MET:Censorship and Monitoring

From UBC Wiki

This page was originally authored by Dieder Bylsma and Brian Farrell (2008).

This page was modified by Stuart Allen Davidson January (2009). See section 2.3.1 Implications for Learning and references under the same title.

As the phrase Censorship and Monitoring can refer to two different, but somewhat similar ideas, so too is this web page divided:
1) Cognitive Censorship & Monitoring
Long before we had written language we had censorship and monitoring. We –as linguistic communicators using language–, learned when to speak, when not to speak and monitored the difference. This cognitive perspective was put into a more concrete form by Stephen Krashen while developing his theories of Second Language Acquisition.
2) Externalized Censorship & Monitoring
The other perspective is that of the external world and how society exerts its will upon its members to not discuss, act upon, or otherwise entertain certain issues. This can be done by societal mores, or it can be done through an organized bureaucracy concerned with the dissemination of approved information and the suppression of unauthorized or inappropriate information.

Cognitive Framework for Censorship & Monitoring

Stephen Krashen, a noted Second Language Acquisition theorist and expert from USC posited that there exists a model, labeled "The Monitor Theory" which explains how secondary language are acquired by adults. For the purposes of this section, the idea of "Censorship" and "Monitoring" will be considered to be very similar, if not identical in the final analysis.

Monitor Theory

The Monitor Theory is one of the five sets of hypothesis that Stephen Krashen proposes as being the guidelines for how adult learners acquire a new language.

Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis

There are two methods in which people acquire a second language. Krashen felt that the acquisition of the language through communication acts has greater significance than learning a language through a formal structure of learning.

Acquired System
  • similar process to children's acquisition of their first language. Language is absorbed by the learner in a meaningful set of interactions in the target language
  • learner concentrates on the act of communication rather than the actual form of the communication
Learning System
  • result of a set of formal instructions and is doing in a very conscious and deliberate fashion
  • frameworks such as the formal structures for grammar rules of a language are used in this model

Monitor Hypothesis

Monitoring is a consequence of the learner being consciously aware of elements of structure and grammar in the target language. Thus when faced with a need to communicate a user will:

  • have an idea that needs to be communicated
  • search for key words that encompass the ideal acquisition mode of communicating
  • choose a grammar to communicate the idea by using the learned grammar
  • communicate

Thus the acquisition system of the learning process becomes the origin of the initial words to express the idea while the concrete grammar and strictures are applied by the learning system which acts as an arbiter of what needs to be said and how it should be said:

  • plan
  • edit
  • correct

This then can only happen in a situation where the speaker has:

  • sufficient time to develop the idea in the secondary/target language
  • can focus on the style needed for expression
  • is aware of the rules governing that pattern of communication

When faced with a situation where there is insufficient time to plan and focus, the learner's knowledge of the target language's grammar will have a limited effect when compared to the need to communicate. Thus the monitor of the learner will then be used for correction of aberrant speech and also for refining the final communication.

Given these criteria, Krashen further divided second language learners into more categories especially with respect to how the monitor was used. People with a fair amount of self-confidence tend to be optimal users or under-users.

  • over-user who monitor everything they communicate --perhaps considered to be perfectionists
  • under-user who prefer to use language that is acquired and not pay particular attention to the learned grammar -- extroverts
  • optimal users who monitor and communicate in such a way that their communication efforts are not blocked by conscious intervention nor by lack of attention

Natural Order Hypotheses

Natural Order Hypotheses postulated that there is a predictable and standard order in which language grammars are learned regardless of the learner's native language (L1) or how they were exposed to the secondary language. Note, however, that this information, while useful, Krashen argues should not be used exclusively in the creation of an effective language acquisition program.

Input Hypothesis

The Input Hypothesis is not concerned with the structure of the target language being learned, but rather with the acquisition of the language. The central tenet is that a learner will only learn if they are pushed slightly past their existing abilities to communicate in a linguistically competent manner. Thus as Krashen diagrammed, if learners are at an input/output level i then when they are exposed to understandable natural communication level which is slightly past their own comfort level, i.e. i + 1 then they will learn more.

Affective Filter

The Affective Filter is the idea that the learner's own attitudes towards the language, their level of anxiety and their motivation all will play a role in determining how the learner will acquire a language. Negative attitudes, high anxiety and low motivation will result in a learner that learns at a less rapid and thorough pace than a learner with high motivation, self-confidence et cetera. Thus a high state of anxiety increases the strength of the Affective Filter and reduces the retention of the target language.


Krashen's monitoring hypothesis is an integral part of his theories on how language is acquired by adults. By dividing the learning method into the idea of the 'acquisitor' and the 'learner' we have a dichotomy between two modes of learning; we learn and structure intuitively and we also learn in a much more formal structure as a 'learner'. This conceptual concept can also be taken to the external construct in a different field, how we as individuals in a society monitor ourselves, our groups, or social-networks and how we are monitored. Our abilities as members of society to determine when to communicate with others is also governed by the knowledge that there are consequences if we exceed certain boundaries depending upon the situation.


