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Filtering Software: The Educators Speak Out


The Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) passed in 1999, requires schools qualifying for federal E-rate funding to use filtering technology to block access to materials that are "obscene, child pornography, or harmful to minors." This month, we asked members of the Education World Tech Team to tell us about their experiences with filtering technology and to discuss whether they believe the software is good or bad for education. Included: Educators discuss the plusses and minuses of the filtering software they use.

In 1999, Congress passed the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), requiring schools qualifying for federal E-rate funding to use filtering technology to block access to materials that are "obscene, child pornography, or harmful to minors." That law generated a great deal of controversy.

Critics of the law claimed that filtering technology is inconsistent and unreliable, that it blocks student access to legitimate educational resources, and that it denies students the opportunity to learn to properly evaluate online resources. Proponents said that the disadvantages of filtering are overstated and that any disadvantages are more than overshadowed by the need to protect students from inappropriate online materials and the need to protect educators from the possible consequences of unlimited student access to such materials.

Recently, the Kaiser Family Foundation released the results of a study on the effects of filtering software on student access to online health information. According to See No Evil: How Internet Filters Affect the Search for Online Health Information, "Internet filters most frequently used by schools and libraries can effectively block pornography without significantly impeding access to online health information -- but only if they aren't set at their most restrictive levels. At the least restrictive level, the filters incorrectly block an average of just 1.4 percent of health sites.... The amount of pornographic content blocked was found to increase only marginally, from 87 percent at the least restrictive configuration to 91 percent at the most restrictive level."

The report, which served to re-ignite the smoldering debate on the use of filtering software in schools, made us wonder how educators feel about filtering software today -- now that they have had a chance to use it. Who better to tell us than the Education World Tech Team?


"With filtering in place, a district
can at least demonstrate that it is taking positive action
toward protecting students from objectionable information."

"Is filtering software in schools necessary? Is it desirable? That is a very hard question to answer," Jayme Swinford told Education World. "As a parent, my first instinct is to say yes; I want my children protected from all of the evils of the world. As an educator, my instinct is to say no. I have a responsibility to produce active, media-literate members of society who are able to deal with any kind of information and who possess the ability to make sound decisions based on knowledge and understanding.

"The Education Service Center I work at provides the Secure Computing filtering service to any district in the region at no cost. The disadvantage to using that service is that districts give up the flexibility of being able to customize the filtering. For example, if games are filtered because one participating district wants it, then all districts must filter games. Often, decisions on what should be allowed are made at the regional level and not by participating districts. Each district does have an override password. Most teachers are unaware of this, because the password is given to the technology coordinator who decides, often with administrative advice, whether or not to distribute the password. N2H2 does offer the option at the bottom of every page it blocks to have the page reviewed. Sometimes the review results in a page being unblocked; sometimes it doesn't.

"Does filtering really work? It may be that filtering software or services provide a false sense of security to teachers and administrators. No filtering system is 100 percent fail proof. A diligent student will be successful at locating inappropriate material if it is out there. At the same time, a student with a legitimate request for information may be unsuccessful. Unfortunately, many valid research sites are blocked along with the undesirable sites.

"No level of exposure to objectionable material is acceptable. However, filtering options may be influenced by the age of the student. Stronger filtering may be appropriate for elementary students, as they are learning to discern and disaggregate information, while secondary students may need some flexibility to perform research pertinent to their education.

"One reason for filtering is to limit liability to the school district and to individual employees. With filtering in place, a district can at least demonstrate that it is taking positive action toward protecting students from objectionable information.

"Ultimately, responsibility for content control in the classroom lies with the educator. Young children should not be allowed to surf the Internet unsupervised; neither should older students. The teacher or adult with the students should be aware of what is going on at all times. Too often, a lab design places the teacher at the front of the room unable or unwilling to monitor the kids. A partial solution to this problem could be adequate technology training and support for teachers from district administrators. Many times, teachers are not aware of what the district's Acceptable Use Policy says. Another possibility is improved facility design and better management tools. Something as simple as software that allows teachers to chat with students and to share, supervise, or remotely control students' computers could prove invaluable.

"Educators should care for their students as a parent would, offering education and guidance in making appropriate decisions during computer use. The decision to filter should not be made by one or two individuals. The question should be discussed with teachers, parents, and students to reach a balance between educational values and community expectations."


"Supervision is important, but a filter helps with
that supervision."

