It’s blocked

I wrote to the NSW Minister for Education, she hasn’t replied yet.  Could be because I emailed instead of using  traditional methods?  Maybe I should send it to Julia too.  I’ve spoken to a few parents about this and a couple of teachers.  I’d really like to hear what you think about the filters in NSW public schools.  Here’s what I wrote …

Dear Minister

I am writing to request a serious review of the internet filtering policy in place in NSW public schools.  I also want; an explanation of how NSW public school students are learning about new ways to research, and, a definition of the digital education revolution.

My children tell me they can’t use any of the new visual search engines that are becoming available everyday on the internet at school – they are blocked (eg; spezify.com).  This means they have to rely on me at home to help them work out which website is accurate and relevant to the topic they are researching.  I enjoy getting involved in their learning and I can certainly help them decide what to do with objectionable content but I can’t help them decide which physics/english/geography websites are the ones they need.  I really want them in a classroom talking about it (online or off) with one (or more) subject experts taking part in the discussion and advising/leading where necessary.  I think they need as many people around them as possible when they’re trying to work out whether the person talking to them online really is a physicist/interested person/predator – they don’t get that in their bedroom, which is why their computers are in the lounge room, but when it comes to their education, I need them talking to, and showing their teachers what they have found.

I understand there are many more sites blocked than just search engines and the policy is to block anything we don’t know about.  I have to ask how we expect our public school students (and teachers) to stay abreast of and take advantage of new technologies.  It now does seem like the laptop program is just about getting votes.  I was really excited when I found out my kids were getting laptops but now it seems they’re just being treated as electronic exercise books.  Where is the revolution?  I am particularly concerned that children in catholic and independent schools are not subject to the same filters.  I applaud those schools for embracing technology but I am worried about the disadvantage to my public school kids.  Can you tell me how public school teachers are able to provide the same guidance on researching online that catholic and independent schools can?

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27 thoughts on “It’s blocked

  1. Very well said.
    Being a primary teacher and trying to encourage the use of the different learning styles and resources that our children can readily access from home but not through the portal bothers me as well.I want my students to be well informed,engaged learners using the most up to date and relevant material that is out there. I want them ready for their laptops when they get to high school.I want to teach my students that they are the future and that by preventing them from exploring using sites that I have already looked at and deemed safe somehow seems to me as though we are not moving forward in anyway. For teachers who are slowly trying to come to terms with this type of learning and who are trying as hard as they can to bring the future to our students knowing that things they try are not accessible stops them from trying as well.
    My role is to nurture and provide a safe learning environment for my students, but as you have so eloquently said where is the equality between the Public, Catholic and Private systems, in that regard.
    We need to embrace the future not turn our backs on it.

  2. Great letter! I congratulate you on taking the initiative to contact the government about blocks that we confront everyday as high school teachers.
    I have had the unfortunate experience of having a number of educationally sound sites being blocked and therefore unavailable to our students.
    Whilst this has created frustration, it has also created impromptu discussions about internet censorship and the need to be digitally literate.
    I agree with you also with your dismay in regards to the use of the netbooks. It is easy to be discouraged by DER as it seems as though many teachers are avoiding the central reason for this program – to educate our children in the effective use of technology, especially the internet and what is presents to individuals.

    I’m looking forward to hearing what response you receive to your letter.

  3. The implementation of the new technology is fundamentally flawed because the issues outlined above. This is from a year 8 student at a public high school:
    “Yesterday my Science teacher was trying to set up a Wiki space for us to interact online, and for him to put his assignments on. Even though Wiki is educational and he was logged on as a teacher, the school firewall would not let the students log on. We also cannot access heaps of sites we need for research – cannot really do research at school in the library at all. My current science assignments are “in-class” research assignment which are supposed to be completed at school. But because of blocked sites everyone ends up doing the work at home where we don’t have the benefit of the teacher’s input. It’s really stupid and frustrating”.

