"It's overkill" - MCPS clearly oversteps in its website ban policy


Feb. 7, 2022, 1:18 p.m. | By Sachin Parikh | 7 months, 3 weeks ago

It's more than just Cool Math Games - MCPS' increasingly restrictive firewall has created an equity issue and made it harder to learn


Photo: Teachers and students have found that MCPS' website ban has made it significantly harder to research and learn. Photo courtesy of Ethan Zajic.

The blocked website page is a sight any MCPS student would look at and frown upon. In front of the dark gray gradient are bright blue words that spell "Web Page Unavailable" and a string of information useless to anyone who isn't a technical professional employed by MCPS. This sight used to just show up in place of the Shell Shockers lobby or Netflix home screen, but it has become more and more common. Educational sites and important classroom resources are being shrouded by the MCPS website ban. Teachers and students alike feel these restrictions are objectively overreaching, and even add to disparities in education.

MCPS assures compliance to several laws and regulations that promote student privacy and safety online. One of these laws is the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA). To do this, MCPS blocks millions of websites and bans students from accessing sites with specific keywords.

GoGuardian.com is the platform that teachers use to monitor student's chromebook screens, close tabs at will, and look at browsing history. It describes CIPA as a mandate for schools to participate in six functions: internet filtering, internet monitoring, communication safety, unauthorized access, unauthorized disclosure, and education.

MCPS complies with CIPA to qualify for the E-rate discount, a government program that offers considerable discounts for schools to pay for internet access, so there is a clear economic motivation for MCPS to comply with CIPA.

Under these legal guidelines, MCPS has blocked millions of websites by contracting outside services like iBoss Cloud for Education. Whenever a student accesses a blocked site, iBoss cloud will display a black and blue “Web Page Unavailable” notice. 

These website blocks range from understandable to unreasonable. Entertainment sites like Netflix and Cool Math Games have been blocked to ensure students are on-task during class. These restrictions are sensible (though it is worth mentioning that a student created a petition to lobby MCPS to unblock Cool Math Games).

But then there are the unreasonable restrictions. MCPS blocks the majority of YouTube videos, which are an invaluable resource for both teachers and students (there is a parental consent form that unblocks some YouTube videos when students are a certain age, but YouTube is blocked for everyone else).

Freshman Nate Ache believes that YouTube should be unblocked because of teachers' reliance on it as a resource. "Some teachers assign YouTube videos and it's hard to get around the block because they have to approve some videos," he says.

MCPS has also blocked students from accessing their personal Google accounts from their Chromebooks. Any emails to people outside of MCPS, files on personal Google Drives, or other websites that need the user to sign in with their personal Google accounts are completely inaccessible to those who don't bring personal laptops to school.

Furthermore, many websites that MCPS blocks are not clearly distracting and are often very useful to students. For example, MCPS blocked Dropbox, a website very similar to Google Drive that is used by millions of schools and professionals around the world. MCPS also blocked Google Maps, an incredibly common and useful website. Slack, a professional communication platform that many students and Blair publications (including SCO) use to communicate on projects is also blocked.

MCPS also has a blanket block on all websites with specific keywords. An inquisitive student googling "Virgin Mary" will immediately run into the iBoss "website blocked" page. Any website with the word "unblocked" will be directed to the iBoss page as well (this is an attempt to counter students googling "unblocked games," "unblocked Netflix," etc.). The list goes on. 

Numerous teachers at Blair say that these restrictions have increased significantly in the past year. 

George Mayo, a video and TV production teacher at Blair, describes the firewall's effects on his class. "It seems like we just hit a wall of things being blocked a lot, just for [researching] basic issues… it's hindering our ability to do basic research," Mayo says.

Mayo details how the Dropbox ban causes issues for his class. He says that his sophomores participate in the C-SPAN StudentCam documentary contest. The judges require C-SPAN footage to be included in their documentaries. C-SPAN directs students to a Dropbox link to download the footage, but because Dropbox is blocked on MCPS devices, students cannot access the footage until they get home. Only those who can afford personal computers are able to download it and bring the files to school.