"Internet filters, if used wisely, provide a welcome addition to the protection of schools," said Fred Holmes. "With the horror stories about the Internet that the media puts out, a school's use of filters can be one way to ease parents' fears about their children's safety on the Internet.

"The layout of many computer labs does not allow teachers to look over every student's shoulder when students are using the Internet. A filter allows teachers and districts some control over what students are accessing. That is a plus because of the possibility of complaints by parents if inappropriate material is viewed or downloaded by students. Yes, a school should teach students what is acceptable, but -- students being students -- some will access inappropriate sites if no filter is used. An Internet filter, along with a clear Acceptable Use Policy, can help a school police what students are accessing and viewing. That way the school is protected from complaints or even lawsuits.

"Our service unit area, which also provides our Internet access, uses the Bess Internet Filtering Service by Secure Computing. Each school district is allowed to create its own restrictions within certain categories. Some schools have very restrictive policies; others have less restrictive policies. Our technology committee, along with the administration, determined what categories would be blocked. The administration, along with the three LAN managers, have an override password, so restrictions can be bypassed if a need arises. If a teacher or student can justify overriding a block, then it will be overridden. The site still needs to monitored, of course, to make sure the material is educational in nature. Supervision is important, but a filter helps with that supervision.

"So, is an Internet filter system necessary in a school setting? I think so -- with some thought on what should be restricted."


"I personally oppose filtering," Sith Nip said. "Due to legal issues and concerns about parental reaction, however, filtering is a fact of life for most educators. Schools and districts cannot afford to face legal action brought by parents or city officials; it wastes time and money. My school, for example, although using district filtering software, still requires all students and parents to sign a legal form releasing the school from liability for anything a student might encounter while using the Internet.

"I oppose filtering because filters prevent students from accessing information they need. For example, working at home, I have found some great Web sites for teaching students to use cognitive thinking and quicken their motor skills. When I tried to access the sites at school, however, they were blocked! It's very frustrating, both for me and for my students.

"Another problem I have with filtering software is that it is not foolproof. There are ways to bypass some filtering. Certain links also bypass filtering software.

"Due to legal issues, local solutions to the filtering problem must be developed by school boards. Board members should decide what should be filtered, or they should set up a filtering committee to make those decisions. Webmasters who feel their sites were unfairly blocked could submit the sites to the filtering committee for review."


"I have had
numerous experiences in which students have accidentally (occasionally on purpose!)
accessed inappropriate Web sites. I have found only two sites that teachers needed that were blocked."

"Our local protection is a firewall -- divided in "half" with a city side and a school side, Julia Timmons told Education World. "The firewall is Symantec Enterprise Firewall and the integrated filtering software is WebNot Content Filtering Software. Our firewall protects us from outsiders coming into the system and hacking information.

"Firewall software is basically a man-made database of 'bad' sites, so any URL in the content filter's restricted list is not allowed and the user receives a Forbidden message. The content filter is constantly being updated by the vendor; we also have the ability locally to add blocked sites or to unblock sites. My experience, however, is that inappropriate sites still make it through the firewall. Unfortunately, every day more negative sites are created than the blocking software can keep up with.

"I have had numerous experiences in which students have accidentally (occasionally on purpose!) accessed inappropriate Web sites. I have found only two sites that teachers needed that were blocked.

"My opinion is that we need blocking software, accompanied by a strict policy that is enforced with consistency. I like our system because it is based on a database, rather than on blocking sites by individual words. I feel it allows the best possible use of the Internet and provides us with the ability to reach the resources we need."


"I think legally it is in the best interests of schools to provide filtering," agreed Robin Smith. "Students can easily end up on sites that are not what you want an elementary child to view. Teachers can't hold every child's hand constantly. If students accidentally end up somewhere inappropriate, parents could blame the school for allowing their children to view the material. Schools open themselves up to lawsuits if they fail to provide some type of filtering.

"That doesn't mean we shouldn't also educate children to do their own filtering. The ethical use of computers should be taught in elementary school and continually reinforced. Education is key to providing students with the skills they need to use computers and the Internet outside of the school setting. Many parents do not have filtering at home, but they want to be sure their child is not exposed to anything inappropriate at school. That is sort of a double standard, but that's the way it is.

"We use the Bess Internet Filtering Service. Last year, I was not pleased with the system -- mostly because it slowed our network down and blocked too many educational sites. (Our computer coordinator at the time had the level of filtering at the max.) Since then, we have upgraded our network and installed the newest version. It now runs smoothly, and we have not had any problems with slowness. We have also removed many restrictions; now we are filtering at a much more appropriate level for education.

