VoiceThread have to work overtime to keep their Web 2.0 tool available in public schools.

In September, Wesley Fryer "observed from China that the level of content filtering / censorship enforced by the central, totalitarian government was actually LESS severe than the content filtering enforced in many U.S. public schools" (Content filtering in Communist China versus an Oklahoma school » Moving at the Speed of Creativity).

Really? Do the descriptions in the first paragraph accurately represent the tyranny of filtering in U.S. schools today? Or do teachers have more power than we often exercise? It's become too easy for educators to represent filtering as if it's something that oppresses us. What if we find that the enemy is us?

From the discussion captured on this podcast, we can sketch a much more complicated picture of how filtering really seems to work in U.S. schools. See what we mean by clicking Read more, below.


  • Woody Woodgate is a one of nine local "site techs" in his district in Alaska. Since the distance between these schools makes it difficult for the district tech administrator to get around to all nine schools, the site techs have access to the filter. When a teacher needs to change it he or she finds the site tech in the building and requests a site to be unblocked.
  • In New York City, it turns out that one of the three people managing the filter for over a million public school students has been a friend of alternative, progressive education in the city for many years. Olgierd Bilanow, now a system engineer for the NYC Department of Education, agreed to have a public conversation on this podcast about how the filter works in NYC, and how he sees his partnerships with teachers. Olgierd and his colleagues have almost never turned down a request from a school to have a filtering category (e.g. social networks) opened up. However he also points out that he has more requests to block sites and categories from schools than he has to unblock them.
  • At Matt Montagne's independent school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, teachers merely have to send an email or make a call to a help desk to get a category or a site opened. Filtering doesn't seem to be a problem at Matt's school, although he still wonders what it would be like to not have a filter at all.
  • Bud Hunt is still critical of any school or teacher who wants to use filtering to control students or to avoid problems with what students might do on the Internet. However, Bud still remembers the mixture of embarrassment and frustration he used to feel when he was a teacher and one of his students or he would hit on a blocked site, but he has also seen blocking from the central district's point of view, now that he works for the district as an "instructional technologist." Bud sits on a committee of four people in a school district in northern Colorado which approves or disapproves requests from teachers to unblock or to block particular web sites. Bud never votes to block a site. Bud's advice: Find out who is doing the filtering. They're probably frustrated with the filter too!
  • As the District Technology Coordinator for a school district in North Dakota, Craig Nansen manages the filter for all schools in North Dakota from a central office. Craig says that North Dakota's filter is user friendly for all of the schools. All a teacher has to do is give Craig a call and a site can be unblocked in about 30 minutes. Craig also provides a password to teachers each week so that they can turn the filter off when they need to during the day.
  • Ben Papell and the other good folks at VoiceThread realized that filtering would eventually make it impossible for teachers to use their tool in the classroom. They created a protected space, Ed.VoiceThread where teachers would monitor their students, and where we could argue that because it is educational material, it should be unfiltered.
  • In rural Virginia, Lee Baber has formed a strong, trusting relationship with the IT guys in her district. They have learned to trust her requests because she always backs them up with strong arguments about the educational value of opening any particular site. They also know that she will moderate the students work online.

It's true that these seven examples -- and the conversation with these people that you can hear on this podcast -- provide little more than anecdotal evidence, but at least it's enough to begin to question the typical picture of filtering in U.S. schools.

Maybe it's time to start singing with Joe Hill: Don't Morn-Organize!

See more responses to this podcast at http://teachersteachingteachers.org/?p=162#comments

Original image: 'End Tyranny' http://www.flickr.com/photos/19074862@N00/82189385 by: Kerry Released under an Attribution License
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Hey, what's up? Our AP is trying this link from a VLAN2 Windows machine and can't get through to: http://www.nycboe.net/offices/diit/filtering/ No redirect is working. TODAY: new sites blocked http://ttt.ed.voicethread.com (this subdomain is an educators' and students' walled garden version of Voice Thread) I need it open to teach my classes. Oy!

I just started an ed.voicethread with my students. Not sure why this site would be blocked. Hope everything gets solved in a timely manner. This is our new voicethread that I am trying out; http://thirdgradediscoveries.ed.voicethread.com Jose Rodriguez; It's Elementary

Filtering is still a bad idea. I wrote about this in 2000: http://www.educationworld.com/a_tech/tech058.shtml As my good friend albert says, "it is about laziness." It is a prohibition and with all prohibitions we get abuse. The laziness comes from the top and how they decide. it isnt the guys like woody, olgierd, budd et al, it is about the filtering company itself and how the software is developed and by whom. what is the agenda of the software maker? is he a member of the christian right as many were in the early days. who are the people who make this software? they are like the textbook companies, they have absolute power and then it takes folks like those who were on this program to solve problems at the local level if they can. olgierd, a good friend, is brilliant, and has articulated the problem beautifully. it is about the categories and there is very little wiggle room. it is too bureaucratic as budd articulated. now one of the main fears is porn. i dont see that really. porn is an adult problem. when we look at logs, porn is accessed on teacher, admin, and after school or when no kids are in the school. heck i've come into schools in the morning to find all sorts of porn in the printer. kids are embarrassed by it and maybe go on to dirty jokes. yeah there is that one kid. but, honestly, are we allowing that one kid to control info for all of us. porn is too easy a response and it is the wrong response. it is about control pure and simple. oh and laziness. filtering is a waste of money. heck, i know 2 or 3 proxy sites now that let me get anywhere anytime. the kids know them. and when the filter people find it another proxy or two appear that fast. we should use that money on webucation not filtering. i teach in nyc so that is my perspective. i have teacher friends in alaska and nd and colo and they have the same problems in their schools as we do. i was amazed to hear from alaska and nd and colo. what i heard was different than what i have heard from the teachers. i understood olgierd cause i know him, have worked with him and am in a nyc school. we are hackers. most teachers dont want to be bothered. not all principals understand any of this. so in the end as my friend albert says, "the filter is about laziness." laziness on admin's part and of course fear cause then the word "lawsuit" is used and that shuts down any intelligent conversation about internet use in schools. i am amazed at how far behind schools are in the use of the internet. our teacher and students have more access at home then in the schools. so who is educatiing the kids at home? that is where the bullying happens. as i said many years ago, more kids get hurt at home on the internet than they do in school. it is in school where we should be doing our webucation and we arent and kids are dying because of our stupidity and laziness. budd is right about the filter being the same as banning books. it is wrong. great program, paul, thanks. ted www.tnellen.com

I've had several sites blocked by Websense, including my own classroom site. This discussion was filled with fantastic insight and encouragement for incorporating web tools into the classroom. I especially appreciated the emphasis that the district techs all place on students and teachers in the classroom. The teachers in your districts are fortunate to work with each of you. BTW, the audio sounded great, and the editing was very tight. Joel Zehring