Jimmy Wales, accountability and victimhood-filtering

FlickrHeard the great Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia fame today, and one of his notable principles is “accountability rather than gatekeeping”. In other words, rather than shutting the door, banning, restricting and controlling – make yourself, your use of the internet – accountable, and encourage this in others. He was largely referring to Wikipedia and online publishing.

However this principle is very appropriate for an issue that bedevils the use of the internet in SA schools, and probably in many other jurisdictions.

A constant complaint heard from ICT coordinators and principals is, “You can’t access that site because DECS [the Department] blocks (filters) internet access.” However, DECS gives control of the site blocking to the Administrator at school level, ie: the principal. It seems that many schools do not exercise that control, leaving the default setting in place. Requests can be made to the IT section for state-wide blocking to be removed, but this is a somewhat tedious process because of the inevitably conservative approach of these people.

So, gate-keeping is the general approach for the system and many schools. But it does not have to be so. Sue Toone is a principal with a different approach. She exercises a liberal approach, removing blocking when it is seen to be warranted. Staff have considerable powers to initiate the opening up of web sites because Sue believes that they are responsible people. They manage curriculum access to a wide range of resources for students as a matter of routing.

It is too easy to resort to victim behavior, blaming ‘the department’ for restrictions on web access when the power is fundamentally in the hands of the school. It means being accountable for one’s actions. But principals and and teachers and school councils are expected to be accountable, to act reasonably and to act in good faith. They manage this in relation to the purchase of books for the library, and are perfectly capable of doing this in relation to selecting web sites for access by students.

15 thoughts on “Jimmy Wales, accountability and victimhood-filtering

  1. Pingback: Teaching Generation Z » Blog Archive » Barriers To Knowledge Sharing

  2. Interesting observations – point taken. But I still think there exists a basic conundrum where its bloody hard to unblock enough sites to make the internet interesting or to block enough to make it safe.

    Good to see the conversation moving along.

    Fang – Mike Seyfang

  3. I hope that administrators at all levels eventually realise that a safer internet for kids only happens when kids are educated about how to use it safely and responsibly.

  4. And Kerry’s comment takes us back to the issue of principals understanding the internet. It is hard for them to be open to our liberal ideas when they are being hit with regular media reports about how the internet is a corrupting influence.

  5. It is possible to make some difference as a school administrator but if this is the approach of central then they have their heads in the sand. The Internet
    filtering system is broken
    and I have suggested in this post some possible opportunities for improvement. It might not be perfect but it is in the right direction IMHO.

    If you want things to change then change the structures and watch people adapt (with help).

  6. The management of Internet within schools comes down to two basic principals;
    monitoring & filtering

    Both of these have their merits and problems. It seems in South Australia we have a very heavy filtering aspect to our management process.

    Monitoring of students would require evaluating sites accessed regularly and managing the results of these searches.

    The monitoring tools exist, (although some would suggest they are broken) however it has been left up to individual sites to manage this with little direction.

    As such the department can not rely on schools enforcing this and they appear to have relied heavily on filtering as they can manage this centrally.

    This solution is cheap and easy, but realistically does not consider the needs of the learner.

    One figure I heard was that 40% of websites are blocked by DECS. Even a very active person unblocking web 2.0 tools and other such services is going to be kept rather busy.

    If Jimmy Wales is talking accountability surely monitoring would take up a larger component of schools management of Internet access?

    How would this be achieved? Education, after all we are schools. We need to educate the Principals, Government council’s and teachers to make this happen.

    Individual schools need to be resourced to monitor students Internet use and this needs to ACTIVELY happen (Including personnel, equipment and training).

    Consequence’s (for lack of a better word) need to be forth coming for those breeching acceptable use and educating with counseling needs to occur to educate those students to how to use the Internet appropriately.

    I am not saying do not filter. I am saying reduce the filtering and make better use of monitoring.

    If we stick with the status quo then we are hampering students learning. As you have pointed out some schools are active is unblocking sites for students to use. Others are not. These students in these schools are getting a second grade education due to a scenario that was more than likely implemented as a cost cutting exercise.

    Just my two cents…

  7. Interesting and I think consistent comments, saying that filtering should be less. But to return to my original point, if accountability is a better approach than gatekeeping, which everyone seems to be saying, the focus needs to be on encouraging principals to exercise their power (and responsibility) to open up the internet to responsible use. But as Jason mentioned, this would be a big job if one looked at all the the sites that may warrant unblocking. So there ought to be arguments put to manage central filtering better. But I think complaining about this is only part of the action to take. The first thing to do is to demonstrate local responsibility by reducing some of the more damaging blocks.
    Jason mentioned ‘individual schools need to be resourced…’ I suspect that schools have all the resources they are going to get, and the issue is how a school chooses to apply them. Responsible unblocking of some web sites is not that time consuming.

  8. I find an identical situation within the education department in queensland. We have blocking and (I’m assuming) monitoring but the emphasis is on blocking. The irony of this approach is that many students coming from high schools are familiar with circumvention technology and dont find “blocking” that much of a problem. they simply bypass it! If we operate on the assumption that we understand the tech and our clients/students dont then we look foolish. If we think we can make the internet (or any other forum that allows free speach) “safe” I guess we probably are 😉
    I’m very much in favor of less blocking and more accountability!

