Best Without Worst

Increased Internet access creates technology and policy challenges.

GUEST COLUMN | by Charles Sweeney

CREDIT BloxxPresident Obama’s recent signing of a long-awaited bill opening Internet access for more school children is a welcomed and positive step: It increases access to the rich learning content available online, prepares young people for today’s online business and social environments, and encourages communication and sharing regardless of distance.

However, increasing student access to the Internet also presents challenges for schools. Not only do educational institutions need to protect students from inappropriate online content (enforced for organizations participating in the E-Rate Program by Children’s Internet Protection Act legislation), but they must protect their networks from dangerous malware while ensuring that staff is productive.

To do all of this effectively, organizations must employ both technology and programs to educate users about online risks. An effective Web filtering solution is a central part of the solution, as it can protect young people from inappropriate content, without restricting access to the range of high quality online learning materials and research opportunities. There are many types of Web content filtering solutions available, but to be truly successful, the tool must be flexible enough to deal with the complexity of both the Web and today’s information technology environment.

Hard Lessons about Filtering the Web

Nearly 100 Websites are launched every minute. Traditional Web filters simply cannot keep up with the ever-increasing number, and so any Web filter which relies on URL databases to provide protection will be instantly out of date. This often means users can access new Web pages that schools would prefer were blocked during lessons (Facebook frequently changes the URLs it uses, for example). Many times this scenario also results in over-blocking of Web sites because schools feel there is no option but to block anything not recognized by the Web filter in case the content is high risk.

Older Web filtering technology also can’t deal with the diverse needs of staff and students in an educational setting. Different age groups have different needs, and therefore content that a 3rd grader might not be emotionally ready for (for example videos from WWII), might be appropriate teaching material for older children in 8th or 9th grade. Without the flexibility to provide access to different groups, a Web filter becomes purely a blocker, and can limit learning opportunities, reduce staff productivity and cause frustration. Imagine being a teacher who finds a great online resource at home, only to have it blocked in the classroom because the school’s Web filter cannot accurately categorize the content as acceptable. Your lesson plan is out the window, you need to phone your IT department to have it unblocked…delay ensues, frustration is up and productivity suffers.

Another issue schools face is the use of anonymous proxy sites by technologically savvy students. Anonymous proxy sites offer the opportunity to easily bypass blocked URLs, and unless the Web filter offers real-time analysis of the request and recognizes it as an anonymous proxy site (not viable with URL or keyword scanning approaches because these proxy sites are created at a rate of thousands per day), students will still be able to access any Website they wish, regardless of the suitability of the content.

If all of this wasn’t enough to manage, the educational landscape is changing with more and more schools adopting 1:1 mobile or Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) learning programs. This can have a hugely positive effect on young people’s learning. Using technology they are familiar with, which they can access anywhere, opens up education potential and interest. But of course this adds further complexity for IT staff and administrators, which must be taken into account. For those implementing a BYOD program, this new ebook on Empowering Learning with BYOD highlights some best practices and also provides insight on how access to the Web can be managed in today’s ‘always on’ mobile learning environment.

Meeting the Challenges

Education professionals face many challenges when it comes to filtering online content. Having a Web filter in place which analyzes the content of a Web page in real time rather than the traditional URL database/keyword scanning approach will allow educational organizations to ensure that students and networks are protected, and that learning is not restricted. These next generation Web filters provide monitoring at the point a user requests a URL and also analyze the context of the page as well as the content. For example, these type of Web filters accurately block adult content using the word “breast” but not legitimate cancer education or cooking sites (unless a decision is also made to block these). Because this approach doesn’t rely on databases of keywords or URLs, a Web page can be categorized whether it is 10 years old or 10 minutes old.

In addition, next generation Web content filters are flexible enough to allow for the diverse needs at play in an educational setting. Thus, younger students can have stricter filtering than older ones, and teachers can have different policies than administrators.

Technology + Education = Success

Technology is essential in making sure young people are protected from inappropriate Web content, but it is only part of the solution. Young people also need to understand the risks online, including the availability of inappropriate or illegal content, malware, privacy issues (such as the sharing of identifying data or other personal information via ‘sexting’), cyber-bullying and the ways they can responsibly communicate online.

Acceptable Use Policies are the second essential component to keeping students safe online. These policies should be designed in consultation with all relevant parties, including school staff, students and administrators, and the final policy must be communicated with everyone so that everyone understands their responsibilities. More guidance on setting up Acceptable Use Policies can be found in this ebook, which also discusses the potential learning opportunities offered by social media.

Working in combination, an effective Web filter, the categorization of content in real-time acceptable use processes and appropriate education about these policies can make sure that students are able to harness the best of the Web without being exposed to the worst.

Charles Sweeney is CEO of Bloxx, Inc.

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