Sunday, October 11, 2020

My district bans a Jewish surname...

...from emails sent to district-managed student accounts. Here's the story:

In COVID-era Distance Learning, I have found Socrative to be a useful platform for administering student assessments. Among its useful features is the ability to send students their own individual scored test, showing which questions they answered correctly and which ones they answered incorrectly. The results can be sent to student email accounts with the push of a button. [You are correct to assume the instructor had to enter those email addresses into Socrative. But it's a one-time investment.]

This is a great feature for when we do Test Correction Journals.

But in my very first attempt to leverage this feature, it failed. I had, of course, tested the feature before using it with students. And it worked. But when I sent my students their test results, students insisted they did not receive them. I tried it using Chrome, I tried it using Firefox. Nothing worked. I had to create a privacy-respecting, individualized way to tell students which specific test items they missed. I created one breakout room per student, joined each one—one at a time, and announced which items they missed. While class time was burning.

I quickly came up with a functional workaround for the next period, but it fell short of what I needed it to do. And why didn't the student email solution work? 

Students suggested that the district blocks third party emails from student accounts. The vendor, Socrative, meets all legal privacy standards. District tech services said they do not block third parties. Further investigation indicated the emails were blocked because they contained objectionable content. That offensive content appeared in the following question. TW: "Objectionable Content."

[Secrets of the Psychics] Psychologist and former palm-reader Ray Hyman found that he had the greatest success with clients when he  

A. gave a straight-up reading in accordance with palm-reading guidelines 

B. told clients the opposite of what he saw in their palms 

C. imagined that he lived in an earlier era 

D. assumed his clients were skeptical of palm-reading and his abilities

There it is: the objectionable content, clear as day. What's that? You didn't see it? Look again. "hymen" is right in there. Prurient anatomical terminology titillation that would offend any community's standards of propriety. High school students must be protected from such filth.

Okay, not "hymen" exactly, but "hyman," a simple misspelling of a highly salacious, practically pornographic word. Okay, not "hymen" or "hyman" exactly, but "Hyman," a not uncommon Jewish surname. I presume my college hall mate's name, Steve Hayman would trigger that comprehensive filter, too, lest bad actors use simple misspellings to skirt content filters. 

Some might judge the content filtering of Jewish surnames (that are not anatomical terms) as anti-semitic. I'm confident the San Juan Unified School District doesn't intend it that way, but here we are. "Ray Hyman" triggered a full and immediate IP ban due to the district's sweeping content blocking protocols. 

I was given no reason to hope that this filter would be removed by my district's tech services, now that they are aware of the embarrassing error. It seemed as if the onus was on me not to include terms that would trigger bans, and I should just know what all those terms are.

The filtering is clearly far too aggressive and highly impractical. Blocking my instructional program (without notification) for the "crime" of including a Jewish scholar's name? That's beyond a bad look.

It's indefensibly paranoid and ignorant, in my assessment.

UPDATE: This is apparently just another instance of The Scunthorpe Problem, or as Tom Scott calls it, The Peniston Problem. 

1 comment:

Dean Baird said...

Why do I have a question from NOVA's "Secrets of the Psychics" on a Physics unit test? Because I assign that episode—with a video question set—to students as part of the year-long skepticism and critical thinking thread I weave throughout the course. And students have access to their video question sets during the test. So this question is practically a gift.

Banning the misspellings of prurient terms reminds me of a David Sedaris story called "Next of Kin" from Naked. A slightly toned-down version was aired on public radio's This American Life:
The Family that Reads Together