May 18, 2010
Today I think I’ll share a few email excerpts to illustrate some of the more annoying aspects of my job, each of which involves public school district IT Departments acting in ways that are (in my very partial and partially-informed estimation) either a) lazy, b) incompetent, c) draconian or d) all of the above. If I come across as a curmudgeon in the process, it’s because I am. Still, it’s important to note at the outset that I understand the challenges faced by the well-meaning folks charged with managing school (and perhaps also business/enterprise) IT. They do so with many skills I do not come close to possessing and under tremendous pressure to meet legislative and policy directives, but are often lacking in the money, staff, and training required to keep up to date with the demands of acting as local gatekeeper and eternal overlord of the internets. Nevertheless, in my brief experience thus far as a member of the ed. tech community, I have yet to meet a school IT coordinator (in public primary and secondary schools, that is, and not in higher ed where the environment is a bit more competitive) who was what I would call “in touch” with the latest goings-on in education/technology/educational technology. In any case, I hope this comes across as constructive. That is my sole intention, to save the fucking children.
Issue number one: filtering. CIPA basically requires that school districts filter their internet access as a means of protecting children from pornography and other sundry objectionables across this big bad internet. I actually do not generally disagree with this, though I do make some obvious qualifications. For one, filtering should not be any broader than what is actually needed. Unfortunately, this is a tall order. Google Safe Search might provide some indication of how this works and doesn’t. Safe Search is essentially the same kind of filtering algorithm that a school might employ through purchasing a third party application. Try googling “firefighter” with safe search turned off and see what kind of image results you get. Firefighter is a pretty innocuous term and one that a kid is pretty likely to be interested in at some point. But without some kind of filter, even Google cannot avoid returning some questionable material on the first page. But turn safe search turned back on (set to moderate or even strict) and the results are generally more wholesome, right? Actually, no, they’re pretty much the same. Take a look yourself. This is not a jab at Google, just a quick way to point out that algorithms – even the best of them – are not infallible. They make mistakes. So instead of endlessly refining their algorithms, third party filtering apps take a hammer to the web, locking down students’ web experience and blocking content on the broadest of terms in an effort to overcome their own inherent limitations.
Which brings me to my second qualification, that filters should be locally configurable. If a teacher or student needs access to a site that is blocked, there needs to be a mechanism for whitelisting it and/or adjusting the parameters of the filter. This seems not to be the case for many districts. For example, as discussed in the email below, on several occasions lately, I’ve been told by teachers and other education professionals that some of the educational and professional development sites I’ve created and/or maintain for work are actually not accessible by educators in their classrooms or in the school building. One teacher was told by their IT department that it’s because “the site is a blog and blogs are blocked.” Sometimes that is true (the site is a blog), and sometimes not. I’ve never looked into the blackbox that is an internet filter but my assumption is that to determine if a site is a blog (whatever that actually means these days), this school’s filter detected that the site in question used WordPress (we use it a lot as a CMS and for course blogs) and thus came to the conclusion that it =blog and is therefore somehow unsafe or inappropriate for minors. Don”t believe it? Check out this “tutorial” about protecting children from blogs from a filtering software company.
So, anyway, on with the email excerpts.
…By the way, it’s pretty unsatisfactory that a district would block any of our sites. Presumably they do this automatically (i.e. they use 3rd party “child protection” software without retaining any control of their own) by deciphering which platform is being used (WordPress, Omeka, etc.). We’ve had similar issues with the [OMITTED] site. Frankly, I think it’s time that teachers forced their districts to adapt to current web publishing models rather than letting some outdated software make decisions for them. Considering that we use the same kinds of software that the NYTimes and other major sites use, this is clearly an injustice for students and teachers alike (if not for small “publishers” like ourselves) and also gives school IT admins an unearned sense that they’ve done their job. But I digress…
And another (regarding the blocking of a Google Docs data collection tool)…
[OMITTED] may have some responses recorded on paper that she will send me if/when she gets them (one of the teachers had Google blocked in their district for some inexplicable reason so they did them on paper).
That’s right. Google is blocked. The problems with this are so glaringly obvious that I will move on.
On to the next problem, not one that is unique to school IT, but nevertheless a problem at schools and far beyond. Yes, I’m going to do it. I’m going to write (part of) a blog post about how I hate Internet Explorer. And yes, particularly the 6th version of it, which I’m required by Internet Law to mention was released about a decade ago. And so on. So… Issue number two: IE6.
The following was to be a public response to a very polite and well-meaning message from a user who, judging by his email address, works in government and academia, informing me that a particular site is broken in IE6. I’ve gotten similar messages for sites we manage that are created both in house and by well-regarded professional designers (i.e. it’s not just my sloppy design). In the end, my response was not posted, owing to the better judgment of a colleague to whom I sent the message first. They decided it was not necessary and, I think, maybe it sounds a little defensive. Nevertheless, I think it’s an important issue and one that should not be taken lightly.
