Straight from the DOE: Dispelling Myths About Blocked Sites

| April 26, 2011 | 32 Comments
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Over the past few weeks, I’ve been hearing from frustrated teachers about surprising websites their schools block — everything from National Geographic to Skype. One even wrote in to say that was blocked.

A few readers questioned the judgment of teachers who use their own mobile devices to allow their students access to blocked sites. One reader, identified as Cwells67, goes so far as to claim: “If we do not block inappropriate sites ‘to the extent practicable,’ meaning ‘if you can block inappropriate sites, you are legally bound to block them,’ we will lose ALL FEDERAL FUNDING.”

To clear up some of the confusion around these comments and assertions, I went straight to the top: the Department of Education’s Director of Education Technology, Karen Cator.

Cator parsed the rules of the Childrens Internet Protection Act, and provided guidance for teachers on how to proceed when it comes to interpreting the rules. To that end, here are six surprising rules that educators, administrators, parents and students might not know about website filtering in schools.

  1. Accessing YouTube is not violating CIPA rules. “Absolutely it’s not circumventing the rules,” Cator says. “The rule is to block inappropriate sites. All sorts of YouTube videos are helpful in explaining complex concepts or telling a story, or for hearing an expert or an authentic voice — they present learning opportunities that are really helpful.”
  2. Websites don’t have to be blocked for teachers. “Some of the comments I saw online had to do with teachers wondering why they can’t access these sites,” she says. “They absolutely can. There’s nothing that says that sites have to be blocked for adults.”
  3. Broad filters are not helpful. “What we have had is what I consider brute force technologies that shut down wide swaths of the Internet, like all of YouTube, for example. Or they may shut down anything that has anything to do with social media, or anything that is a game,” she said. “These broad filters aren’t actually very helpful, because we need much more nuanced filtering.”
  4. Schools will not lose E-rate funding by unblocking appropriate sites. Cator said she’s never heard of a school losing E-rate funding due to allowing appropriate sites blocked by filters. See the excerpt below from the National Education Technology Plan, approved by officials who dictate E-rate rules.
  5. Kids need to be taught how to be responsible digital citizens. “[We need to] address the topic at school or home in the form of education,” Cator says. “How do we educate this generation of young people to be safe online, to be secure online, to protect their personal information, to understand privacy, and how that all plays out when they’re in an online space?”
  6. Teachers should be trusted. “If the technology fails us and filters something appropriate and useful, and if teachers in their professional judgment think it’s appropriate, they should be able to show it,” she said. “Teachers need to impose their professional judgment on materials that are available to their students.”

Here’s the full transcript of my Q&A with Karen Cator.

Q. Please describe what CIPA does and does not mandate.

A. CIPA does require that any school that funds Internet access or their internal network connections with E-rate has to implement filters to block students’ access to content that could be harmful to minors.

The best way of thinking about this whole topic is in terms of “rules, tools and schools.”
There are rules in place for a good reason. CIPA does require that we block or filter inappropriate sites, but if sites are found that are deemed appropriate they can be unblocked. So having the process in place for unblocking sites is definitely important.

Q. Is it illegal for teachers to access these sites, too?

A. These sites don’t have to be blocked for teachers. Some of the comments I saw online had to do with teachers wondering why they can’t access these sites. They absolutely can. There’s nothing that says that sites have to be blocked for adults.

Rules are in place to attempt to protect minors form inappropriate materials. We also need school-based rules —  usually in the form of acceptable use policies that students sign that say, “I will use this computer or access the Internet, and I agree to abide by rules in my school.” Sometimes it will say that if you come across something inappropriate that you shut it down immediately and tell an adult.

The second way to address this topic is by thinking about tools. These are technology tools that are put in place to filter sites that are inappropriate. These filters are getting better and better. What we have had is what I consider brute force technologies that shut down wide swaths of the Internet, like all of YouTube, for example. Or they may shut down anything that has anything to do with social media, or anything that is a game. These broad filters aren’t actually very helpful, because we need much more nuanced filtering. Better filters would be incredibly helpful.

The third way to address the topic is at school or home in the form of education.
How do we educate this generation of young people to be safe online, to be secure online, to protect their personal information, to understand privacy, and how that all plays out when they’re in an online space. We also want students to be nice to each other, and not to engage in bullying, in an online space where their voice is amplified and persistent. We want students to grow up to be good digital citizen.

