Teachers attack NSW DET filter

Teachers attack NSW DET filter

Summary: 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.


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.

(School bus image by Kevin Dooley, CC2.0)

"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.

Topics: Government AU, Censorship

Liam Tung

About Liam Tung

Liam Tung is an Australian business technology journalist living a few too many Swedish miles north of Stockholm for his liking. He gained a bachelors degree in economics and arts (cultural studies) at Sydney's Macquarie University, but hacked (without Norse or malicious code for that matter) his way into a career as an enterprise tech, security and telecommunications journalist with ZDNet Australia. These days Liam is a full time freelance technology journalist who writes for several publications.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Teach digital citizenship K-12

    DET filtering does listen to specific unblock requests and has been helpful in explaining reasons why sites remain blocked.

    But the unblock process remains more cumbersome than it need be. It also defeats the immediacy we expect when browsing. The current system is not viable in the long run and must change.

    Unfortunately the bigger issue of authentic student engagement with the "real" web2.0 world has been lost on DET NSW thus far. This is the issue Wilson alludes to when he speaks about relaxing or shaping the filters on the compact learning devices.

    DET know they are behind other school systems in terms of net access and how to explicitly teach digital citizenship. This is particularly challenging for such a large centralised system who is trying to retain control when web2.0 learning relies so much on the opposite, fluid human networks, flexiblity and access.

    Public DET NSW students are currently disadvantaged and a parent class action for failure to provide equal learning opportunity may not be that unreasonable at some point down the track. DET will change their policies but just how long that may take is the $64k question.

    To shield consumers for child protection issues is one thing, but to educationally disadvantage by cloistering, censoring or blanket blocking is entirely another. No wonder Mr Wilson said it's difficult.
  • Technical Solutions to a moral question

    Why do we always leap to a technical solution?

    The education of students MUST include training on how to make a decision based on their moral compass and community expectations.

    The more we "shield " our children - the less likely they will be able to make considered and appropriate decisons in adult life.

    We need to "teach" them how to identify right from wrong / how to identify good from bad / what to do when they don't know an answer.

    The education Department has lost its basic moral compass because the staff there are new generation that did not get these skills from their parents - and now they are scared because of the world it has exposed them to - and their only answer is to stop their children from seeing the world as it is.

    Well I have news for you - they will see the world as it is - and they will have to deal with it - it is our responsibility to give them the tools to do that and not perpetuate the tradgedy
  • Tech solutions to a moral prob

    here here MOTT!!!
    The DET takes the easy option every time - if in doubt block it!
    Whilst I have seen many many articles and missives from the DET referring to the need to "protect" students from the internet I have not seen ONE suggesting ways to educate them in evaluating sites and understand what it is they are viewing.
  • Google Docs

    One area that is often joked about is DET blocking of Google Docs. A great tool for sharing documents and collaboration, it has been repeatedly asked to be unblock for staff and students.
    The response from DET filtering has usually been because Google Docs "are in direct competition to MS Office", which as most using it know is completely false.
    As new functions become available such as the Google Docs Survey Tool, this becomes even more ludicrous.
  • DET filter

    As with almost everything the DET does in regards to technology, it's a shambles. It's inconsistent; sometimes one can find a completely harmless site blocked, and when you refresh it, it will suddenly be unblocked (I was once helping a student find a picture of a Toyota Camry : it was blocked. Is there anything less offensive than a Toyota Camry?). Not only that, kids figured out how to by-pass the blocking ages ago.
  • Whose responsibility is it anyway?

    How are we supposed to teach our students about internet safety if all sites they assume are unsafe are blocked? Do we remove all the trees, bicycles, playgrounds etc to prevent children from injury if they fall? One day very soon, some poor unsuspecting teacher will be accused of not teaching their students how to identify unsafe sites and material because a child fell prey to unsafe material whilst using the internet at home. Students can be exposed to unfiltered internet sites 18 hours a day, shouldn't it be the DET's responsiblity to demonstrate responsible use of these sites during the 6 hours they are at school?
  • lol

    Just use socks or surrogafier you morons.
  • They've tried this before...

    I remember my high school was a trial for some web filter back in '08 (before I left for tassie) and it pretty much blocked everything, including some parts of hotmail as well as requiring users to go to some lame 'portal' before accessing the internet. Needless to say, that trial didn't last long.
  • The right-to-read and transparency...

    The DET could allay many of the "right-to-read" concerns that teacher-librarians and other educators have with filter systems, if they published in-depth details of the criteria used by
    a. the Smartfilter classifiers, and
    b. the team that considers unblock requests.
    For many years librarians were staunch defenders of students (and teachers) rights to access as much information as possible - and developed resource collections on the basis of a selection policy. If they banned a book they had to be prepared to defend that decision publicly and to debate the merits of the decision on the basis of policy. Teachers , let alone students and parents, are yet to see the criteria or statistics on false positives.
    With an open, publicly contestable set of criteria we would be on the way to restoring some confidence in, and understanding of, the whole process. The DET may respond in a fairly timely fashion to most unblock requests, but the response to a block request is even quicker...this betrays perhaps a predisposition towards blocking.
    Parents and students as well as teachers deserve a transparent and "appeal-able" system if we do indeed need one at all. Strangely enough, Finland, a top educational performer, doesn't subject its schools to any more stringent filtering than the rest of the population. Neither their schools nor society seem to suffer as a result - and may even be more productive!
  • Google Docs

    I really doubt the reason given for blocking google docs is that it is in competion to MS Office!! That doesn't even make sense.