"Now, if an educational site is blocked, teachers submit a written request to the principal asking that the site be unblocked. We unblock the site so the principal can review it. If he approves its use, we unblock the site for everyone. We have 280 teachers and 4,000 students using the filtering and, so far this year, we have had only two requests for sites to be unblocked. Both went through the procedure and both sites were unblocked.

"Several years ago, when I was a classroom teacher, I found the blocking to be very frustrating. There was no system in place for unblocking, and teachers were at the mercy of the computer coordinator -- who rarely, if ever, unblocked a site. Most teachers are happy with the current system, however. Teachers can't be everywhere at once, and they don't have eyes in the backs of their heads. Most are relieved that some filtering is in place -- for their protection as well as for the protection of their students.

"Teachers here know that if a site is blocked, we will promptly unblock it if it is needed for educational purposes. We don't ask a million questions or give them a hard time. In the course of this year, students have gotten to four sites (that we know of) that should have been blocked. Those sites were reported and promptly added to the list of blocked sites."


"Having worked in several labs, some that used filtering and some that did not," said Linda George, "I can say that I believe there should be some filtering. The online porn market uses the simplest typos to divert innocent searchers to its sites! I also believe, however, that computer users need to learn to fine-tune their searches, so the results include more relevant content and less inappropriate material, and that the filtering folks need to spend more time fine-tuning their products.


"Is filtering software necessary? Unfortunately, yes -- but I think it should be used after teaching students how to use their judgment, discretion, and common sense when using the Internet," noted Jennifer Wagner.

"Our school uses the Cybersitter Internet filter, and we have been quite pleased with it. I have to remember, though, that while a filter protects my students at school, probably more than 90 percent of them don't have filters at home. So I have to teach them the 'brain tools' and not just the filter tool.

"My students are first taught how to evaluate sites for content, how to conduct searches that bring up the information they are searching for, how to hit the home button to return to our safe home page, how to use the back button, how to recognize that they have not 'won a prize' or 'received an urgent message,' and how to shut off the monitor if they get stuck in an unacceptable area. Once they understand those tools, then we utilize the Internet under the safety of a filter -- not as a protection, but as a backup tool to keep students safe.

"My school is a K-8 school and we are blessed with students who (at school!) follow the AUP [Acceptable Use Policy] guidelines. If it had not been for the CIPA requirements, I honestly don't think we would have installed a filter."

For information on some resources to use when teaching students to evaluate online information, see the Education World article Fact, Fiction, or Opinion? Evaluating Online Information


"As a classroom teacher, it is my responsibility to keep kids on task, to make sure they aren't accessing those sites that might be objectionable. Isn't this the same as making sure kids aren't reading comic books
during history class?"

"I'm glad to have the opportunity to respond to this month's question," Michael Hutchinson told Education World.. "As a social studies teacher, I've always had a concern about whether Internet filtering provides someone (and since filtering is a requirement of Federal law, that someone would be the U.S. Government) with an opportunity to censor (allow for prior restraint of) online materials.

"I'd also assert that filtering keeps me as an educator from doing legitimate educational research online and, in some instances, keeps me from downloading legitimate software for my school computers.

"My district has used Bess Internet Filtering Service from N2H2 for approximately six years. There have been instances where sites were blocked for, in my view, less than legitimate reasons. For example, the Discovery Channel's School site has hosted a message board for some time, and I had been a regular contributor. One day, I tried to access the message board, and found it blocked. I sent a request to N2H2 to unblock it, and they refused. Their view was that the message board wasn't moderated, therefore it was open to obscenity and pornography. I immediately replied that this was a legitimate site (after all, it was a Discovery Channel site), but they refused to unblock it. My local information systems department finally unblocked the site for me.

"In another instance, the software blocked most pages for Online Class's North American Quilt Project. Our district had paid a subscription fee to participate in the project, so of course I was concerned that our students couldn't access the pages. I still am not sure why N2H2 decided to block those pages...the only suggestion my assistant superintendent could give was that perhaps they had confused "North American Quilt" with the "AIDS quilt." I did make a request to unblock the site and, in that case, N2H2 did so.