So there are rules that are in place, the technology tools in the form of more intelligent filters, and then it is an absolute necessity to provide good digital education for this generation of students. And that requires providing professional development for adults working with these students.

Q. Just to be clear, are schools or teachers circumventing rules if they show YouTube videos or other blocked sites to students?

A. Absolutely it’s not circumventing the rules. The rule is to block inappropriate sites. If the technology fails us and filters something appropriate and useful, and if teachers in their professional judgment think it’s appropriate, they should be able to show it. Teachers need to impose their professional judgment on materials that are available to their students.

All sorts of YouTube videos are helpful in explaining complex concepts or telling a story, or for hearing an expert or an authentic voice — they present learning opportunities that are really helpful.

If a filtering system is not intelligent enough to sort sites out, then the teacher is the next best one to do so. If a site is blocked for a teacher, then the I.T. person can unblock it if that’s the way the network is set up.

From the DOE’s National Education Technology Plan:

Balancing Connectivity and Student Safety on the Internet

E-Rate is a federal program that supports connectivity in elementary and secondary schools and libraries by providing discounts on Internet access, telecommunications services, internal network connections, and basic maintenance. Schools, school districts, and consortia can receive discounts on these services ranging from 20 to 90 percent depending on their level of poverty and geographic location.

Schools’ eligibility for E-Rate money is contingent on compliance with several federal laws designed to ensure student privacy and safety on the Internet. The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires any school that funds Internet access or internal network connections with E-Rate money to implement filters that block students’ access to content that may be harmful to minors, including obscenity and pornography. CIPA also requires schools receiving E-Rate discounts to teach online safety to students and to monitor their online activities.

Ensuring student safety on the Internet is a critical concern, but many filters designed to protect students also block access to legitimate learning content and such tools as blogs, wikis, and social networks that have the potential to support student learning and engagement. More flexible, intelligent filtering systems can give teachers (to whom CIPA restrictions do not apply) access to educationally valuable content. On the other end of the spectrum, some schools and districts filter students’ online activities with proxy servers that meet CIPA requirements but are easy to get around, minimizing their utility for managing and monitoring students’ online activity.

CIPA also has posed challenges to accessing school networks through students’ own cell phones, laptop computers, and other Internet access devices to support learning activities when schools cannot afford to purchase devices for each student. Applying CIPA-required network filters to a variety of student-owned devices is a technical challenge that may take schools months or years to implement. However, districts such as Florida’s Escambia County Schools have created technical solutions and accompanying acceptable use policies (AUPs) that comply with CIPA regulations, allowing Web-based learning on student devices to run on networks supported by federal E-Rate funding.

Source: Universal Service Administrative Company 2008.

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  • Michelle Luhtala

    THANK YOU!!! This is so valuable. I teach in a free-range media/BYOD school (New Canaan High School, New Canaan, CT), and I blog about using social media for instruction ( My colleague, Cathy Swan, put together a survey a while back, and our 216 respondents tell us that

    Google Search is blocked for 14% of high school students
    Google Images is blocked for 23% of high school students
    Google Docs is blocked for 27% of high school students
    YouTube is blocked for 62% of high school students
    Facebook/MySpace is/are blocked for 87% of high school students
    Personal email is blocked for 47% of high school students

    Our survey is rudimentary, and clearly leans toward commercial social media mainstays. I wish we’d included Skype and Twitter, but it does give a big picture of what is blocked. I was recently sent the results of a 2009 survey, conducted by Interactive Educational Systems Design (IESD), called Digital Districts: Web 2.0 and Collaborative Technologies in U.S. Schools, which collected responses from 500 Directors of Technology. I am not sure that it answers our questions, but it bears mentioning.

    I facilitate a professional learning community for school librarians, and I am amazed at how many districts use the CIPA rationale to block educational sites. Just last week, I heard of districts that blocked Wordle, and LibGuides! This post will help clarify the misconceptions about federal regulation. Thank you again for setting the record straight.

    In celebration of the first amendment, the American Library Association dedicates the last week of September to the the freedom to read, and calls it Banned Books Week (BBW). At New Canaan High School, we will dedicate our September 24- October 1, 2011 censorship awareness campaign to blocked Internet sites and call it Banned Sites Week. We invite you to join us.