  • Krashen, Stephen. (1981) Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning New York: Pergamon Press.
Authorized online versions accessed on Feb 20, 2008:

External Censorship & Monitoring

Educational institutions and corporate bodies, agencies, bureaucracies and governments often feel a need to monitor and censor the content of their users' internet and general computer-use experience. There is often a concern for the type of content being viewed and its appropriateness for a given environment; while self-censorship is the ideal solution, many bodies have determined that there still needs to be an external level of filtering and control implemented either with or without the users' acquiescence. Thus users’ activities may end up being either overtly or covertly monitoring and censored.

Tim Berners-Lee, often considered to be the ‘father of the world wide web’ discussed the idea of content control in an interview with Rolling Stone commenting that “we have expanded to the point where all the world is [going to be] connected” Now the question becomes one in which control of access becomes an issue that has yet to be resolved, be it on the family-user-scale or the country-scale like the Great Chinese Firewall where, as BBC Editor Richard Taylor notes “Chinese netizens find themselves surfing in the shadow of the world's most sophisticated censorship machine [... with] now [in 2006] an estimated 30,000-strong internet police force which, with the aid of Western-provided technology, is dedicated to monitoring websites and e-mails.”

There are many tools that can be used to monitor multiple institutional computer users, some being quite passive, while others are real-time and synchronous in nature. Terms of use agreements and the physical positioning of workstations can offer some easy solutions to monitoring concerns, but many organizations have felt the need to adopt more technologically advanced tools. Like any controversial technology, it can be framed in different contexts depending upon how it is regarded. Fundamentally it is content control that is being applied to the explorations and activities of other people. As the computer website PCMag writes “web content control software is probably one of the most controversial topics reviewed” in their experience. Brought to mind with the mere mention of such a topic are various aspects of censorship, Orwell’s 1984 and a variety of images and content that are considered illegal by society and its assorted governments for a given reason or another.

Passive Monitoring

Many organizations are quite large and varied in nature, often with thousands of users requiring computer and internet access at any given time. Such organizations often chose to employ some level of passive filtering to limit the scope of its users internet activities. There is a burgeoning market for web content and internet-content filtering software, targeting the home-user to the institutional and beyond. Rather than evaluate software packages such as what is listed in the wikipedia entry for list content control software we will examine one example as implemented by the Simcoe County District School Board (SCDSB), a public K-12 school board in Ontario.

Simcoe uses SmartFilter as a passive monitoring solution; the software offers an organization the ability to set various levels of filters and keyword queries. Organizations determine what level of access is required of different categories of users (e.g. students, teachers or administrators), and can adjust the filtering parameters accordingly to meet these needs. Some implementations also permit particular categories of users to override the default settings for one-time or continual usage. With any monitoring solution, accountability is always a consideration, thus the options exist for logs to be kept of who overrode the filter and for how long.

While such technologies can be an effective and simple way to control internet use, it is important to also note their limitations. Due to the overwhelming volume and continuous level of change of internet content, it is virtually impossible to individually identify specific sites that are inappropriate for a particular user group. Instead, filtering software such as SmartFilter relies on a combination of keyword limiters (e.g. sex, nazi, proxy, etc.) as well as an evolving database of identified sites that are inappropriate for categories of their clients. One of the challenges of this type of software is to achieve a level of granularity, a level of control, where internet access can be controlled but not to the point of making access useless. If the parameters of these keyword limiters are too detailed and rigid though, sites that are relevant and quite appropriate (e.g. health education, historical references, etc.) can become blocked from user access. How to handle these reasonable exceptions to filtering rules is a significant challenge for the authors of these filters. It is an ongoing race to develop filters that are comprehensive yet not too broad and exclusionary. Web pages are easily found on how to re-route, circumvent around software packages such as these. While articles such as Baracuda Networks discuss the various approaches and their strengths, web sites such as BoingBoing have a guide on how to defeat what is called censor-ware. The battle continues.

It is important then to allow users to request that specific material be 'un-blocked' if it is indeed relevant to their work. Software such as SmartFilter allows its users to gain access to specific sites and allows its system administrators or power users the ability to temporarily override filter settings on a case by case basis for a defined period of time. Since this is a passive system though, restricted-access users are generally required to wait a period of time after making an exemption request before they are able to access previously prohibited content. This often proves frustrating to users being controlled though this software, so careful consideration needs to be given to the level of censorship that is absolutely necessary for a given context.

Active — Real-Time Monitoring

In addition to wanting to control the type of information being accessed by its users, some organizations (particularly educational institutions) often want to ensure that its users are using given resources only for their intended purpose. Often educational institutions such as K-12 school districts are faced with finite resources at their disposal, and under such situations there can be a strong need to ensure that those resources that are available are being used effectively. The ability then to watch in real-time what each user is doing at his or her workstation can be a powerful tool in both ensuring compliance with policies as well as encouraging the students to develop a work ethic that is focused not on distractions or beating the filter, but on the assigned task.

