I just got done setting up an SSH tunnel from work to home, so that I can get to the educational resources I need without being blocked by the school district’s web filter. While it feels a bit odd to admit this, I think it’s important to talk about how the way SFUSD filters right now — because it isn’t working. For example: Google Image search is blocked (and has been since 2004) but students all know to use the image search at images.google.ca. So what does the block accomplish?
Worse, some of the things I want students to work on or research for their Academy classes and technology classes are blocked by keyword: searches on terms like “proxy” or “games” are stopped completely, before we can even see the Google results page. Of course, these blocks don’t stop students from getting on the various social networking web sites. They don’t stop students from putting the Starcraft executable on a USB key and having LAN parties in the computer labs. And for some reason, even though you can’t search anything involving the term “games” on Google, games.yahoo.com is not blocked. How does this help us as educators?
Instead of heavy-handed, indiscriminate filtering, what we need is a combination of good filtering to keep out the porn and adware/spyware, teacher control over specific classroom filters, and direct teaching about what’s acceptable use and what’s not. For example, in my senior programming class that focuses on video game design, I would like students to be reading about game industry news and looking at forums and other game-related web sites. In my freshman classes, I appreciate those sites being blocked. But in any class, if students find inappropriate content, I see that as an opportunity to discuss our own responsibilities and decisions in a world where so much information is so easily searchable.
As far as search, I think a good step would be to have a way to ensure that the Google SafeSearch filters are always turned on at school. That’s not perfect either, I know, but it seems like a decent starting point. Since Google is both under more scrutiny and has more resources to devote to the problem than a school district, why not rely on their work? I made this suggestion to Google recently: set up a subdomain like safe.google.com that only runs searches with SafeSearch turned on. School districts could block access to the regular Google pages but still allow students to use the full functionality of the search engine through safe.google.com.