A number of NSW teachers and librarians have criticised the Department of Education's (DET) web filtering system, claiming it is too restrictive and has sacrificed educational benefits in the name of child protection.
"We have such a fixation within the DET on a technological solution for child protection issues most Web 2.0 apps are completely blocked or severely crippled," teacher-librarian and president of the Bangalow-Byron Bay Teachers' Association, Jim Richardson, told ZDNet.com.au recently.
Most Web 2.0 apps are completely blocked or severely crippled
Teacher-librarian Jim Richardson
Richardson, speaking on behalf of several other teachers who did not wish to be identified, said the issue conflicted with the fact that leading educators, both nationally and within DET, had been extolling the learning opportunities of Web 2.0-style applications.
DET's filtering system has two components: a website categorisation engine, SmartFilter, provided by the now McAfee-owned company, Secure Computing; and DET's whitelist approach to filtering.
A whitelist filter blocks any URL that has not been approved, while a blacklist contains a list of URLs that cannot be accessed. In DET's case, if a site has not been categorised and approved by DET's panel of three "educationalist" experts, the site can't be accessed by students.
DET's chief information officer, Stephen Wilson, told ZDNet.com.au that of the 100 million or so websites in the world, the department had categorised about 25 million.
Wilson also disagreed with Richardson's assessment of the impact its filters were having on education. "What we are trying to do is continually improve the experience for kids, so that it is pleasant. That's one of the reasons why we brought filtering in-house last year, which is now done in our datacentre," he said.
A persistent challenge for the state's teachers and those managing the filters, not surprisingly, is the vast range of content available on the web. Wilson said that the 500 most popular sites that were blocked due to being uncategorised are each day submitted to SmartFilter for categorisation and assessment by the panel.
But, he added: "I would expect that most of the hits are within the 25 million that are categorised." He did not have exact numbers on how many URL requests were blocked each day.
Not included on that list of approved sites, however, were free web mail services such as Hotmail, and social networks MySpace and Facebook, which Wilson said DET did not consider to be of educational value.
"We don't think there is a place for that at school. We have our own collaboration systems within the department, and we want our students to use those systems," Wilson said.
The stance on social networking is an interesting contrast to that taken by corporations, such as AMP, which has allowed Facebook to become an integral part of its corporate communications. DET's stance, argued Wilson, was because it had a duty of care to students.
"AMP has a completely different duty of care to its employees than the DET has for underage students. If a child is groomed by a sexual predator or they're subject to bullying, we're accountable for that... If we have systems to prevent that from happening, we are bound to implement them," he said.
More frustrating for teachers, however, according to Richardson, is that many teachers' personal blogs, wikis and content uploaded to YouTube are prevented from being used at school.
Not all bad news
Wilson said that DET does allow "certain collaboration sites" through on exception. "Particularly when they're controlled by a teacher, but as a general rule we don't allow pure social networking on sites that are un-moderated. We don't allow access to YouTube within the environment for this reason," said Wilson.
Personal blogs and wikis look set to remain a sticking point, primarily because DET's filters won't allow sites accessed via a third-party web proxy. "It's our experience that many of the sites that are uncategorised and blocked are proxy anonmyisers and we will not allow anyone to use them within our environment," said Wilson.
Though, the outlook for the ban on YouTube appears a little brighter, with DET aware it does hold some educational value. "We're reviewing access to YouTube right now as a matter of urgency," Wilson said.
What we are trying to do is continually improve the experience for kids, so that it is pleasant.
NSW DET CIO Stephen Wilson
"It's not like we're blind to this. I mean there is so much good information on YouTube. It's just a matter for us to figure a way to only allow the things that teachers have pre-qualified potentially for students to see — then we'd be OK with it. We're working with Google and other companies to find solutions for those issues."
A likely catalyst for further change to the filter is the upcoming deployment of 200,000 netbooks the department is deciding on in the coming weeks, under the Federal Government-funded Digital Education Revolution.
DET already has age-based filtering, permitting senior students to access nudes deemed "art" by the department, while similar sites are blocked for kindergarten students.
"With the learning devices going out, we have a group of people examining the possibility of doing not only age-based but [also] time of day filtering that would change according to the time of day," said Wilson.
That system would mean that the filters were relaxed after say 3:30pm, "so when you take the device home, it has a different profile."
"We want to make it pleasant and we don't want someone surfing the internet and getting a lot of blocks for the wrong reasons. We want them to be blocked for the right reasons," said Wilson.