  4. Thanks for those comments, I’ll update when I get a response.

    Celia, can you try joining the wiki at home? You might then be able to access it at school. A teacher told me her students have been using their smart phones to join her wikis in class, once they’ve joined they can access the wiki at school.

    Kelly

  5. Kelly I also congratulate you on your letter. Whilst I was working at the UNSW I was also frustrating when endeavouring to work in the latest technology available.
    Have you thought of ‘a letter to the editor’ of say the Herald. Or speaking with the media. The Herald and the Australian have very good journalists dealing in eductational matters.
    Gwen

    • Thanks Gwen, yes I am thinking of sending something to the media. I’m hoping to hear from some more parents, I wonder if I am the only parent that thinks this is a problem.

  6. I don’t think parents are at all aware of this issue – As a parent of a high school and primary student I only know about this issue because I was sent a link to this blog and now I’ve been asking a few questions.

  7. Great Letter Kell – good on you for asking the questions that the people want answers to but may not have known how to go about it. You are a pioneer!

  8. Very courageous of you. As students can’t speak for themselves – unless it suits a PR opportunity, it is posts like this that combat the facile political point scoring. The evidence is clear, the academics and world leading educational organizations firm on the needs to de-filter public school.

    I asked recently in an under-grad class of 200 “How many here did the HSC?” – 10% raised their hands. The myth that good hard working students go to University (30% of HSC students do) – it denys the 70% that need to learn about the things you’ve clearly outlined.

    Unblocking the filter is about as likely as legalising pot – from a political career building perspective. Exhale,

  9. Having all these websites that are really just normal, educational sites coming up as blocked is so restricting. It reduces class work, and then homework piles up, probably eventually leading to kids not doing all their homework because there’s too much.
    And I agree, how can we take advantage of these new laptops that we have, when we can’t access half the site out there?

  10. Thanks everyone although I’m not sure why I should be congratulated and I was never fishing for compliments. I am genuinely concerned for my children (and Australia’s future just by the way), I figure telling the pollies is a way to get something done. I just put the letter here to see what other parents think about this. It’s starting to look like other parents … don’t think about this (or don’t want to?).

    It’s great to hear from teachers and students about the problems the filter is causing, thanks for those. I hope some parents join in the discussion too, I’m not sure why none have. Maybe parents do have concerns about schools ability to keep their children safe online? Or, is it just as Celia says – parents don’t know? We’ve heard above from a primary teacher, a high school teacher a uni lecturer and two students. The issue is clear.

    Please parents, write something here to let us know what you think about the filter. Do you think we need a filter? Do you want more info about how it works? what it is? Why we have it? Do you think it is good thing or not? Any thoughts on this at all? thanks.

    on another note..

    Today in the rusty ol post box out the front I received a letter from the
    “Office of the Hon Verity Firth MP
    Minister for Education and Training”

    it says….
    “The matters raised by you have been noted and are presently receiving attention”

    interesting that the reply didn’t come by email but it is a start.

  11. My kids are at private schools and their school portals are also limited – They have to list all the sites they use in their bibliography for any work. They do most of their research at home which makes them work independently from what the other kids are doing in class. Credibility is generally discussed at this time. In various subjects if there is a specific site they want students to access the teacher can ask the IT department to allow access to only that site for a set period of time. Hope that helps.

  12. Well, it sounds as if the whole computer campaign does not make sense if the use is so restricted through this filter policy. What’s the point? Can only – as stated correctly above – lead to frustration and disengagement on the side of the students. But it wouldn’t be the only thing that makes no sense imposed by the education department or whatever burocratic institution is in charge. Australian burocracy reminds me in many respects of the non-sensical and paralysing burocracy which made life hell for citizens in former communist countries. Probably once again the reason is fear of some scandal at some stage about some offensive content of a website accessed by chance if less or no filters are used. I agree with you on another point. As mother of a public school student I find the different opportunities provided to public school students as compared to private student revolting. My son by the way has yet to receive his computer this year, but he reported that students who already work with it found out that certain processes (I think it was power point presentation) take hugely long. So there might be another problem. but I will know more when he will start working with his computer.