    The reason google docs is blocked is that it allows collaborative sharing of content between unauthenticated users. In other words, a student does NOT know who they are sharing a document with beyond the email address, making google docs just as effective a tool for predatory behaviour as any other social networking or Web 2.0 tool where the users are not authenticated.
  • Not the reasons stated though

    A DET representative gave that response to a school teacher though. It may not be the real reason, but it's what a user was told when they requested it.
  • Good one...

    SOCKS would work, but you need to set up a server, and figure out how to get out to it. (yes, there's a firewall too... they aren't that dumb).

    And 99.9999% of known CGI-proxies are blocked.
  • That wasn't the trial

    The trials started in about 06. The live thing was the one you were seeing.
    And trust me... Server updates become very painful when HTTP is broken. I couldn't update our servers for about 3 months because of that stupid user agreement page.
  • Good intentions. Bad implementations.

    Filtering is a requirement in a school, business, or even a home. No questions. However it needs to be:
    a) fast
    b) transparent
    c) controlled by someone who can understand legitimate needs of the users, and be reasonable in dealing with requests

    DET are OK on B now.
    A they struggle with at random times (it comes and goes).
    C is where DET fall down the pit. I requested a site for work use as a staff member. It was denied on the grounds that "some" students and staff "might" use it to bypass filters. It was Google's cache. So DET were more concerned about some students reading text that was blocked than me doing my job.... Google cache does not host images, and besides, Google images is not blocked. Stupidity!
  • First Hand Experiance

    Having completed the HSC last year i had to withstand 2-3 years of the DETs useless web filter.

    Throughout those 2-3 years me and my friend ran a "Proxy Site" that bypassed the filter, keeping us happy enough not to complain. It was not easy to keep the site up and running especially when white listing was implemented. Funnily enough my mate got hold of a domain name that was white listed!

    Been a very IT orientated person whenever i went looking for information, especially during classes such as Software design and Information Processing Tech i was faced with the DETs white wall of stupidity. Site upon site was blocked for no real reason. White listing? are you kidding? If a student is asked to do a research projected every single site is blocked until its asked to be unblocked. Teachers rant on about us using Wikipedia because it is not a decent source but it seems to be the only site that isn't blocked, go figure.

    I think the DET needs to stop worrying about the internet. Parents should sign off that anything their child looks up online at school is not the school or DETs problem.
  • SmartFilter Options

    We use the SmartFilter software at our school district.
    We have the authorized override function enabled. If a teacher needs to access a blocked site they can get the override password from any librarian. When the override is used an alert email is sent to us so we can track down abuses (by students or staff). Sometimes the teachers aren't very careful using the override and students find out what the password is.
    You can also setup different levels of access depending on group membership; teachers vs students. That's done by having Smartfilter integrate with whatever Directory Service is used on your network. So teachers could automatically have access to, let's say, webmail sites while those sites are still blocked for students.
    There is lots of valid content that our teachers use from Youtube. That's one of the sites that our teachers perform lots of overrides to access. But unblocking Youtube globally isn't a viable option. It would suck our internet bandwidth dry from students (or staff) using it in a recreational fashion.
    Not sure if you've heard of http://www.teachertube.com or not. It's another option.
  • Inconsistent Blocking

    An example of DETs inconsistent blocking is a recent unblock request we put in. Our school has Rifle Shooting as a sport for students.

    If you search for the word "rifle" in Google you get an instant block as it is classified under weapons. However, you can search for gun, knife, and a large combination of other weapons with no ill effect.
    We were told that "Following examination by the Web Filter Unit, the site categorisation of "weapons" will remain."

    I pity any history student trying to research weapons used during past wars.
  • We knew this long before!

    I said this all the teachers when this was implemented. They blocked EVERY single website and than they create a whitelist one by one.... We try and do research and highly regarded websites are blocked, finding pictures through google is difficult, you only get the thumbnail views only.... But hell, In high school before we we had the mandatory blocking, all our computer classes were porn ;)

    It is not entirely fail safe as we were able to find raunchy websites still working under the filter, I still bet coedmagazine.com still works ;)
  • SAME!

    LOL. We did the same at Macquarie Boys. We created our own proxy pages thanks to scripts and purchased domains ;)
  • DET filtering makes system useless

    DET filtering makes makes internet access practically useless. My daughter, the recently completed the HSC, often complained about it and would not use it because she said it was a waste of time. For example, she was studding Modern History and DET would block site with NAZI in it, when one of the topics was the raise of the NAZIs to power in Germany. This is only one example of many. So she and her friends would not use the DET system to access the internet and do all her research from home.

    This makes the DET system useless and a waste of money, since the people it is intended for refuse to use it as it filters the material that they require.