The Problem with YouTube Filtering and Whitelisting in Our Schools

There are some very important legal issues to sort out in the ways we filter the internet, and more specifically, YouTube within schools. I do not believe, however, that the legal implications are the right lens to show us the way forward with an academic purpose or strategy for supporting students in learning. As Youtube represents the single largest repository of easily accessible and searchable educational content that the world has ever known, I believe that this may be one of the most pressing issues facing schools.

Further complicating matters is the work that Google has done to make it easier for districts and schools to filter out large portions of Youtube for their Google Apps for Education customers. While not well documented just yet, districts can now have more specific (and in many cases, more strict) filters and controls. In this post I will attempt to explain the current state of filtering for Youtube within Denver Public Schools, the problems inherent with this approach, and a few solutions we could implement in order to support better access to millions of minutes of educational video.

The Filter/Whitelisting In Place in DPS:

  1. We have Restricted Mode set at the network (wifi/wired) level.
    1. This means that most videos on Youtube are restricted according to these guidelines or the “other signals” outlined within the Restricted Mode. There is precious little information about what the “other signals” are, but from what I have gathered, the restrictions are on any channel that has not been specifically vetted as Educational through the now defunct Youtube for Schools program or the Auto-generated Education channel (read more about Auto-generated channels here). The huge majority of videos that are educational, are from very small channels with a few thousand subscribers or less. This means that the auto-generated Education category is unlikely to pick up on this and it will cause most videos to have to be approved individually to be used in schools.
    2. While an individual has always been able to turn on Restricted mode for their account, by locking it at the network level means that there is no simple way of switching this setting from on to off (if you don’t see it when you go to youtube.com, scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page): 2016-02-16_20-14-22
  2. There are three levels four levels of users of Youtube on our networks.
    1. Non-Logged In Users: This is the level of user that most students and staff find themselves within when they click on a link to Youtube or try to watch an embedded video. In most cases, the policy above, will force them to log in to see the video. Only pre-approved videos will be available to this user type, meaning only ones that a part of the Auto-generated Education Channel or Youtube for Schools areas of youtube.
    2. Restricted Users: In DPS, these are students or anyone else that is within an organizational unit within the Google Apps domain who has been designated as “restricted”. In order to be in this user type, a student must log in to their GAFE account. This will allow them to see any videos with the pre-approved designation as well as any videos that have been deemed appropriate by “the approvers.”
    3. Unrestricted users: These are adults/staff who are designated within organizational units of our Google Apps domain as being able to view all of the videos on Youtube so long as they are logged in to their account. This means that they can see anything, but cannot approve additional videos for the Restricted Users.
    4. Approvers: In a Google Apps for Education domain, like the one in DPS, these are users within the Google Classroom Teacher google group which is designated as verified teachers within the domain. This means that each person who wishes to approve Youtube videos must go to classroom.google.com and login and then choose “teacher” and be approved to be a member of this group. Additional Organizational units can also be designated as approvers as well:2016-02-16_20-23-08
  3. There is an official approved video whitelist for our Google Apps for Education domain.
    1. As stated above, “the approvers” can add as many videos as they would like to the whitelist for restricted users to watch. Each approval goes into a single list that is not (currently) searchable and requires admin access to override (take off of the whitelist). Each video that is within this list is approved for the whole domain (K-12).

The problems inherent in the above filtering and whitelisting approach:

  • Students can’t create/upload using YouTube: There are many parts of YouTube that are about creation rather than consumption, and by filtering youtube to only be a specific set of Videos that teachers must first approve, it denies students any agency to become creators of their own content.
  • They add barriers between students and learning: If students cannot search for their own learning on YouTube, it means that their experience of learning using these resources is one of gatekeeping and not serendipity and curiosity.
  • They render secondary Youtube channels on GAFE Accounts almost unusable: Many teachers and leaders open up specific Youtube channels for specific projects and scopes of work. Only the main GAFE account is an approver of videos. So, when a teacher uploads on a separate channel, they still have to switch back to their primary account to approve that video in order for it to be seen within the network.
  • They severely hamper Embeds and Mobile devices: Because an embedded video doesn’t always know which account is logged in for YouTube, it is likely that each time a student clicks on an embedded video, it will not play correctly. This works similarly on tablets. The browser or app has to be logged into by the student in order to watch the video, and because these are shared devices, there are many issues with logging in and out. Additionally, Youtube runs its own login scheme and in many cases requires a secondary login for the GAFE account if a user has not set up his/her own Youtube channel on the account.
  • They are not flexible enough because YouTube is not a Core GAFE service: Because Youtube is solidly in the “additional Google services” and is not covered under the Google For Work agreement as a core service, it lacks much of the granular control so that certain schools can have more restrictive whitelists and other schools can have less restrictive whitelists for videos. This denies the flexibilities for an individual school (or potentially, grade level) to make important instructional decisions that directly affect their use in the classroom. This also means that any videos that have been approved for use at the high school level are approved to be viewed by kindergarteners.
  • Personalized Learning is made more difficult: YouTube specifically empowers teachers and students to curate playlists of content together that specifically meet the needs of an individual. When a teacher not only has to create the playlist, but also approve each video in the playlist, it puts an undue burden on them and it denies the role of the student for creating those playlists and proposing alternative learning routes. It decreases the level of agency of the student, systematically.
  • They explicitly tell teachers and students that they are doing something wrong by accessing Youtube: Any time a teacher runs into the following image, it makes him or her think twice before accessing that resource again. Whether we like it or not, the messages that deny access can have a cooling effect on the level of access that teachers are willing to provide for students:

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  • They confuse classroom management solutions with technological solutions: If the primary reason for the filter is to stop students from getting off task in the classroom, the issue is engagement and not technology. By placing such an emphasis on the technological solution, we run the risk of relying upon the technology for pedagogical decisions and relying upon teachers as policing behaviors rather than supporting learning.
  • They dictate specific use cases for an open-ended tool: Youtube is not one thing. It is a radio station, it is a library of brain break activities, it is a choose your own adventure narrative, and it is a repository of reflective practice for teachers. It is all of those things and more. By filtering out nearly all of those possibilities and only letting in a select few (which have to be approved one by one), we are lumping violent content with classroom videos. We are placing music videos next to profanity. We are placing historical footage next to cyberbullying. More than that, we are limiting what is possible. And if the last 10 videos that were approved within our domain are any indication, there is a lot more that is possible than just lecture videos and typical educational content:

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Possible solutions to this filtering and whitelisting problem:

I am definitely tipping my hat on some of these suggestions to the great work that the DOE has done around CIPA and E-rate. My favorite summaries of this work are by KQED in this article and this one too. I encourage everyone to read them in full.

  • Include more than just Teachers in the Unrestricted and Approver user types: One of the great things that the new revisions to the GAFE domain controls for Youtube have done is to allow for specific organizational units to be designated as either having “unrestricted Youtube access” or having the ability to “approve videos” even if they are not part of the Google Classroom teacher group. This means that whole schools (think high schools) or even small subsets of students could be given additional permissions as an effort to further increase the agency of kids in their learning as well as support earning privileges for great digital citizenship.

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  • Turn off the network-level Restricted Mode for the adult-only wireless network: As the DOE points out, there is no law that requires the filtering of teacher access to the internet. Because we have a separate wireless network for the adults in our buildings, we could turn off the filter entirely for them as a show of respect and trust for teachers in making the right educational choices for themselves and their students.
  • Create and/or leverage a robust Digital Citizenship curriculum for students and Professional Learning for adults on the use of Youtube within the classroom: Even though we can give unfettered access to the worlds largest repository of video, that power comes with a huge dose of responsibility. We must support our teachers and students in making great instructional decisions through robust professional learning for the use of video in the classroom as well as the further work of Digital Citizenship with students. We have much of this content from Common Sense Media and Google itself. We just need to implement it and provide ongoing support for teachers who are making great use of Youtube for learning.
  • Provide examples of good uses of Youtube at every grade level: Many teachers and students will only go to Youtube at school for what they use it for in their daily lives unless they are given compelling alternatives and examples of what is possible. We should be actively curating a list of playlists and channels to support great learning throughout our district. We should be supporting a network of teacher and student creators as well who could be sharing their work and telling the story of great teaching and learning within our schools.
  • Transparently communicate our legal obligations as well as our educational recommendations to schools, teachers, parents, and community members: Most school leaders, teachers, and parents are unaware of the specific legal obligations for schools to protect children. And that lack of specificity leads to Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. It also leads to implementing more filtering than we need. If we can publish widely what our legal obligations are and the educational recommendations for the uses of Youtube within the classroom, it will go a long way to supporting both the parents need for information and the teachers’ need for protection and understanding within the learning environment.
  • Treat Youtube like the rest of the internet: For much of the internet, we do not whitelist individual websites within our filters. Rather we either blacklist or use categories and tags to better filter out objectionable material. Much of the required filtering has to do with sexual acts and child pornography, and beyond that is mostly at the discretion of the district. Surely, we can come up with a better set of guidelines for such a vast resource as Youtube rather than the blunt instrument of filtering everything out and letting videos back in one by one.

I hope that this look into the filtering currently in place for Denver Public Schools makes the case for developing a pedagogical strategy for Youtube rather than a technological one. I strongly believe that the relationship between the teacher and the student is the best filter you can invest in. I want to make this recommendation within my own school system as well as advocate for it elsewhere.

In an effort to make this more transparent (at least within my own state of Colorado), I have created a spreadsheet to allow for each district to designate their own methods and models of filtering and whitelisting Youtube. If you are a teacher or administrator within any colorado district, please help fill in this spreadsheet to continue this conversation within all our schools.

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