  13. I’m a parent and I was quite angry when my daughter told me that the school laptops are impossible to work with. I’m afraid that the federal government took a great leap forward with the laptops. I suppose it wasn’t their problem that NSW schools have impossible filters? Why weren’t teachers warned not to expect so much from the laptops? It’s painful to know that students and teachers wasted so much precious time trying to log into sites that were always going to be blocked. Since when is this lack of coordination ok? Why was their no communication about this with the teachers? We should probably go back to the idea of using books at school a lot more(not a bad thing at all)while doing internet research at home. And the government shouldn’t be surprised if it loses votes over its jingoistic slogans about the Education Revolution.

  14. I think the obvious solution is that the Edu Dept needs to act on the teachers guidelines as to what sites are to be “unblocked” for students needs for any particular subject. It should be a relatively simple procedure where a request is made and it happens immediately – whether its permanent or temporary basis doesn’t matter so much as long as its accessible. Once a site has x number of requests it should be opened permanenty.

    Kelly rightly says that the internet and technology is changing/growing so fast that an old fashioned attitude of blocking everything new or undiscovered is simply counter productive.

    Parent RBSC

  15. In this day and age, where kids can access virtually anything they care to, to have filters on a school site is just not on. Schools are supposed to teach kids, so if they give them computers, surely there should be no blocks in their way. I have a 19 year old son and am pregnant with my second. God knows what me and this second child will have to put up with in the school years ahead. Frankly, I dont like technology with bars on. If they cant access what they need to at school, what is the point of them having them?
    Parent

  16. Hi Kell,
    I’m sitting at my table studying Advanced Paediatric Life Support for a big exam tomorrow and although I can confidently resuscitate my (and your) children, I wouldn’t know a Wiki from a blog (am I on one now?!)
    I do believe, however that a teacher who has researched a site should trump the school firewall and be able to gain access for their students at their discretion. My son has access to everything at home (yes even when I’m asleep or out) and it seems it would make sense for him to have sites available where ther is a teacher ( and peers ) available for discussion and input.
    Good one Kell x

  17. I was totally unaware that the public school students had such restrictions on their access compared to their Catholic/private counterparts.
    My daughter has often complained about the severe restrictions on access to so many sites & also the hoops that the teachers have to go through to get particular sites unblocked. In fact, today she was complaining that they couldn’t even get onto the Prime Minister’s website.

    Thanks for bringing these issues to our attention Kelly

  18. It’s Blocked – excessive filtering of web sites at public schools.

    While our children have not yet mentioned the problems associated with excessive filtering of web sites for educational purposes at school, it would seem from the comments provided that it is an issue.

    To minimise risk to the Education Department, a stringent filter is implemented to block every web site that is not known to be safe. However, this measure severely constrains the education revolution through access to the latest technology to the point of impotence.

    To remove filtering and maximise access to the internet would almost certainly result in occasions where inappropriate material and web sites would be viewed, harming our children and embarrassing the Department.

    It follows that informed risk management—a balance between these extremes would produce the desired result.

    The Department’s strategy could incorporate the Australian Standards for risk management.

    Perhaps along with promulgation of higher-level policy, implementation of appropriate systems such as high-quality internet filter with firewall and ‘parent control’ functionality similar to that incorporated in the Norton, Trend Micro products for example, allowing tailored access to the web.

    Maybe some responsibility for tailoring access could then be devolved to the school level. If this was to occur, perhaps the principal/teacher/IT support could then mitigate risk further by sending an email to each student’s parent/guardian with words to the effect:

    “… The school is implementing a new IT system to permit greater access to the internet for educational purposes. Parental website filter categories include: adult, sex, alcohol, illegal drugs, gambling, crime … photo searches, job search, ringtones, internet telephony, activist groups. Unless comment is received via letter or email to the contrary by 4 pm Wednesday xx xxxx 2010, it is intended to block the following: adult, sex, gambling … activist groups. Where parents or guardians express a differing opinion, the most restrictive measure will be applied. It is intended to review access at six monthly intervals …”

    Of course each category would require greater explanation in the actual information provided to parents, and this will all come at a cost in terms of time, greater training and awareness for principals, teachers, IT staff and parents, together with the cost of the system and maintenance, and risk – inappropriate access will likely still occur.

