The Truth is In the Code – Central’s Website Blocking

What usually appears when a student tries to access YouTube.

What usually appears when a student tries to access YouTube.

               The Internet: a vast, expanding source of information that’s used by 3 billion people every day. It’s no surprise that schools – particularly our own Central High School – continually try to make the Internet a fun and secure way to learn. In order to accomplish this, the school district blocks certain websites from student use.

               “It’s really annoying,” explains Central student Maddie Rice, “because there’s [a lot of] work that you have to get done that can’t get done because of it.”

               The ‘annoying’ problem she’s talking about is that some websites (like YouTube, Twitter, etc.) are blocked even though they are sometimes used for educational materials and communicating with teachers and clubs.For example, Central’s Art Club has a Twitter and a Facebook page; both can’t be accessed within school grounds. Without that freedom of visiting the page every now and then, students just forget it exists and therefore render the page – and the meeting times/activity suggestions – useless. This rationale extends to tons of other valuable sources, including image-sharing websites and video game journalism websites.

               Is it necessary? Does the blocking really do its job? If not, how do students and teachers think it could be better?

Part 1 – The Filter

               The master filter the district keeps in place is the Palo Alto Networks filter. It is a firewall designed to provide network security, visibility and large-scale control of a network’s activity based on user/content identification.

               What that means is, Palo Alto uses a firewall (the part of a computer system/network designed to block unauthorized access from a program) to stop students from accessing a webpage without the expressed permission of the people in charge.

               The filter also sorts out types of ‘bad websites’ into categories to make it easier on the programmers. Those categories are listed on the notification page (the page that always comes up whenever you visit a blocked website) as the ‘reason’ for blocking it. Those categories include, but are not limited to: abused-drugs, adult, gambling, games, hacking, malware, peer to peer, phishing, proxy-avoidance/anonymizers, swimsuits/intimate apparel, and weapons.

Part 2 – What Students Think

               Summing up the student’s views on the subject, Central senior Thom Billam says, “Whether or not we like it, the Internet is here. We might as well take advantage of it as a learning resource.”

               Whenever I work on the latest slam-dunk videogame article for our very own Chronicle website, I always run into problems doing my research. The majority of videogame-related websites (whether they contain actual videogames or not) are – you guessed it – blocked at Central. That means we have to wait until school is over to go home and look it up. This seems like a massive oversight to me personally because a lot of videogame-related websites are indeed purely informational…but that’s just me.

Regardless, this applies to many, many other types of websites that students need and want to use.

               “There are a lot of science/health websites I’ve tried to access in the past few weeks, but I wasn’t able to,” says Thom. “It makes researching for papers and other assignments difficult to do in-class, when I really need to do it.”

               So, in short, students want to do work in school (which is sort of the point of school) but they can’t because of the block. 

Part 3 – What Teachers Think

               Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the digital spectrum, many teachers are perfectly fine with the blocking scenario – in fact, some encourage more of it.

               “I’ve seen too much abuse/bullying and misuse of computer time to condone free usage,” says Central Teacher Ms. Isabelli. “[Students] show complete disregard to cell phone/electronic policies, and to open the floodgates and give access [to everything] would be wrong. There is just no maturity and responsibility shown at this point, at least not yet.”

               David Hohman, Director of Educational Technology at Unit 4 Schools, has this to say about blocking websites at school:

               “As you know, the internet is constantly changing and new sites are added at a rapid pace.  We do our best to keep up, but it is not always perfect.  At the same time, we want to make sure that we are giving teachers and students access to education online materials.  We work hard to balance access and safety.”

Part 4 – Alternatives/Effectiveness

               Students have found multiple ways to get around this problem. For example, a simple website address manipulation circumvents the block, allowing students access to YouTube. Regardless, students think that should be unnecessary.

                “Well, [I would unblock] social media because, believe it or not, a lot of school things are on social media,” laments Maddie Rice. “Meeting times, clubs, other information…so, Twitter and Facebook would be useful. Oh, and also YouTube for Crash Course videos, of course.”

               A common website students want unblocked is YouTube. According to data recently released by comScore, Inc., YouTube accounts for 99% of all videos viewed on the Google Sites property, which in turn accounts for 44% of all videos on the entire global Internet. That’s a little under half of all videos on the Web immediately blocked. Oh, by the way – the other half of those videos is strewn out between sites like VEVO and Facebook, the latter being blocked as well. 

               Maddie brought up another interesting alternative: Let students have a voice in determining which websites should and should not be blocked on the school network.

               Central Student Truong Nguyen hesitantly agrees to this alternative: “Yes, to a small extent. There should be a small committee trusted with the website blocking; we should have a say.”

               Indeed, one possible solution to the tumult is to allow for more transparency in the blocking process; as Truong says, there could be a student committee to help decide which websites to block. They would hypothetically meet to discuss what websites are important and request a change from the people in charge of the filter.

Part 4 – Conclusion

               Above all else, the Internet is a resource. It’s a massive database teeming with information and a little extra. We as a student body can’t – and won’t – stand having the Internet shielded from us because of ‘questionable content’. Who knows? There might be something to learn on YouTube or Facebook. There’s only one way to find out.

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