Filling on from a very interesting chat with @IanYorston a few weeks back I have been giving a lot of thought to what the best way of controlling the Internet access in a school is.
Amongst those who take child protection issues seriously (and who can afford not to these days!) there seem to be two major camps.
Historically it seems schools (or LEAs) have taken the the line that the best way TI ensure the safety of those under their care is to implement a strike filtering scheme to block access to anything that might possibly be interpreted as inappropriate or disruptive. The problem with this is that often completely innocent and often potentially useful resources become blocked by the heuristic used to identify inappropriate material (I can’t begin to count the number of Maths related resources I have tried to look at on our school system which have been blocked as Swedish Pornography’!!)
The other problem is often that the control of these systems (and the associated responsibility for when things go wrong) tends to live in the domain of the technical ICT department. Because they are often held to account if and when things go wrong the net result tends be a very cautious filtering, which gives students a fairly small walled garden at school.
The problem with this is that these students then go home, and all we have done is tell students that there are scary things on the Internet, and not prepared them for the realities of the wide open Internet they often experience at home (or these days on their smartphone in their pocket!)
This has gotten me thinking that a much better approach would be to mirror the approach that is often suggested to parents that we give them freedom to explore but do so in a safe environment where they know there is someone there to help if things go wrong and like a most parents we keep an eye on their activities online to make sure they are not getting themselves involved in anything they shouldn’t…
Many might argue that this approach is more risky in that it allows students the possibility of accessing inappropriate material, I would argue that the risk is small compared to the potential gains, both in terms of providing wider access to valid and educationally beneficial resources. But also in providing an environment where the responsibility for appropriate use is put much more in the realm of teaching appropriate behaviour (or in short education a something schools are supposed to be good at!) and less dependent on making sure we have appropriate blocks in place.
I fail to see how this is issue is really any different then any risk assessment activity. There are risks in every Science Laboratory lesson, but we don’t say students may only observe experiments (which would clearly be safer) but instead give them the freedom (with appropriate oversight) to make have a go for themselves and occasionally make mistakes… The net result of this is that students learn a lot more about what they need to to do to be safe.
It seems to be that the technological equivalent to a science teacher in the lab checking that everyone is doing roughly what they should be is some form of monitoring (whether software based or people based). There are several software based solutions which are designed top identify inappropriate activities (including cases where students may be getting themselves involved in bullying or grooming). When these issues are identified they should then fall to the pastoral team to deal with, as whether these things happen online or offline dealing with the fallout is a pastoral concern not a technical one…
The problem is that these types of systems require more man power then a simple filtering scheme, as someone has to be responsible for checking the logs of flagged up issues on a daily basis.
Many of these systems involve installing a small piece of software on the client computer. This has the advantage that if students are required to install the software to gain access to the network, then they cannot circumvent the system by using a 3G dongle. This is especially important in boarding school environments where it is almost impossible to monitor or control access when a student is in their dorm room.
This solution is not without its problems (for example how to do you monitor access via a smart device?) and it is probably best to combine this monitoring with at least some low level filtering to prevent access to those most undesirable areas of the Internet (racist material, pornography, etc). However hopefully with some low level filtering combined with a more careful monitoring of student access we can more from a scenario where the Internet is something to be feared in schools, to one where the Internet is something to be embraced and students are encouraged to explore its many amazing features safe in the knowledge that someone is watching over them to make sure they don’t get themselves into too much trouble…
This seems to be the direction that Ofsted are favouring… But what do you think, am I being too idealist or am I missing something?
Image CC BY-NC-SA by Sally06