    While there will be a multitude of problems with this proposal, it is offered just in passing to prompt thought on one way to fix the excessive filtering issue while providing parents into the level of access.

  19. I quizzed our boys last night.
    Callum (year 8 public high school) said he hadn’t noticed much in the way of filtering. He doesn’t have a DET laptop yet but uses the PCs in the library and classrooms. Amongst others he uses wikipedia, youtube, wordpress for his blog and various US sports websites. He admitted he uses the internet at home more because the speed is better and IT support far superior. (At school he also plays Counterstrike with his mates off a usb stick, so the windows policies are about as tight as the firewall).
    Conrad (year 6 public school) uses the PCs in the library and the PC lab. He is always supervised and his teacher prepares a list of web resources to be used with each assignment.
    At home the boys have a PC in the rumpus room which is also where my PC is. K9 Web Protection is installed on their PC, which seems to work ok. It barks occassionaly. A few times the boys have made the case for why I should add a particular site to the K9 list of acceptable sites.
    Kelly kritter!!

  20. My son (year 12 at a public high school) has complained about this for years. He tends to do all his research at home or at the public library. It is such a hindrance to learning when they could have such a valuable resource at their fingertips.
    As he says “you have to take the good with the bad to some extent. The good in this case far outweighs the small chance that uneducational sites will be accessed.” I tend to agree.
    As an aside, I have referred this blog to our school parent network blog – so there may be some comments from other parents posted.

  21. Thank you everyone for your comments so far. I appreciate the time you have taken to share your views here. I’m still working out what to do next, I will most likely try to raise awareness at my kids school P&C and I will talk to the principal about this as well as a letter to the editor.. I am still awaiting a response from the minister. When I get one I will let you know.

    I’ve learned there is a group within NSW DET that meets to discuss filter policy, this group takes input from school principals. I encourage you to talk to your principal and teachers about your concerns.

    I’m hopeful that together we can get to a more realistic situation where teachers are able to use the resources available and everyone can get on with learning.

  22. Thanks for your efforts here.

    On one hand the DET seems afraid of potential litigation and breach of duty of care from inappropriate use of the internet. On the other hand, it seems that the DET is in breach of students right to the best education possible that a government can provide, regardless of socio-economic backgrounds. If students only access to the internet is via the det laptop and/or the only access to the internet is at school, these students especially have the greatest restrictions to access to information. Perhaps we should consider legal action of our own highlighting that the restriction of the internet is disadvantaging the public education sector and will result in an uneven playing field with public student’s potential to compete for the best hsc results severely compromised. It seems the DET is responsible to ensure NSW public students have their rights for a fair and equitable education uppermost on their agenda.

    As a public school secondary teacher and a parent of kids in public schools my belief that a quality education is achievable in the public system is being severely tested with the DET policing of www access. It really is heartbreaking.

    As a teacher:
    – I am embarrassed to have the www at my fingertips and I am not be able to use it freely
    – The quality of my lessons are compromised when I am unable to take advantage of the unplanned directions students take content
    – My initial high expectations about the exciting opportunities to enhance my teaching and student learning experiences by having a digital projector and www access in my classroom has been considerably lowered.
    – I am expected to send the DET every blocked URL I want students to access at school and wait until those sites are checked and cleared [sometimes waiting days] adding needlessly to my workload. The DET seems to believe that if all teachers do this the number of unblocked sites will grow expedientially.
    – I am expected to support the DET digital revolution and believe in its efforts to bring about equity for less advantaged students without home computers [and I do think the intention is noble] but when teachers and students in public schools are denied the same rights to information on www that independent and catholic schools receive my trust that my profession is being looked after is undermined
    – I am expected to upload youtube files and transfer to kids computers via intranet or usb. Am I infringing copyright and risk prosecution? I cannot direct students to the youtube site and save myself another needless process and waste of time
    – Amazing www sites that may have det approval but youtube videos cannot be viewed by students
    – Teaching students skills for effective learning and researching is compromised
    – I know kids find ways to bend rules and access things they shouldn’t [accessing www through proxy servers] defeating the intentions of the restrictions

