Blocked: Students respond to new Parkway policy

Seeing+blue+lock+after+blue+lock+can+be+frustrating%2C+and+it%E2%80%99s+easy+to+lose+sight+of+the+bigger+picture.+How+and+why+are+sites+being+blocked%2C+how+does+that+affect+students+and+what+is+the+district%E2%80%99s+role%3F

Brinda Ambal

Seeing blue lock after blue lock can be frustrating, and it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. How and why are sites being blocked, how does that affect students and what is the district’s role?

Watching a video on combustion analysis? Blocked. Trying to send a message to your team’s GroupMe? Blocked. Trying to use services like Flickr and Imgur to make your French presentation? Blocked. And if you try a simple Google search? It can take up to 10 seconds just to load your results.

In nearly every class, students face some minor obstacle due to district technology’s implementation of a new online content-filtering system.

Over the past two years, Parkway has made the shift from using GoGuardian, a technology software intended for schools, to a combination of software-level and network-level to create a safer digital environment for its students.

Whenever you access a website on district networks from a personal device, the browser has to look up the IP address in the Domain Name System (DNS) to be able to connect to the website. To block websites the district doesn’t want you accessing on your personal devices, however, Parkway’s server returns an inaccurate IP address and your computer tells you the website cannot be found.

This infographic shows the differences between network- and software-level blocking. (Brinda Ambal)

“You can kind of think about it like a phonebook. You have to look up the name of your contact and find the phone number to make a call, but Parkway returns a phone number that isn’t connected anywhere, so your call doesn’t go through. They just changed the entries,” one student explained. The student wished to remain anonymous.

Switching to a new blocking system, especially one that relies heavily on keyword matching, is bound to have a trial and error period where the blocking mechanisms may not be perfect.

“Even a human can’t decide what’s appropriate or not, because it also depends on how you were raised and what your personal ideology is. A computer system can’t even take that into account,” the anonymous student said.

Many students bring their own personal devices with data plans or hotspots to school to try and circumvent the excessive blocking; this, however, raises equity issues for senior David Meisinger.

“I use my personal laptop so I get around a lot of it because I cannot work on a Chromebook and access what I need to be able to access,” Meisinger said. “If I was somebody who couldn’t afford my own laptop, however— that’s kind of a disadvantage. That doesn’t make sense.”

Phones, hotspots and personal laptops allow some students to access educational websites that may have been blocked on chromebooks, creating inequity in access to learning.

Even a human can’t decide what’s appropriate or not, because it also depends on how you were raised and what your personal ideology is. A computer system can’t even take that into account.”

— Anonymous student

“You look around and students are on YouTube or social media. How come they can [access social media] but we can’t use the video that is educational?” French teacher Nabila Harig said. “If you prevent us from having the right websites because you’re afraid of students going on inappropriate sites, then you’re punishing [teachers] more than you’re punishing students.”

The excessive blocking of websites is especially frustrating for language teachers as they moved away from traditional textbook and paper activities to mostly online activities in recent years. 

“On our side as a teacher, we don’t see if something is blocked, and by the time we’re teaching a class, we’re stuck. If the video doesn’t work— and they’re all blocked anyway— there’s always a problem because we don’t have workbooks or paper activities,” Harig said. “I wait for [IT] to deblock it, I lose my plan and all these questions I spent my time preparing [can’t be used].”

The switch in blocking systems presents issues not only for students and teachers, but also the district’s technology departments, who face the challenge of finding an equitable method of censoring websites during school hours.

“I have a bit of sympathy for these people because while I sometimes get mad, I have to remember that this is not an easy issue to deal with in terms of what students can do,” Meisinger said. “One person sending this communication is pretty easy to dismiss but if there’s a lot more people saying ‘Hey, this is a problem,’ maybe that could actually garner some attention.”

Technology Specialist Hal Brown fields numerous requests from teachers to unblock certain sites as the district works out the inconsistencies. We all need to be patient together.

When attempting to access a blocked website, the student gets automatically redirected to another screen informing them that the website is from a blocked category, such as games or entertainment.

“Requests to have sites unblocked [are] already starting to taper off. For all the student frustration with this, they’ve unblocked a whole bunch of sites. [It] came as a surprise to me that they were even willing to unblock [these]. [For example] last year, [the] majority of music sites were blocked. This year, they’re letting people stream just about anything,” Brown said.

District technology is not actively trying to create barriers to our teaching and learning. It will take time to perfect the system, and the issue is already on the mend. Let’s give a little grace.

“This system is going to take time, months, to find tools, to get to the point where most of what you should have [access to] is accessible,” Brown said. “The misconception is that people in the district are just saying we’re just going to block as much as we can. That’s not true at all.”

Editor’s Note: This article contains less of an opinion than our typical editorials. While the new technology does cause some frustration, the technology departments are working with us to serve our needs as best as possible as they work to set up this new system. We hope this article sheds new light on the situation for our readers as well.