    • Judy Gressel

      Excellent post Michelle! I hope to join your efforts with Banned Sites Week. We are working to get our filtering policies aligned with digital literacies in the 21st Century.
      Judy Gressel
      New Trier High School Librarian
      Winnetka, IL

    • Cris Crissman

      Congratulations!  It’s about time that we expanded the freedom to read to media beyond books.  Your Banned Sites Week is a great idea.  Perhaps to even expand to a Banned Media week. 

      The National Council of the Teachers of English has a powerful “Students’ Right to Read” statement  and the pivotal line to me is — “But to deny the freedom of choice in fear that it may be unwisely used is to destroy the freedom itself.”

  • Cbeaman

    This is great. This is exactly how we have our school filters set up. We strongly believe that we MUST teacher children digital citizenship. If we have our site locked down tight with regard to the internet, the students will go home to unfiltered environments and lack the tools to make good choices. It takes more effort from the staff to monitor student’s activities but someone has to take the reins. Thanks!

  • Bob Cochenour

    just a caution, that while teachers are not putting the district at e-rate risk by showing content from appropriate sites that are blocked at the school filter, they may be putting themselves at risk from school policy or teacher handbook ‘rules’, and from insubordination if they are specifically told not to by an administrator whether the federal rules care or not.

    • DoodAtSchool

      very true…but, federal rules do not over ride local policy. Filtering is a layered approach, covering CIPA first, then granulating down to local policy. All of them need to be considered. I don’t think that saying “CIPA says this..therefore I should be allowed to this” is appropriate. I know some teachers would sit on Facebook all day if it were allowed, and not teach. Technology can’t address lack of supervision or good work ethics.

    • Tina Barseghian

      Good question: are there any teachers who were reprimanded for allowing students access to blocked sites that they deemed appropriate?

  • James Gates

    This is HUGE for some districts. I have seen some incredible filtering policies – all in the name of CIPA. I HOPE this will set them straight.

  • Jseabury

    Being a music teacher, there is so very little available that can be used on the teacher sites. Often things that are offered are either age inappropriate, or subject unsuitable. Because my district does not make technology available to my subject area (smart boards, keyboards, music labs, instruments, etc…), I am forced to be primitive and archaic, literally playing rhythms with sticks and can be quite challenging to keep students enthused and engaged, You tube is one way I am able find current, innovative and even relevant material making information and instruction more relevant and interesting to my students.

  • Caught in the Middle

    I have heard that the e-rate auditors do not have a uniform system for auditing a school. You may get an auditor say that youtube is ok, and you may get one that says it needs to be blocked. I was at a conference where one of the participants was audited and that district had to pay back a lot of e-rate money because of filtering. I personally think youtube should be blocked, and i agree that there are educational opportunities at youtube, but its not the videos that are bad but the comments that users leave for the videos which are questionable. My job would be much easier if there was an official list of sites to block, and we were assured that there would be no penalties as long as a we were blocking that list.

    Filtering web content is not exclusive to schools. Private industry filters as well, and they filter much of the same content like facebook or youtube because they can be huge time wasters.

  • Klant

    CIPA is not the only reason some districts choose to filter certain websites. Bandwidth is another. Many districts are still using capped fiber connections, or even T1 lines that offer about the same bandwidth as your home, but for an entire building. Restricting streaming media sites like youtube as well as streaming audio and sites like Skype, is a must to prevent the network from coming to a screeching halt. Although it is true to say that teacher machines do not have to be filtered as strictly, that is easier said than done. Not every district has the ability with their current filtering solutions to filter on such a granular level. Most have to filter by building, not by machine. Although the technology is certainly available to do this, it can be at an additional cost at a time when money is just not there. In our case we provide temporary bypasses to staff that they can use to access these types of sites as needed. Also keep in mind that although the district sets the categories to be blocked, the filtering company actually decides what sites go into what categories. This often leads to sites being mis-categorized. If the teachers don’t bring those to the technology departments attention, they may not be addressed.

  • Gimmeabreak

    I completely disagree with this article. The DOE is not the FCC, which is the department that runs CIPA. Also, are you telling me if you go to Youtube, and type in the word “sex”, that all those videos are appropriate for students?? I think this person needs to consult with an attorney before she opens her mouth. If you are going to take this one person’s opinion and use it for your new policy, then you are putting your district at risk for losing funding.