    As a parent
    – I am frustrated that the fear of litigation results in my children not receiving the same opportunities that they would get in the private system. I know teachers just won’t be bothered and will become cynical about the whole digital revolution.
    – Totally agree with other respondents that teachers should be present to assist students evaluate content and find alternatives to wikipedia and agree that this is not possible if students are forced to research at home.
    – Upset that an extraordinary resource is so woefully under utilised in schools and libraries. Students with free periods cannot use the time as effectively at school.
    – Unhappy that so little trust is given to kids to be responsible
    – Angry that the det is punishing everyone for the potential actions of a few.
    – Feel my kids are being treated like second rate citizens with their rights limited compared to their private school peers and consequently, their learning is compromised and ability to reach their full potential in a public school must be lessened .
    Maybe someone in the legal field, maybe a judge, could consider whether the DET is somehow in breach of student’s rights and suggest a sensible policy. It seems DET has to decide which is the greater good:

    good luck

  23. Kell we tried the wiki at home and it worked. But not much point if only one of a class of 30 can join the teacher’s wiki – and what a “work around” Stupid. Today I got ACMA’s Cybersmart brochure (published by Federal Govt Dept) and it had a substantial run down of different sort of filters. It talked specifically about the need to ensure that filters are not so stringent as to prevent older children from accessing content they need. It also asserts that different levels of filtering need to be considered for children of different ages. Perhaps DET could consult with ACMA on this issue, I would imagine there is far more expertise within ACMA than within DET.
    Am going to share this site with more public school parents.

  24. Thanks everyone for your input to this. I am still waiting for a response from the minister, as soon as I hear from her I will let you know.

    In the meantime;
    There are instructions for teachers to request sites be unblocked here; ttp://tutorials.dernsw.com/?p=344
    There is also a web filter control group which school principals have input to.

    I have heard that the category ‘search engines’ is going to be unblocked. I haven’t found any documentation to support this but I am hopeful that it is true because it might mean DET is reviewing the categories.

  25. In May I received a response from Karyn Paluzzano MP Parliamentary Secretary for Education and Training. It went on for two pages starting with a definition of the Digital Education Revolution: “a major program to fund education tools for the 21st century in schools,” followed by some information about the Blue Coat Web Filter and how it uses categories to block or allow sites. It states “Websites are allocated to a blocked category if the site poses child protection, liability or security risks.”

    The letter goes on to say that teachers can request sites be unblocked for specific purposes and there is a DET Web Filter Unit comprised of teaching staff with curriculum expertise. Teacher requests are referred to the unit and it also reviews websites in relation to curriculum, child protection and security. They agree they block anything that is uncategorised.

    It advises there was a roundtable forum of major stakeholders in December 2009 on what students should be able to access. It says the NSW P&C Association was included but doesn’t say who else nor what the outcome was except that any policy change would be preceded by a trial including an education program on cyber safety. It mentions some money allocated to provide teachers with a laptop and appropriate training before continuing with a couple of paragraphs about advice and other funds allocated to schools for professional development.

    Finally it provides me with a name and email address to direct further questions regarding the Digital Education Revolution to : Ms Dianne Marshall, Program Director, Digital Education Revolution – NSW der-nsw@det.nsw.edu.au

    Unfortunately it makes no mention of search engines or why they are blocked. Nor does it provide contact information for anyone to contact regarding the filter. All in all, a very frustrating but I suppose typical political response. Silly me, thinking one letter would make a difference. I’ll try again with a focus on the blocking of search engines.

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