Getting a united front between network admins and teachers on content filtering

September 30, 2019

Teachers and network administrators often have a strained relationship. Though they both have students’ best interests in mind, teachers emphasize student learning and discovery, while network administrators emphasize student safety and compliance. 

These perspectives don’t have to be at odds--teachers are invested in student safety, too, and network admins in school districts value learning. But because network admins and teachers tend to work in silos away from each other, they don’t often interact unless something has gone wrong. 

Often, teachers approach network admins for help when a content filter has blocked materials they were intending to use for their lesson plan. If this happens more than a few times, teachers can begin to see technology as impeding rather than improving their ability to teach.

Meanwhile, after being on the receiving end of many frustrated teacher complaints about blocked content, network admins can see teachers as a nuisance taking them away from their other important work. 

Fortunately, it is possible to break this negative cycle. Read on to find out how districts can bring network admins and teachers together to implement content filters that satisfy teachers’ needs to access materials in their classrooms and network admins’ concerns about safety and compliance. 

Breaking down silos

With teachers and network admins focusing on different aspects of education technology, silos are created. Network admins set district-wide content filtering rules while teachers, lucky enough to have classroom management tools, attempt to take digital control of the classroom. When content filtering and classroom management tools don’t work well together, feelings of failure for both the network admin and the teacher are often the result. 

This disjointed approach can affect a school’s entire technology initiative. Network admins do their work, and teachers do theirs, and ne’er the twain shall meet except when technology isn’t working as it’s supposed to. 

Even when technology on both sides is aligned, frustration can still exists when a teacher is inadvertently blocked from being able to leverage the internet for his or her lesson. Network admins are still left with a support ticket to solve. Many of those support tickets are likely to be caused by overfiltering, which creates barriers to learning. Overfiltering carries risks even beyond interrupting a teacher’s lesson. 

As the American Library Association (ALA) put it in its 2014 report, Fencing Out Knowledge: Impacts of the Children’s Internet Protection Act 10 Years Later, “The impact of filtering on the acquisition of [digital and media literacy] skills and on learning in general is not felt equally among students. In fact, internet filtering creates two classes of students: an advantaged class with unfiltered access at home and a disadvantaged class with only filtered access at school.”

This is not a situation anyone wants. Teachers and network admins, with the support of school administrators, have to break down their silos and make an effort to understand the other’s concerns if schools are to avoid over-filtering.

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What network admins need to understand about filters

Network admins can apply too-aggressive filters in a sincere attempt to stay compliant with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) of 2000. (Pressure to apply aggressive filters can also come from school administrators, nervous of falling afoul of the legislation.) 

As the ALA and others have noted, many school district filters go far beyond what CIPA requires in an effort to continually keep their students safe online. When schools interpret this too broadly, and the technology department is disconnected from teacher and student needs, it can lead to absurd situations. For instance, one school counselor in Nebraska was unable to download information on suicide for students who came to her for support after an attempted suicide at the school

It doesn’t have to be like this. Network admins can ensure appropriate filtering, even beyond CIPA compliance, but avoid overfiltering by giving deeper control to the teachers in their classroom. Additionally, clear communication among teachers, IT, and instructional technologists can help nip recurring issues in the bud. Some proactive actions and considerations that can be taken are:

  • Understanding what the legislation does and doesn’t cover. It’s also noteworthy that the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees CIPA compliance, has not yet found a school district out of compliance. That doesn’t mean compliance isn’t important, but it does mean districts should put thought into how aggressive they want to go with their content-blocking policies.
  • Consulting teachers on their curriculum and what types of content they need access to. It’s important to understand educational needs before unilaterally making decisions on filtering. Teachers bear the impact of either too-permissive or too-restrictive filtering, and should be involved in filtering decisions from the beginning. 
  • Assessing the range of filtering options. Not all filters are created equal, and network admins should spend time researching the options that best fit their district’s needs. For instance, some network admins spend a lot of time maintaining student-specific whitelists and blacklists. Smart filtering allows control over what students can access based on their grade, location, and the time of day, on an individual student level. Want students to stay off YouTube during school hours but be able to recommend them algebra tutorial videos to consult while they’re doing homework? Smart filtering makes this easy.  


What teachers need to understand about filters 

There are web filter platforms that include classroom management tools. Having a better understanding of the capabilities of such tools and then investing time in learning how to leverage those capabilities, gives teachers back the control they so need in the classroom. Teachers should consider:

  • Getting educated on what their classroom technology can do. Adopting new technology is often scary. But with districts spending millions of dollars to ensure students can learn in a modern way, all of that investment is wasted if that technology isn’t used to its fullest.
  • Feeling empowered to lift specific filter rules. When a web filter rule (that goes beyond CIPA compliance) is getting in the way of a teacher’s lesson, teachers should feel confident to apply classroom-specific rules for their students. This can cut down on support tickets and help smooth out the tension that often occurs between teachers and network admins.

Choosing the right web filter vendor

We’ve outlined what needs to be done to break up those silos and frustration between teachers and network admins, but how do you know your web filter can support the initiative? Here are some key questions to ask when speaking with web filter vendors:

  • Does your platform include a classroom management solution?
  • Can we lock in policies that cannot be changed by teachers in the classroom to ensure compliance is met?
  • Can a non-technical teacher easily use the classroom management tool?
  • What is the anticipated workload and cost to maintain and support the product?
  • Can we do more with the filter than just block content (e.g. search term visibility, self-harm alerts, Google and YouTube controls)
  • Does the filter support all end point operating systems?

Ask vendors the right questions.

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By better understanding CIPA compliance, the implications of overfiltering, and how each of their roles relate to classroom technology use, network admins and teachers can work together to ensure better content filtering that keeps students safe while supporting them in their learning. 

Instead of countless hours spent in frustration troubleshooting and responding to endless support tickets, explore putting in a technology solution that works for both sides of the debate. See how Linewize can work for your district.

Topics: school filtering, schools, Network Admin

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