Mayo's students aren't the only ones facing this dilemma. David Stein, a statistics teacher at Blair, finds that his students run into the same walls while researching that Mayo's do. "In statistics, we use a lot of simulations and there are a lot of websites that [are blocked]. And in sports statistics, there are a lot of sports sites that we need access to that have been blocked off," Stein says.

Other MCPS teachers have also signed the aforementioned petition to unblock Cool Math Games. Maddy Moses, an MCPS teacher in Bethesda, signed and left a comment criticizing MCPS' website ban policy. "Most of these websites they are [blocking] are potential resources, [if] used correctly, and ones that students will enjoy learning with, if given the chance and not immediately blocked," they say.

The website block also widens the education gap between those who can afford personal computers and those who can’t. A student that brings their own purchased Macbook or PC can bypass most of these restrictions and access the entire internet, including websites useful to research such as YouTube. They can also access their personal Google accounts from other browsers. 

On the other hand, the majority of students don't bring personal computers to school and have no way around these restrictions, even for educational purposes. 

Rahman Culver, Blair's Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator sees the inequity in MCPS' web filtering.

"If you have access to workarounds like privately-owned laptops, personal hotspots, etc., you can get around these filters… so [low-income] students will naturally have a harder time finding ways to get around the blocked access created by the county's web filtering," he says.

Mayo agrees with this statement. "It does seem inequitable where some students have their own devices and have access to more of the internet than students that are on their chromebooks," he says.

So what specifically needs to be changed?

Stein says the process for a teacher to request that MCPS unblock a website needs to be expedited. "The mechanism we have to unblock is too cumbersome and time consuming for teachers to use… You have to call the help desk, the tech office, and give them the address and they have to look it up and decide if they are going to unblock it," he says.

Mayo also says that teachers should be given more jurisdiction over the website ban. "Whatever they're doing to set their firewall up, it would be nice if we could sort of play around with that line to sort of ease back a bit," he says.

Luca Goles, a freshman, gives examples of specific websites he thinks should be unblocked. "I feel like having some websites blocked is good, but playing a game of Snake in between work clears my mind. Same with Cool Math [Games]. Having that break helps me refresh and makes my next project better," he says.

In 2014, MCPS spent $15.1 million on purchasing Chromebooks for the first time to combat inequity and promote learning. But the accounts of teachers and students point that the website firewall is excessively restrictive, especially for high school student use, and instead widens the learning gap.

George Mayo sums up his argument that the ban is simply too strict. "Right now it sort of seems like overkill. It's too much."

Last updated: Feb. 24, 2022, 10:20 p.m.


Tags: Technology Internet Chromebooks website ban firewall

Sachin Parikh. Hello! I'm Sachin (he/him). Other than writing for SCO, I enjoy playing baseball and mountain biking. More »

Show comments


Comments


Asher — 7 months, 2 weeks ago

As a Pyle student, I 100% agree


Legolas Greenleaf — 5 months, 3 weeks ago

MCPS does too much!


parent of hs-er — 5 months, 3 weeks ago

I am thrilled to see MCPS crack.down on tv-watching during school. It's school, for crying out loud. School.


Educator AP — 5 months, 3 weeks ago

As an educator and MCPS parent, I strongly support student privacy as a condition for their development as free and active citizens. Respect for privacy regulations is important and parents should embrace them rather than complain. On privacy protections, USA is far behind other democracies such as EU and Australia which have major data protection laws. MCPS teachers have access to YouTube and can share any video they deem appropriate on the big screen in class. Videos assigned as homework can be accessed on personal devices at home with parental consent and supervision.


Qealm — 4 days, 21 hours ago

As an MCPS Student, i clearly remember the day when Cool math games was blocked. Years of fun and memories thrown in the trash :(


Please ensure that all comments are mature and responsible; they will go through moderation.