The system that our district has created to enforce and manage Internet filtering is deeply flawed. When, four years ago, I noted the serious flaws in the decision to block blogs at high schools, the process required to fix the problem was unnecessarily complex. The heavy-handedness of the filtering, combined with hard-to-find paperwork, a vague appeal process, and slow turnaround times, has repeatedly kept staff and students away from the resources they need.
Luckily, the system is changing. However, it is a double-edged sword, as one of the decisions that will make filtering less-draconian will also make changes more difficult down the road. This year, as part of the budget cuts, the position of Head Librarian for the district was cut. With her gone, the duty of reviewing each IM-140 form will fall to some other, already overworked employee.
But first, the good news: by the end of the year, teachers will have full-power to turn off filtering on their own accounts. This is wonderful news for elementary and middle school teachers that want to show a YouTube video, or any teacher that needs to find curriculum materials or wants to check their Twitter or Facebook account.
Second, Kim Mathey, head of the Instructional Media Department, has assured me that she will do full evaluation of the current filtering categories and levels and report to the School Board in the fall. The likely result is that the more restrictive aspects of the filtering will be reduced. But this result is only likely because, given the lack of a Head Librarian, Kim will not have time to process the forms that come in each week. It is in her best interest to reduce the number of IM-140 forms submitted by teachers and students.
However, in the past the school board has been reluctant to make any substantial changes to the policies. This means that there is a lot of work to be done by Kim, myself, and any student or teacher that would like to positively impact the process and have an effective, non-draconian, filtering system. It is my belief that those changes should include unblocking, at high school and possibly middle school:
Blogs: Blocking sites because of the format they used is arbitrary and is the equivalent of banning magazines from the library. Already unblocked at high school, this needs to extend to middle school.
Social Networking: It is unlikely that the school board could be convinced to unblock MySpace or Facebook, but there are numerous sites, such as ning.com and career networking sites, that are blocked that have enormous educational value. And as more and more sites add social networking features, this too becomes an arbitrary distinction.
Instant messaging: Instant messaging is used as a valid communication tool at Fortune 500 companies. Additionally, the current policy is flawed, with some services working and others not.
Games: There was no evidence that students using games on our network was taking up too much bandwidth; and teachers already have policies forbidding playing games on cell phones during class. Furthermore, many IM-140 requests to unblock sites involve educational games that are blocked. Unblocking games as a category would significantly reduce the case load.
Furthermore, the filtering process should be improved by increasing efficiency and transparency by:
Posting the filtering policy, blocked categories and instructions for appealing blocked sites online.
Allowing online IM-140 form submissions. The placement, availability, and turn-in procedures for IM-140 forms seem to vary from school to school and are often the biggest barriers to asking for a change.
Creating an online database of individually blocked and unblocked sites so we can see what sites are selectively blocked and unblocked, and why.
Until these goals are achieved, the filtering system in the Edmonds School District will remain laborious and frustrating for the IMD staff, teachers, and students. The step of allowing teachers to override the filter on their own accounts is a step in the right direction, but one that will only lead to more frustration if these steps are not taken and there continues to be no Head Librarian with time to dedicate to managing the system.