"Bess also routinely blocks sites such as, which I could legitimately use to download newer versions of Web browsers and other software that could be used on my classroom machines. In addition, it's been my experience that it blocks nearly any page created on a public Web server (such as Geocities, Tripod, AOL, etc.). I recognize that some pages on those sites might be objectionable, however, I believe the great majority are legitimate. To simply block them because of their domain name seems to me to be a little heavy handed.

"In projects I create for my classes, I frequently find that sites I have found on my home machine are not accessible on school machines. The sites include those that might be politically sensitive (for example, sites on the Holocaust). I've found Bess to be pretty restrictive in other instances as well. I once had students do projects on major league baseball in conjunction with a Turner Broadcasting electronic field trip we were participating in. When my students tried to access sites on Babe Ruth, they were blocked (because of the word 'Babe'). On the other hand, if they found sites for George Herman Ruth, they access the materials. To me, that's an unreasonable restriction on a legitimate research request.

'As a curriculum developer who has created lessons for various companies, and done most of it on a home computer that is NOT blocked, I have no idea whether teachers who want to use those lessons in a school setting can actually access the resources I suggest. I don't really have much information on filtering software other than Bess, so I don't know how easy or difficult it would be for other teachers using other filtering software to override an 'objectionable' site.

"I do know that on several occasions when I have requested that N2H2 unblock a site, they have told me that the blocking is because of our local settings. N2H2 does allow for an appeal to have a site unblocked, but the procedure takes some time. N2H2 has to review the site before it can be unblocked and generally that cannot be done until the next day. That leads me to another issue regarding filtering software. As a classroom teacher, I must rely on either my local district administration or N2H2 to unblock sites. That is a process that may take some time to accomplish. No one in my building has the ability to immediately override a block. (In other words, no one has the password to access a site BESS has blocked.)

"Personally think Nancy Willard's idea that 'Kids need to learn to use the filters sitting on their shoulders,' is a great one. I'd like to go one step further, though. As a classroom teacher, it is my responsibility to keep kids on task, to make sure they aren't accessing those sites that might be objectionable. Isn't this the same as making sure, for example, that kids aren't reading comic books during history class?

"Most of us take care of classroom management by providing students (and parents) with a set of guidelines the first day of class. Why can't we do the same when we have kids work online by providing a reasonably crafted Acceptable Use Policy? If I have a reasonable AUP, that should work as well as any filter to ensure that students know what is an acceptable site or an acceptable use of equipment -- and what is unacceptable -- and it should protect the teacher as well. (One AUP clause I heard of that I thought was really interesting was one that stated that if a teacher felt a student had gone to an unacceptable site, the teacher, student, and the student's parents would review the site together to determine whether the site violated the teacher's AUP. I'd recommend a school administrator be present, also.)

"In a personal case, for example, a student who was submitting information to a Web site for a class project accidentally submitted a rather obscene e-mail instead. The Web site immediately forwarded the e-mail to me, and I notified school officials. The student was suspended. The parents came to school for a conference, but we had an AUP with the student's and parents' signatures on it, and that carried enough weight to have the suspension stick.

"I'm not sure if anyone can effectively filter. I consider myself fairly liberal, and if I ran an Internet filter, I'm sure there would be those who felt I let too much slip by -- and an equal number who felt I was too restrictive. To me, any sort of outside filtering constitutes 'prior restraint.' While I'm aware that a school setting is somewhat different than a print publication, I think filtering overly restricts legitimate Internet use and research, and it just isn't worth the trouble or the expense."

Who Are They?

The Education World Tech Team includes more than 50 dedicated and knowledgeable educational-technology professionals who have volunteered to contribute to occasional articles that draw on their varied expertise and experience. The following Tech Team members contributed to this article:

*  Linda George, technology integration specialist, Dondero School, Portsmouth, New Hampshire
*  Fred Holmes, high school LAN Manager/Webmaster, Osceola Public Schools, Osceola, Nebraska
*  Michael Hutchison, high school social studies teacher, Lincoln High School, Vincennes, Indiana
*  Sith Nip, computer instructor, Alexander Fleming Middle School, Lomita, California
*  Robin Smith, educational technology specialist, Hollidaysburg Area School District, Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania
*  Jayme Swinford, instructional technology consultant, Region 18 Education Service Center, Midland, Texas
*  Julia Timmons, instructional technology specialist, Paul Laurence Dunbar Middle School for Innovation, Lynchburg, Virginia
*  Jennifer Wagner, computer coordinator, Crossroads Christian School, Corona, California


Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 2003 Education World

Updated links 04/30/2007