Thanks for the feedback. We get such messages from time to time, so please allow me to explain what we are thinking about this issue, which is somewhat more complicated than it may seem to some folks.
I cannot speak for [OMITTED], but our view [...] is that we can realistically only expect to support modern browsers in our smaller projects. Internet Explorer is not a modern browser, though the latest version (8) has made significant strides and is fully capable of rendering the new site visually and functionally. We serve a message to users of older browsers that they need to upgrade. If they choose not to, they will at least be aware of the source of their frustration. It is ours as well.
We make this compromise for a couple of reasons that I think are well-considered. For one, it is extremely time-consuming to debug for old versions of Internet Explorer and we value lower-cost projects. Second, if we “dumb down” our work to be 100% backwards compatible, we are cheating those visitors who use modern software and want a more modern experience. We cannot provide that service at our usual (very low) cost of publishing. Third, we believe that the time has come to give up on outdated browsers. Google and other major publishers and service providers have already made the decision to drop support for IE6. Microsoft does not even stand behind it’s older software in this regard and has expressed regret that it is still in use.
Finally, we trust that users are fully capable of taking responsibility for their web experience. Browsers are free. They are easy to install. New ones work better, look better, do more and provide greater protection against malware. The best browsers include auto-update features so you never have to worry about getting left behind. We understand that many work environments lock their employees into using the outdated software required to access their older enterprise systems. This is an unfortunate reality but one that we cannot control, trusting that market and research needs, as well as increasingly vocal employee dissatisfaction will take care of this over time. In the meantime, we always design for the latest version of IE, as well as Firefox, Safari, Chrome, and Opera. This covers the great majority of users, including those that we track on our own analytics.
This is not to say that we do not continually look at this policy. We always appreciate feedback of any kind and if we are shown over time that we have erred in this approach, we will certainly do our best to adapt.
The question to my mind is, do we need to support every piece of hardware and software ever released (a decade is a long time for a piece of software, especially one that is freely replaceable), or should we focus our energies more wisely on following web standards and providing a better experience for users who employ appropriate software. You can’t open an iWork .pages file with Electric Pencil (or so I assume). You can’t play Modern Warfare 2 on an Atari 6400. If a site requires Flash, you either install Flash or you don’t use the site (or wait until you get home and use a laptop instead of your iPhone). I am okay with these limitations. How did Adobe and it’s publisher-users get consumers to agree to the Flash arrangement at a 90+ percent rate of adoption. I don’t know but it wasn’t by creating alternate, crippled, backward compatible versions of every Flash site (though as an iPhone user, sometimes I wish that were the case).
But these are essentially questions for designers and content creators, not for IT professionals. The questions for IT are different. The goal of IT, at schools or elsewhere, is to serve their communities’ needs while maintaining the security of both the users and the broader infrastructure. So why in the hell do many schools insist on continuing to run outdated browsers like IE6? If the answer is that they keep running IE6 because they need it to access other outdated enterprise systems, then they have doubly failed in their mission.
If the transition away from outmoded tech has been neglected due to financial constraints, then I don’t want to see that school running MS Office or BlackBoard or maybe even Windows. If money is that tight, I want to see OpenOffice.org. I want to see Linux Ubuntu. I want to see Moodle (or something better, but equally free). But I have not seen that happening. At a recent ed. tech conference I attended, the same teachers who were locked into shitty IT environments were all atwitter about tablets and clickers and robots and so on. The tech coordinators and district admins I met were most interested in gimmicky proprietary gadgets and LMSs that provide no justifiable value proposition. And meanwhile, the students can’t even access Google? The modern, connected, social web is off limits. The sites that get through are broken and dysfunctional due to outdated hardware and software. Where is the creativity?
I’m not trying to trash anyone, really (especially not an entire profession), but there is a cultural problem that is so readily apparent in how our schools deal with technology that I find it hard to be polite. Ditching IE6 is not going to change that culture, nor is better monitoring of filtering systems, nor new iMacs or clickers, nor anything else you can buy. And this doesn’t even begin to address the question of how/when/if we actually give students real tech instruction and who is qualified to do so. It’s not me. For the most part, at this moment, I’m just an onlooker to this mess. I don’t work in a public school district and I’m not a teacher and I’m not really in IT. I work in a university and deal in the (digital) humanities. I have autonomy (sometimes) and access to money (sometimes) and people that can help me (sometimes). But mostly, I try to be creative, I try to keep up to date, and I try to always be learning something new and useful so I can always be doing something new and useful. Take that for what it’s worth.