    • Sweepingallegationmuch?

      I must have missed something…Where in the article did is say that all videos on Youtube are appropriate for students?

    • Anonymous

      If you read the article, you will see that Karen Cator, the Department of Education’s Director of Education Technology did not say that all YouTube videos are appropriate. She said: “The rule is to block inappropriate sites. All sorts of YouTube videos are helpful in explaining complex concepts or telling a story, or for hearing an expert or an authentic voice — they present learning opportunities that are really helpful.”
      There are multiple millions of videos on YouTube, and many of them are appropriate for students to watch. Cator’s point is that teachers should be able to choose the appropriate ones to show in class.

    • Gimmeabreak

      If you look at it tells you the following:

      The (CIPA) was signed into law on December 21, 2000. To receive support for Internet access and internal connections services from the Universal Service Fund (USF), school and library authorities must certify that they are enforcing a policy of Internet safety that includes measures to block or filter Internet access for both minors and ADULTS to certain visual depictions. The relevant authority with responsibility for administration of the eligible school or library must certify the status of its compliance for the purpose of CIPA in order to receive USF support.

      That’s listed under step 10 for schools and libraries to receiving funding under the program. You CANNOT allow full unrestricted internet access for adults. You still have to filter it for anything obscene or relating to child pornography. The article makes it seem like adults can have full unrestricted access, and that is not correct.

      • Dan

        It is not correct to say, “The rule is to block inappropriate sites.” CIPA requires a technology measure that blocks images that are obscene or child pornography for both adults and children. In addition, it must prevent children from seeing images that are harmful to minors. Only images of a sexual nature need to be blocked. The law does not deal with other inappropriate images (violent images, for instance). Nor does it deal with text.

        The filter may be disabled for adults engaged in research or other lawful purposes. (The Supreme Court has ruled in the case of libraries, adult access must be filtered, but the filter must be disabled if an adult requests it. There has been no ruling about school staff.)

    • John Thomas

      I agree that students typing “sex” into a YouTube search in school is inappropriate, but that doesn’t mean we should block YouTube in schools. Students have many opportunities to behave badly in school, but that doesn’t mean we should put them into straight-jackets. We must teach them to behave appropriately.

      • James in IT

        It is easy to arm-chair-quarterback this type of thing by saying, “We must teach them to behave appropriately.”
        Speed limits, putting fences around pools, locking your store at night, keeping unsafe items out of the reach of children, putting handrails on stairs, requiring food manufactures and restaurants to practice safety/cleanliness standards, putting brake lights on cars, etc., are all things we do to help protect our loved one and others.
        I am sure most of your neighbors lock your car and home at night in order to add a layer of protection, because there are still irresponsible folks out there who steal.
        And yes, we try to hedge our bets at schools by using Internet filters and YES, we instruct kids on safe-surfing and being responsible (even enforcing with consequences), but to blame it all on poor behavior instruction and lack of training is simplistic and simply taking the blame game too far.

    • Steve Dembo

      I would assume that you block Google for the same reason.  After all, if they type in the word “Sex” are all those sites appropriate for students?

  • John Thomas

    Teachers and parents need to understand that most students already have an active social networking life outside school. If we block social networking sites inside school we are missing a very important opportunity to better educate our students about issues such as cyber bullying and digital footprints.

    • Renee

      I totally agree that students need to be better educated about issues such as cyber bullying and digital footprints; however, what is the main purpose of students attending school?  If they are too distracted by the amount of multimedia available through social networking, sites like YouTube, etc., how are they to focus on what they need to be prepared for college and competing in this global society?  (I mean, how many times have you been exploring the web and find that 3 hours have gone by?) 

      I also believe that parents need to play a bigger role in ensuring students are learning digital citizenship.  I know it takes a village to raise a child, but school districts cannot be responsible for teaching everything.

    • Fead

      fuck u

  • Concerned Parent

    The problem with YouTube is that inappropriate content can easily be shown while accessing appropriate content. My teachers rarely use their professional judgement to prescreen videos. Giving them access to YouTube and like giving them a loaded gun for playing Russian roulette. There are many other sites that do care about children and have many of the same “authentic voices” on video in a safe setting. I’m not afraid of loosing Erate funds, I’m concerned about the innocence of students that could be forever lost by going to the wrong YouTube page, video or comment.

