Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales recently added to a long standing debate about the value of Wikipedia for research. Speaking at the recent Online Information Conference at Olympia, Jimmy is reported as stating that teachers who refuse access to wikipedia are 'bad educators'. I have sympathy - schools and teachers who filter out access to this valuable resource are wrong in my opinion. The key of course is the ' ... in my opinion', and filtering of content by schools is the heart of the matter.
Access to the best features of the read / write web is often denied by schools through their broadband filtering. There is a consequential and increasing gap between children's often unrestricted experience of the Internet at home and the experience at school. This is a digital divide between those who can access the 'freedom and fun' of the Internet because they have home access, and those excluded by a lack of home access and by limits imposed through over zealous filtering and blocking.
Websense, the Kent Community Network filtering solution gives Secondary Schools the freedom to allow and disallow sites and to control their own filtering. I am reminded of the line from Spiderman "... with great power comes great responsibility", and there is considerable variance in the regimes applied by schools, and more importantly who decides them.
The way the categories work in Websense means it can be easier to block a whole category (say blogs), and in the process throw out a whole range of tools that are exceptionally useful in education. The model of passive content viewing is long gone in favour of the read / write web and web 2.0 online tools. Many save money and administration for schools and offer exceptional functionality often at zero cost.
Schools would be wise to prioritise their core business - educational value. Only then should it be necessary to identify potential hazards in order to consider risk. The user experience could and should be tailored and personalised with more care and thought by schools. Underpinning this is the need to ensure that users are clear of what is and isn't acceptable. This applies across school and community life and defines an ethos more precisely than technical restrictions. In no case should the school technician be the sole arbiter, as they quite rationally want to reduce their liability to zero, and in practice this means 'if in doubt block'. It is the responsibility of the educator not the technical support team to decide what is and isn't an acceptable risk. The Internet can never be 100% e-safe; however we must surely avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Perhaps it would be helpful for Kent Local Authority to risk assess useful web 2.0 tools (Blogs, Wiki's, etc.) and offer some reassurances that they can be used with confidence? Would it be helpful?
I use Blogs, wiki's and many tools and have had very few poor experiences. I also reference Wikipedia and find it invaluable both in itself and as a stepping stone. You will see me link to it in my online publishing on a regular basis as a first point of general reference, (On most occasions I prefer to reference original work). Embedding links to these sources is fine and synergy with the sprit of the Internet age, but many cannot see these references in schools due to blocking and filtering.
Kent Community Network uses a product called Websense
for content filtering that sits on the broadband pipe from the school
and filters everything that passes along the pipe. There are only two
fundamental ways to filter content; either filtering only allows
viewing of safe sites, sometimes called called 'white- listing', or it
blocks bad sites, called 'blacklisting'. White listing is safest in
that each site must be 'allowed individually', but this restricts the
experience and is laborious to manage. Webs. 'Blacklisting' on the
other hand leaves educators and network managers constantly reacting to
new 'bad' sites in order to ban them. Websense does much of the hard
work of catching bad sites through regular monitoring. It is still
reactive though, and although its very good, it can never be perfect.
Websense categorises web sites according to their content, and users
according to their age profile and allows schools to decide which
categories they wish to allow for which students. Illegal sites are
banned centrally. Primary school policies are set globally and offer a degree of
consistency that allows educators to use the Internet secure in the
knowledge that the best tools are being used to ensure that children
are safe and secure online.