  9. I thought I’d share the experience of a small private school my children went to some years ago. They decided not to block anything but to regularly monitor the sites that were visited, internet use after hours was flagged as well as certain sites. Because of this policy they discovered one of the teachers was accessing some child pornography sites, thankfully not when the children were at school.

    If the school had had the filters on, this individual may not have been discovered.

    So I’m for accountability over gatekeeping, but I agree with Jason that the monitoring tools need to be smart for them to be practical in a large school.


  10. Pingback: Teaching Generation Z » Blog Archive » Gatekeepers Inc.

  11. “It is too easy to resort to victim behavior, blaming ‘the department’ for restrictions on web access when the power is fundamentally in the hands of the school”

    I don’t think you have investigated the real nature of N2H2 filtering system deeply. There was quite a lengthy discussion about this on the SA IT teachers list a couple of years ago. I can send you extracts / details if you want. I don’t indulge in victim behaviour and like you regard it as pathetic. I’d like to be able to get on with my job of teaching kids using read / write web technologies without having to jump through hoops. I’d like other teachers in schools to be able to read my blog without going home. I’d like the department to show some leadership and for its actions to match it words. I’d like people like you to be aware of the real situation of what N2H2 really achieves and not to glibly brush over the reality that there is a deeep chasm between the way that Jimmy Wales views the world and the way that the department views the world.

    school administrators dilemma

    My argument in the above post and what you are missing is that the N2H2 filtering system is designed to cripple human to human mediation by the school administration.

    “The South Australian education department has responded to these problems by imposing filtering software (N2H2 / Bess) that allows for no differentiation between teachers and students, no differentiation between primary, secondary and senior colleges and no differentiation between experienced web savvy IT teachers and teachers who are computer reticent or phobic. These settings cannot be altered. Whatever is blocked is blocked for everybody. Whatever is allowed is allowed for everybody.

    Although web sites and groups of sites can be unblocked and blocked at individual campuses the problem remains that there is no differentiation on the above settings allowed within a site and this inflexibility creates huge problems”


  12. Bill,
    You are right. I have not done an in-depth analysis of filtering in SA Dept schools. And yes, the blanket filtering is crude and creates dilemmas for school administrators. I would be interested to know whether you agree at all with my point that schools should take what powers they have to responsibly remove filtering? While that won’t remove the problem, will it help?

  13. hi john,


    In my school blogger, wordpress and some other sites have been unblocked at my request. Yes, this helps.

    One frustration here is that the default blocking of the read/write web categories by N2H2 slows the spread to those schools / teachers who are open but not yet committed. If you read the fine print rationale then the reason these sites are blocked is simply that Bess finds it too hard to differentiate the good from the bad. They are blocking the new big thing, web apps, simply because its too hard. Department sprouts brave new world rhetoric whilst behaving like head in the sand troglodytes. Hence my objection to your description of those who criticise this as displaying “victim mentality”.

    On the other hand google images has been blocked following a bestiality scare. If there was more flexility in the software then web savvy teachers would be in a position to negotiate with admin for selective unblocking of such sites that are 99% clean and useful (for certain rooms, times of day etc.). But generally admins are not going to risk being sued in the current public climate, fueled by the media. “Risk free” mentality is a real problem IMO, it seems to have become dominant culturally

    Psiphon is a disruptive technology which I expect will throw up some interesting challenges to this culture.

  14. My criticism initially in this story was of apparent ‘victim’ behaviour, not for criticising departmental actions. The latter is a fine practice with a noble tradition, but the former is just complaining about a problem when there is some action that can be taken to reduce the problem. It’s not the complaining I object to, but the inaction.

    There is obviously a great deal of interest in this problem. It seems that departmental officials feel that they must act in a quite conservative manner for fear of very damaging publicity for the school system as a whole. Obviously they have a point. If the Department ‘permits’ children to access bomb-making advice then all hell will break out in our enlightened media. But if a school has a reputation in its community for responsibility and it has an enlightened approach to use of new technology, and it has a process in place for managing filtering, supervision of students, and yet some kid does the wrong thing, then the school is in a much better position to manage the complaints than a large and relatively faceless bureaucracy.

    I’m not suggesting that schools should take all the responsibility. But I think there is a major collision not far off when more teachers and principals and parents realise the amazing potential and power of Web 2.0 and the like, and they come up against people who are ignorant of these things, together with people who have a very conservative view of learning. The people who cannot tolerate Wikipedia, for example. And of course the issue really is not simple. Very few people support a complete lack of control of access to the web by school students.

    So people like us need to support schools to take leadership in this issue, where they can, and develop processes to demonstrate that schools can manage it better than the department as a whole.

  15. @Kerry Johnson
    I totally agree. Filtering will only render useless if in the end children are still unaware of how they should be using the Internet in a responsible manner. The Internet is everywhere. They can check whatever they want and whenever they want to. But if they are well-informed on how to use it safely, then filtering is no longer necessary.

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