Sunday, 17 July 2011

Enquiry and inquisition

Teachers everywhere will know and bemoan the existence of school filter systems. More draconian than the inquisition, more inflexible than plastercast, more arbitrary than a roulette wheel, they have a suppressive and stifling effect on classroom practice. A day barely goes by without an education blogger or twitterer having a (generally justified) rant about some latest inanity or perversity of their system: wtiness, for example, Malcolm Bellamy's brief and well-written complaint. You can't check your own email in school, even on free lessons; YouTube is blocked; all blogs are blocked at a county level; almost any search term referring to anything remotely controversial is inaccessible - and so forth. Never usually one to whinge about lack of teacher autonomy and willfully stupid school processes, for once I want to do the opposite, and suggest - both that there is a way round this - and that this medieval censorship is actually an accidentally systemic feature, not the result of anything intentional.

First, eliminate the obvious idiocies, which are rare. Heads who ban any use of emails in lesson times, schools that refuse to allow *any* teacher a filter bypass, bans on teachers using YouTube - these are foolish and not that common. Most Heads, behind the curve on technology for reasons both of age and time pressure, prefer to ignore what teachers are doing and IT-competent educators can do what they need in this regard. Also ignore the fact that school filters block vast swathes on general keywords in searches - my own, for example, blocks anything containing "teen", "network", "violence", "protest", "revolution" etc - even from major national newspapers. You will imagine how difficult this has made the last few months of news coverage for Citizenship lessons... what I want to explain is how this happens in practice.

To understand how we got to the point where nearly everything useful appears to be blocked, you have to know the structure of the blocking systems. At least (I am informed) this is how it works in the South-West - and I suspect most others are the same. Imagine a tree system: many teachers to one school, many schools to one LEA, many LEAs to one region - and the whole region uses one filter company, one filter. Probably with the best intentions (to protect children - and probably even to save teachers' time) someone somewhere, without thinking it through, set the whole thing up so that when one teacher in one school asks for a given site to be banned, the whole region filter picks up the block. So everything that any teacher or IT technician in any school anywhere in the network blocks - it's blocked for everyone. It's literally a Puritan's Charter. One dyed-in-the-wool Daily Mail-reader can screw up all interesting exploratory IT-based work for everyone across several counties - and there are no shortage of people who would. It is a system which (I contend, accidentally) empowers the traditionalist over the progressive, the IT-incompetent over the pathfinder, bookwork over IT, tedious bland topics over interesting controversial ones - and all by accident. Imagine if you ran a classroom or school (primary or secondary - it doesn't matter) this way - where anything that anyone objected to as a learning activity had to be banned. Reading and maths would be out pretty quickly at the say-so of the least engaged; singing would get blocked (probably by boys) and physical activity (possibly by girls?); assemblies would go, and science for those who don't like equations and... and... and so on. Every worst prejudice and conventionality would be enforced. Now imagine everything your class had blocked also being blocked at every other school, and vice versa - there'd be nothing left. Providing a systemic "universal right to block" is fundamentally foolish, and multiplied exponentially once you have networks as large as whole UK regions. No-one wants a system where so much is inaccessible, and once you realise we got here inadvertently, it'll make you a lot less angry - and a lot more practical and rational about how not to let this limit your teaching. So despair not! From the following list of response actions you can take there will be a few, no matter what your regional system and how similar / dissimilar it is to mine, which you can use:
  • Search by article, preferably on broadsheets: get students to search by article instead of pictures, and then take the pictures from the written newspaper online articles - often restrictions are more stringent on image searches (I don't know how this is done, but I've seen it.)
  • Walk kids round the system by the back door: have your own site (blog or otherwise) on the WWW not on your VLE (immune to the filter when accessed externally), and extract "safe" article sections for students, with links to the full articles - students will go home and click to the link to read more fully once they're outside of the school filter. The very act of filters banning / blocking slyly makes them more likely to go away and look from home: independent learning!
  • Have ready use of a full filter bypass: go to your IT technician and require them to tell you / install for you the filter bypass - don't believe them if they say there isn't one, there is, and thousands of teachers use it. I have it on my Faves bar at the top and it allows me to teach from anything normally blocked under the filter - of course I take no risks when browsing live with a class. And NO, your IT technician does NOT need to "check it with the Head"; by all means they can inform the Head (and drop an email yourself too) but if it empowers and improves learning in your class, and especially if it is critical to it, then you need to use it. Put the case strongly to SLT if needed.
  • "UNblocking exists too": for most school filter systems, your IT technician can unblock whole domains at a school-level even if they are on the county / regional ban list (YES, they CAN - don't believe self-important "gatekeeper" IT techies who decide it is their choice whether they do so and who claim it is them "who will get in trouble if kids access something wrong" - NO, you WON'T, I'm INSTRUCTING you to unblock it, the risk is MINE. This can be done with YouTube or Twitter or whatever you need.
  • Argue for teacher responsibility and use good, classroom-discretionary software to support it. Banning a given thing at county or regional distance is pointless, inflexible and ineffective. If your school uses a separate software system like Impero, you can take control of any one, or all computers in a room at once; you can block specific types of site or specific sites on a switch on / off basis. And by the way, what controls whether a child accesses a given site in my classroom is not the job of the IT technician to decide, but mine - I'm the teacher, and I supervise my classes carefully, and what I say goes. I do not require a minimum wage techie at a desk eighty miles away to enforce, let alone make, that decision for me.
  • Make your Head read this article. If they're the panicky sort who fears the risks of the net and therefore adopts a default burrowing position on all matters IT, presuming that "if it's filtered there must be a good reason why", make them read this article to understand how this vastly disproportionate system of censorhip has arisen and managed to, without anyone's explicit intent, consume in its path so much good and worthwhile learning.
  • If all else fails, do it on the sly. You will need to exercise judgement over whether to accept this advice! But before my school's (excellent, open-minded and collaborative) IT technician figured out the bypass and unblocking functions, I bought a 3 dongle and turned off my laptop's Wifi and instead used the dongle whenever I wanted to bypass the system. I billed the department for the costs and, ironically, it was this that nudged people into realising this was stupid and expensive and there must be a way to bypass and unblock - and there was, just nobody had told us. Proceed cautiously here.
Of course we want children protected from the filth the net is full of. Of course we want to avoid classroom time wasted on inanity. Doubtless we also want to stop saying "please, please stop looking at that stupid site" (even though we know we should be taking responsibility and asserting, rather than asking.) But don't get angry and rant. Don't presume there's an anti-teacher disempowering conspiracy (it's a drift, not a conspiracy!) Realise it's an accident of an ill-thought-out system and remind yourself of what you know: technology enhances learning; the real world, in all its controversy, should be the stuff of education even for the youngest; systems and technicians work for teachers, not the other way round; you need and should feel unabashed about using a bypass filter; you are entitled to decide when a specific site should be unblocked for your class / year / department / school's group(s) of children, using your excellent and appropriate professional judgement - and now, go make these things happen. Bring the world into your classroom as you see fit and don't let anyone say no.