To Blacklist or to Whitelist?

Ian Sands from St. Edmunds School in Portsmouth is both a customer for our Applied ICT GCSE online course and long-standing friend of Chalkface.

Recently he asked us for a complete list of all sites linked to from within the course. There are hundreds, and it’s a list we actively maintain so it changes over time. We compiled the list, but wanted to know why he needed it. It turns out that St. Edmunds has introduced a whitelisting system, i.e. only links in a permitted list may be followed by students using school computers.

Ian is not too thrilled about the prospect. His view:

…whitelisting means continual work for the rest of eternity opening up new websites and adjusting the address of existing ones. Blacklisting means a big initial workload (assuming incorrectly that your ISP has no filter in place) followed by a gradually reducing workload as pupils get the message that they will get caught (lots were for a few days) and punished and the main sites get blocked up very quickly.

For the record, it is more work for publishers, too, and ultimately will push up prices if it becomes commonplace.

I think there is a deeper issue that should be looked at. There is no doubt that blacklists leak; some objectional content will get through. But with every teenage boy having one browser in his bedroom, another on his phone and a genetic predisposition to explore all that is forbidden, the idea that you can prevent the exposure of young minds to corrupting content is a dangerous fallacy.

I do support blacklists, but only as an aid to adolescent concentration. If you want to protect young people from the dangers of the world, you can only do it through education. That is equally true for crossing the road, deep vein thrombosis or going blind from surfing too many porn sites.

Bottom line: you can’t prevent traffic, long-haul flights or teenage curiosity.

Comment 1

What I would say is that the concept is actually much more complicated that
just having a ‘white’ or ‘black’ list. All your arguments make sense, but
in the everyday lesson it simply isn’t practical to just have a black list.
We actually have both. It sounds like an awful concept and one that
restricts students far too much, but it works really well in practice.

I used to hate the idea of a whitelist, but was persuaded by a design
technology teacher at our school – and he was completely right!

It is relatively infrequently that you ask students to ‘do an internet
search’ in a lesson. It is much better practice to select a number of
websites according to the requirements of the lesson, and then push students
to explore those. With this, you ensure that students have the freedom to
explore within boundaries that you define. You can thus tailor the websites
accordingly. For example if in a history lesson I could find five websites
with differing interpretations of an issue, and will then enable students to
see as many viewpoints as possible, rather that just the first two or three
websites that appear in a Google search. With a whitelist you also
discourage the poor practice of a teacher going into a computer room and
saying “research the internet”. A whitelist encourages good planning and
preparation – all key to effective teaching.

What we do is have different levels of access for different students
according to the subjects they study, the yeargroup they are in and even the
time of day. To begin with all students have basic access – which means
that they can only access the websites that teachers have asked for – i.e. a
whitelist. This is the situation you were mentioning in your blog. If this
is the only access students have, it is a ridiculous and preposterous
situation, and one where all the points you make in your blog completely

We have to use a whitelist filter like this as otherwise students will go
directly onto games or music sites when asked to use the internet. Nothing
dodgy about these sites, but they are simply taking the opportunity to waste
their time. With this system you actually encourage better practice for use
of the internet. Teachers don’t waste time telling students off for trying
to play games and students are forced to focus upon the specific lesson

We grant students different levels of access. For example media students or
design technology students who have specific research requests. We just
allow all students who take these courses wider access. However, as this is
an additional privilege, it is seen as such, so if they go onto games or
other sites against their teachers’ wishes, they right is then withdrawn.

The most important aspect of having a whitelist system is to have network
technicians available to make changes within 30 seconds. All staff have
access to the College instant messaging system, so can get immediate access
to technical support. They can switch the white list off instantly or can
add additional websites to the list. This is the most essential aspect of
having a whitelist – having the ability to update or change its status
instantly. If a subject knows that for a specific unit all of Year 8 need
different access, it can be setup in advance (best practice) or even at the
last minute. If we know this group need open access for a month, we set
that up accordingly.

Thus, it isn’t as black and white as just having a list of sites that we
allow or deny. This system takes the best of a whitelist – meaning that the
teacher can have more confidence to keep students on task, meaning that
other distractions are limited – but also adds the benefits of having wider
access when required. For after school clubs the access switches again to
the blacklist – and all have access as required.

Andrew Field
Head of ICT, Neale-Wade Community College

Comment 2

We have had a networked Internet connection for 10 years. Throughout that
time we have endeavoured to block an ever increasing list of websites that
are contrary to teaching and learning. We found that students turned their
focus to other sites such as games and mobile related ones. Our filtering
providers only blocked the unpleasant sites, and could not hope to block all
the others as part of a blacklist.

We now have new filtering software which allows use to create a whitelist.
This can be configured to block all sites except those we allow. We can
also set the level of blocking according to which year a students is in, the
subject they are using a computer for and the room they are in.

Our students do not like the whitelist much, but it does mean that they are
not distracted by non-learning activities. It has had the effect of
concentrating their browsing for education purposes rather than elsewhere.

Patrick Stower
Wolgarston High School

Comment 3

Interesting how teaching and learning haven’t changed that much with the move to e-learning. Educational resources have always been a whitelist. ”You use this text book and, if you need more information, we might allow you to go to the school library during the lesson.” Now it’s “you use these web sites and if you need more we might allow you to look at these sites too”. What’s the difference and what’s all the fuss about other than that educational methods haven’t moved on any. Those kid who are engaged have always gone elsewhere anyway be it to other reference books (in the ‘good ole days’) or other web sites in today’s e-learning environment.


One thought on “To Blacklist or to Whitelist?

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