29 September 2006

Censorchimps 2006

Software which acts to filter various categories of websites tends to be de rigeur at most public schools these days. I have never been completely comfortable with this idea. While I agree that pornographic images (for example) have no place in the classroom, I also know that even the most benign Google image search is likely to return pictures that have very little in common with the original query. We might like to protect minors from sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but the reality is simply that this isn't feasible 100% of the time.

One of the categories of websites which is blocked in our district has to do with games. The Censorchimp department (also known as our techs) thinks that there might be some games that have educational value which should not be blocked...but how will we decide which ones? I sat in on a meeting recently about this, mainly because I don't agree with the filtering---and I certainly have a hard time with one or two people making decisions about what the rest of us can and can't look at. An entire procedure was developed around how teachers could get a site unblocked. I do agree that teachers need to be responsible for both classroom materials in general and monitoring student computer behavior, but we have no similar policy regarding other educational materials. Do you want to buy a book of brainteasers, crossword puzzles, Sudoku, or other games to bring in and use with students? No one gives a second glance. Would you like to show a film clip from a video you purchased? Go for it (but if you want to stream it, forget it...you'll be blocked). I don't understand why we have hoops for electronic media and none for other sorts.

I did ask who decides what is and isn't blocked. The techs claim the filtering company decides which categories, which I don't quite buy since the techs can allow different categories for different people: elementary students, secondary students, and staff. They did admit that our "Cabinet" positions have also made that determination in the past. There seems to be no rhyme or reason. Blogs were blocked last year, but now it's okay for staff to read and use them. No one has access to games, but staff is allowed to participate in all forms of on-line gambling. The only difference between what is available for elementary and secondary students is that elementary kids can't visit sites having to do with fashion and design. I haven't a clue why that would be.

A friend asked me this week why any site would be blocked to a teacher. After all, a teacher who's out cruising for porn using school time and resources probably doesn't need to be there. There is already monitoring software which tracks all of the places we visit. If you're not doing anything inappropriate, there's no reason to worry. And in the meantime, lots of resources out there are being blocked because a piece of software is making a "decision" to keep it from your students and you. As far as I can tell, the only reason to block things from teachers is to give someone down at central office a power trip. It really isn't much of a reason.

I'll keep asking and pushing when I can. It seems irresponsible to let the censorchimps control all.

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