Software solutions such as NetSupport School allow for the synchronous monitoring of multiple users from a central workstation. This program allows the administrator to both view as well as control any or all user workstations in real-time, and has the added functionality of enabling other user limiters (e.g. disabling or restricting internet access, muting sound, etc.). This can be implemented on a local level, providing real-time screen-monitoring capabilities, or on a broader level (including national level) with more specialized and covert software that provides intermittent screenshots of the user's activities.

The visibility of this interface can be entirely controlled by the administrator, who can determine the desired level of remote interaction with the system users. Monitoring can remain invisible to users if so desired, or the administrator can choose to send one-way messages to users in order to correct off-task behaviour. If enabled by the administrator, this system has the added benefit of opening a controlled network of other tools to the users, such as instant messaging and help requests where users can communicate immediately with the administrator.

There are many educational affordances allowed by this software, such as the ability to broadcast the image from one computer to all of the others being controlled, or the real-time sharing and transferring of files between users, but it's emphasis on monitoring and supervision can be somewhat Orwellian in nature. Since this program is designed to run in an environment that is completely invisible to the users being monitored, it becomes a quite important ethical consideration that users are made aware both of their expected behaviour as well as the possibility of being monitored in real-time from afar.


While the ability of technology to provide a compelling resource of information and alternative points of view almost without regard to geographical location, the ability to control this access presents a variety of problems and concerns. While K-12 school boards can justify their actions in the name of providing reasonable supervision and accountability to their taxpayers over their students and what they learn and are exposed to, many parts of the world regard the ability to control the access of the internet as equally imperative. Various governments and organizations are equally able to frame a convincing argument from their cultural perspective on the merits of content filtering. From the Middle East to China to Burma to the local school board, the issue remains: how much access is enough? Amnesty International reports on how censorship does change the Internet, and thus what people are able to discover for themselves.

Implications for Learning

There are several implications for learning when considering the use of content filtering to monitor or control student access to information. These implications are particularly significant when learning occurs in a constructivist environment, discussed in this forum under Cognitive Approaches to Learning, where learners are involved in inquiry, problem based, issue-based and question based engagement that requires learners have access to all potential information that will help them construct their own knowledge around the subject. Recent research into blocking software and content filtering reveals the following implications for learning.

  • Their use is counterintuitive and antithetical to current models and theories of learning.
  • Their design has an inherent political power structure that can protect the interests of some individuals over others.
  • They are often found to be ineffective and unreliable in achieving their intended goals

Also important to note, is the fact that educators have a responsibility to teach students the skills to determine validity, assess bias and make informed decisions about the content they encounter while online. When students depart the sanctuary of the institution’s filtering system they are exposed to all the internet has to offer, both the decent and the offensive.


Highlighted Computer Software

NetSupport Monitoring software produced by NetSupportSchool.Com NetSupport School
SmartFilter Software, produced by Secure Computing: SmartFilter

Online-Accessible Published Articles, Reviews and Overviews

Hiatt, Brian. 2007. Interview with Tim Berners-Lee. Rolling Stone. 11/15/2007 (1039) 78. Accessed March 2, 2008 from Online Article

Lipschutz, Robert P. 2004. Web Content Filtering: Don't Go There. PC Magazine. 2004/03/16. Accessed Feb 29, 2008 from,4149,1538777,00.asp

Piscitello, Dave. Blocking spyware at the network gateway (2005) Accessed March 1, 2008 from

References for Implications for Learning:

Monahan, T. (2005). The school system as post-fordist organization: fragmented centralization and the emergence of IT specialists. Critical Sociology, 2005 31(4), 584-615. Retrieved November 6, 2008, from [1]

Callister, Jr, T.A., Burbules, N. (2004). Just give it to me straight: a case against filtering the internet. Phi Delta Kappan, May (2004), 649-655. Retrieved September 25, 2008, from ERIC (EBSCO) database.

Selwyn, N. (2006). Exploring the ‘digital disconnect’ between net-savvy students and their schools. Learning Media and Technology, 31 (1), 5-17. Retrieved September 25, 2008, from ERIC (EBSCO) database.

Levin, D., Arafeh, S. The digital disconnect: the widening gap between internet savvy students and their schools. Commissioned by Pew Internet & American Life Project, August 2002,1-33. Retrieved November 19, 2008, ,from ERIC (EBSCO)database.

Internet blocking in public schools: a study on internet access in educational institutions, June (2003). Version 1.1. San Francisco: Electronic Frontier Foundation. Retrieved November 19, 2008, from [2]

Johnson, D. (2005). Maintaining intellectual freedom in a filtered world. Learning and Leading with Technology, May 2005, 39-41. Retrieved November 1, 2008, from ERIC (EBSCO) database.

Bell, M. (2007). The elephant in the room. School Library Journal, January 2007, 40-43. Retrieved November 1, 2008, from ERIC (EBSCO) database.

Perrin, J. (2002, October 22). Do internet filters work? CBC News, Marketplace. Available at: [3] Retrieved November 19, 2008, from [4]

Petrina, S. (2008). The Politics of Educational Technology, Module 5, 1.1 Politics, Technology and Values. Retrieved November 7, 2008, from [5]

BBC News Site

Unknown Authors

BoingBoing Web Site

Wikipedia Overviews