    • Chris Danehower

      very good post

    • Margene

      “My teachers rarely use their professional judgement to prescreen videos.”

      That’s kind of the problem right there, isn’t it? Too often technology like filtering is being used to take the place of adults to judge situations, when the other side of the coin is filters fail sometimes. Kids should not have their rights of access to information hindered because actual, human guidance isn’t given a priority.

      Could we not just stop having a “access” or “no access” concept and throw in a “used with supervision” middle ground? Like, the teacher has to come over and sign in to give access to a flagged “questionable content” page, or the kid has to ask the teacher to look at the content on their own, separate screen to see it first? There are so many options that protect kids without cutting them off from chunks of appropriate sites if someone just put in the effort to set up a system and used it.

      • James in IT

        So, we open it up a little more and a little more and a little more.
        Then when a teacher “accidentally” clicks and shows something inappropriate, the IT Department gets blasted in the face as the criminals who didn’t bother to protect our children.
        It is a win-win for teachers and a lose-lose for IT departments. Both ways it is our fault.
        We are either punitive, mean, and labeled as anti-education or we are the user-friendly, scapegoat fall-guys.

  • Renee

    Accessing YouTube is not violating CIPA rules
    She does not specify in the article if she means teachers or students.  We allow it for teachers, because there are good things on there.  If students need to see a specific video, we can unblocking that specific one.  Traditionally, a teacher will show on the projector.  However, there is way too much inappropriate content for students to be exploring at school.
    Websites don’t have to be blocked for teachers.
    They don’t have to be for CIPA, but they have to be because this is a workplace.  We allow a lot more than we used to because with our new filter we can segregate the content available to teachers and to students.  Most of the sites that are blocked are blocked due to District policy.
    Broad filters are not helpful.
    Most newer filters provide much greater granularity in filtering content, which is why we have upgraded our filter.
    Schools will not lose E-rate funding by unblocking appropriate sites
    I found this misleading.  eRate funding IS dependent upon us having a filter in place that protects minors from inappropriate content.  No, perhaps she hasn’t personally heard about any instance; however, I think there are few, if any, districts that don’t have a filter in place.  Most districts go through an Info Tech Center (ITC), and the ITCs have filters in place.  Also, how many districts have actually been audited for filters and/or reported?  I’m sure if the USAC determined a filter was not in place, it would enforce its rules.
    Kids need to be taught how to be responsible digital citizens
    Agreed, but we also have to teach them that rules are in place for reasons and explain why the rules are in place, and then to respect the rules that are in place (and not try to get around the rules – which has happened here).
    Teachers should be trusted.
    And they should be!  Especially when it comes to content they are delivering to their students. . . We allow them to send in requests to say “Please unblock”, and we do in MOST cases.  However, we have proof that teachers, as do any other employees in any other industry, will go to sites that are not appropriate to view in the work place.  We don’t allow unfettered access to the Internet for anyone, because it is a work place; however, our new filter, while we’re still tweaking, has come a long way in allowing many more resources to be available to teachers and kids.

  • ThaVille

    You can more than likely view in your school, it is a site where content is controlled by teachers.  Just as #6 mentioned above, teachers should be trusted.  If there is not a video on SchoolTube, simply register, become a moderator and then import the video from YouTube; problem solved.  Forgot to mention, SchoolTube is free for teachers and students.

  • Fdsd

    see this

  • Jbernish

    I think you can probably create an entire series of blog posts “Busting Education Myths”

  • mvc09

    Our filter allows for different settings for teachers and students. We are in the process of setting up YouTube Education which allows us to allow student access to videos our our playlist. Sometimes, a site is blocked by some of the general rules, but it is a simple task for me to whitelist the site if a student or teacher asks me to. Even though it is not perfect, I believe our filter works pretty well. It helps us to protect students and helps us to use our limited amount of bandwidth for educational purposes. As usual, it may not be the “rules” but the “implementation” that is causing the problems.

  • john cam

    Our school district blocks “large swaths of the internet” with a “brute force” filter. It is a sign of laziness on the technology department. It is easier for them to block everything than to work with teachers on the appropriate sites to filter.