Content Filter Reconfiguration

Content Filter Reconfiguration
Posted on 03/11/2014

At the beginning of the school year, I visited wtih the secondary campuses during staff development week about several goals we had for the coming year.  One of those goals involved reconfiguring the content filter so it is less of a hinderance in the learning processs.  I've heard from many of you that it blocks more than it allows and limits your ability to use creative materials others make available.  We certainly don't want to limit the free resources available to you and I don't want to spend our time constantly custom allowing legimate websites through the filter.

If you don't know how a content filter works, let me take a minute to explain.  The first aspect in managing a content filter is to create groups.  These groups are how we divide up the district and set our various website category access and other settings.  We can have up to 300 groups, but the way we now set this up is to provide a group for each campus/department's staff and a group for each campuses students.  We have about 39 of these groups currently.  Within each group, we allow/block the various website categories.These typically range from Audio & Video, to Business, to Art, to Technology, etc.  Each vendor will set up the categories that make the most sense to them, but ours currently has a total of 49 categories.  (for a list and description of these, click here.)  For each one of these categories we specify if we want to allow or block the websites that fit within that category.  With our filter, we also have the ability to give each category a priority level in case a website fits into multiple categories.  Let me give you an example.  The website coolmath-games.com is assigned two categories; education and games.  If we were to allow the education category but block games, then that website would get blocked by the filter (it will always take the more restrictive option if everything else is equal.)  However, if we give the allowed education category a priority of 10 and the blocked games a priority of 0, the website coolmath-games.com is allowed because the allowed categoriy has a higher priority than the blocked category.  Something to note; we do not have any direct control over what category each website is assigned.  That information comes from the vendor.  We do have the opportunty to request they re-visit their original categorization when we find a site that has been incorrectly categorized.  In addition to the 49 website categories and priorities we can set within each group, we also have about 200 additional customization settings.  These give us very grainular control over what we do and do not allow through our connection to the internet.  

As you can see, there's a lot of preperation and setup required to make a content filter run smoothly.  As we started looking into the current configuration we found a couple of areas in the original setup that are causing the challenges we're dealing with:

  • We didn't have enough groups setup to allow each campus/department customized settings to best fit their needs
  • All our website categories were set with the same priority level, so when a website falls within multiple categories (and most do) they were being blocked only because they fell into one category that was blocked even though the other one was allowed.

WIthout boring you with any more details, we have fixed these two major obsticles that was causing everyone grief when using the internet.  You should now see fewer educational websites blocked as we move forward, but should still receive the filtering that's required by the Child Internet Proection Act (CIPA).  Please make sure to double-check any websites that you typically use prior to class to make sure we did not overlook anything and it still works.  If we did miss something, please let us know.

Our work isn't done with this change to the filter.  There is still another issue we are faced with constantly throughout the year.  Many of you will take your class to a lab to do research on a particular subject that is traditionally blocked by the filter.  In order for us to unblock those categories/websites we have to unblock it for the entire campus.  This poses some challenges with CIPA.  The next step we are working towards is creating custom groups for each one of our 26 labs in the district.  This will allow us to allow more categories or specific websites for a particular lab during the time you need it without risking unnecessary website exposure to the entire campus.  We still have a lot of setup to do before we can make this happen, but our goal is to have it ready by the start of the 14-15 school year.  

I hope these changes are beneficial to you and your teaching.  Please let technology know if you have any issues with the filter so we can address them as soon as possible.  I'd love any feedback or other ideas you have, so please feel free to use the comment section below.