On October 15th, students in IB Film HL, a class taught by english teacher Katherine Okrentowich, experienced a large amount of difficulty in completing an online assignment.
“I had assigned an assignment for my IB Film class to go [online] and search for still images from movies, with the intention of then… analyzing components in that frame,” said Okrentowich. “It had seemed innocent and simple enough, I had assigned it, I had posted it on Google classroom, and then not five minutes had passed and students were saying that we couldn’t do this.”
The problem? District-implemented web filters, which blocks a large amount of content pertaining to films, including nearly all copyrighted material.
“In order to receive funding as a public school, we have to have web filters. It’s a governmental program. So there is a financial incentive for the school district to apply a filter, ” said Okrentowich. According to her, the filters are a part of a new program implemented by the school district.
Early in the school year, Principal Scott Hurwitz made an announcement proclaiming the use of Gaggle, a company that tracks words typed in to school accounts, whether it be in a search engine or on a Google document. In addition, the school utilizes a YouTube-based filter that prohibits access to any videos not deemed educational on the video-sharing site. Other filters implemented by the administration include “Securly,” which blocks out any web page or search result deemed inappropriate.
Securly’s website states that their objective is “Keeping kids safe wherever they’re connected.” Gaggle’s site similarly describes their goal of “Ensuring the safety and wellbeing of students and schools.” But for students in Mrs. Okrentowich’s film class, these content filters and surveillance sites were hindrances.
“The sites are blocked,” wrote Shirel Salinas (‘20) on Google classroom. The filters were “the reason why we couldn’t do our film work,” said junior Owen McClung.
“We had to make the best of it… I think that the amount of content we were left with was not enough to work with, especially at the high school level. After that initial experience, I reached out to the principal and to my colleagues, who also shared a lot of their concerns that they were facing in their classes,” said Okrentowich.
She was, however, impressed with Hurwitz’s swift response to the issues with school web filters rooting out too much academic content. He was “very quick” in getting her in touch with the people who set the school filters, who Okrentowich learned were trying to fine tune the content blockers using input from teachers.
“Thankfully, after speaking with them, there have been improvements [to the school filter system]. They didn’t just turn it off, you know, they have people to protect and content to filter… but one of the settings was changed and we have been able to access a little bit more, which I think is a very refreshing change.”
Whether you view the district’s content filters and web tracking methods as a breach of student privacy or not, it is certainly good news to hear that they are being constantly refined and updated. However, for the time being, they are certainly not going anywhere.