On the Dept of Education and blocking sites – the process needs to change

blocked jsbinLet me share a story of frustration, lack of common sense, and wasted opportunities.

I have been volunteering to teach programming in public schools for a number of years now and the persistent frustration is constantly having to navigate a path through the maze of blocked sites the department manages. This is a deeply flawed process.

So, for those not enmeshed in the labyrinth of blocking, the NSW Department of Education runs one of the largest single computer networks in the World. Every child in a public school has their own log-on – at least two in fact, one to access their school network and another to access the Internet through the Department’s firewall. That firewall operates a whitelist of approved sites. The list is centrally administered by a group of IT professionals and seconded teachers.

Now I get that we’re dealing with school children. I get that security is necessary. I get that once you’ve gone down the line of a huge centralised system, a process is required. But the problem here is one shared with all massive, centralised, monolithic bureaucracies – there’s no way to actually engage with them and explain how silly their decision is.

Beyond general frustration, why is this getting me all het up? Well, a bunch of my high school students have moved on from using Scratch to learning Javascript. My teaching colleaugue and I invested an enormous amount of time and effort into finding a good environment for them to work in with Javascript. We wanted a cloud environment where the kids could show what they had done, one with a clear interface, one that had some degree of error correction and debugging, with line-numbers – in other words something suitable for teaching students. Oh, and free. We went through many possibilities until we found the perfect solution: JS Bin. It fulfilled all our requirements and we got our students using it.

But our activity must have tripped a flag somewhere because suddenly the department blocked the site. It had been labelled as a file sharing site and so blocked. Unhappiness ensued. So we asked our friendly official teacher to ask for the site to be unblocked. He sent off the request. The answer came back from the Department: No. So we tried a different angle: Still no.

And this is where the real problem creeps in. There’s simply does not seem to be a way to engage with the Department to explain how foolish the decision is. JS Bin is not a file sharing site. In fact, ironically, the one issue we had in choosing it for teaching is that students cannot save their own media to it to use in their web pages. (But even if you could upload there are many unblocked sites that allow for uploads, and JS Bin’s primary purpose is not about file sharing.) You cannot help but look at the decision and the responses so far and think that the people making the decision simply have no idea what they are looking at.

Again, I understand the need for security. But if you’re going to set up a system like this in a fast-moving World it behooves you to set up a way to get past knee-jerk responses and engage sensibly.

If there was a way of engaging we might point out that there are many other sites that are not blocked – including Scratch – that are entirely analogous to JS Bin. (Of course the danger there is that the Department might then take it into its head to block Scratch!) If there was a way of engaging we might point to the actual file sharing sites that are available to students and point to the differences between them and a site that does not allow for uploads. If there was a way of engaging we might point to the Department’s rhetoric about encouraging coding and ask how that translates into blocking the sites needed to actually do that.

But there’s no way of engaging, and so we sit in frustration, looking at another lost opportunity and contemplating how much easier this would be in the private school system. Sigh.

Now I do want to get JS Bin unblocked. But more importantly I want my kids, and those I teach, to operate in an environment that balances safety with some respect for innovation and the capacity to make full use of the Internet. When you spend more time staring at blocked site notices than you do getting things done; when there’s no way to sensibly appeal the decision to block a site; when the people making those decisions remain opaque parts of a disengaged bureaucracy – we’re doing something wrong.

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