Why school internet monitoring software is better than over-blocking and filtering web content

“When it comes to setting Internet filters, instead of asking, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ Let’s ask, ‘What’s the best that could happen?’” This is a quote from Matt Miller, author of Ditch That Textbook. Miller brings up an interesting thought when it comes to Internet filters. There’s a lot of good on the Internet, but of course, there’s a lot of bad out there, too. Internet filters can’t block out all the bad content, though, as it grows exponentially and will be a threat for as long as Internet exists.

But by blocking out anything that has a potential threat, a risk of missing out on the good content can arise. This is a reality for educators and IT managers who are forced or encouraged to over-block and filter specific content in their classrooms. Instead of blocking the necessary sites and hoping for the best, they are blocking anything that can bring a threat and giving up hope on the rest.

If this is your school’s take on Internet safety, then you might be shocked to discover that a recent survey revealed that 35 percent of students have found ways around the online blocks designed to prohibit access to inappropriate websites.* In the study, 10 percent of these students admitted to accessing pornographic, gambling and self-harm sites three times or more a month while at school by circumventing the blocks and filters. When we look at these statistics, it’s clear to see that over-blocking access to websites and apps in schools isn’t effective.

Why schools default to blocking

Because of the Children’s Internet Protection Act, schools who receive e-Rate funding for technology (nearly all schools in the U.S.) are required to block and filter website content. According to the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees compliance, school administrators must put technology protection measures in place that “block or filter Internet access to pictures that are (a) obscene; (b) child pornography; or (c) harmful to minors.” But for a multitude of reasons, it’s common practice to block and filter much more than just those particular things. Sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Skype weren’t even in existence when CIPA was conceived, and yet, schools block them because of the mere possibility of questionable content being accessed.

The practice of overfiltering in schools is concerning as illustrated in this excerpt from a 2014 report by the American Library Association Office for Information Technology Policy:

“Many schools block broad swaths of information that all users are legally entitled to access. Beyond filtering entire social media and social networking sites, schools increasingly block access to any site that is interactive or collaborative. Another trend in schools is to rely (mistakenly) on filtering for dealing with issues of hacking, copyright infringement, and cyberbullying, denying access to websites and technology. The resulting restriction of exposure to complex and challenging websites and of the use of interactive tools and platforms represents a critical missed opportunity to prepare students to be responsible users, consumers, and producers of online content and resources. The full repercussions of such over-filtering practices have yet to be felt, but as students’ digital footprints expand, the real-world impacts begin to become apparent. For example, many college admissions personnel and employers already make decisions based on social media profiles. Limits on access to the wide range of Internet based resources during students’ formative years are closing doors to future opportunity.”

In a New York Times article, the American Association of Librarians further illustrated the problem with filtering web content: “Filtering websites does the next generation of digital citizens a disservice. Students must develop skills to evaluate information from all types of sources in multiple formats, including the Internet. Relying solely on filters does not teach young citizens how to be savvy searchers or how to evaluate the accuracy of information.”

Matt Miller, an acclaimed thought leader and author in the education space, feels the same way, as he proclaimed in a recent blog post: “Trying to protect children with overly restrictive Internet filters doesn’t make it go away. Schools try to create ‘walled gardens’ with Internet filters, but students have to walk outside those walls to go to the buses every day. On the way home on their cell phones, on their computers at home, using the WiFi at McDonald’s — they’re back in the Wild West. Students don’t need walled gardens. What they need is guidance in how to manage the reality of the Internet.”

An overly blocked Internet isn’t just a disservice to students; it’s also a huge frustration for educators who are unable to access the resources they need to incorporate digital technology into curriculum. A Slate op-ed entitled “Why School’s Efforts to Block the Internet Are So Laughably Lame” discussed the rigid filters in place that keep teachers from educating their students the way they see fit. Often, YouTube content or Skype conversations with outside experts can’t be viewed because of filters that many teachers deem “heavy handed.”

A solution for failing filters

Rather than having that walled garden (that students can obviously hop over), schools can block the sites required by CIPA requirements. Then they can use a combination of teaching digital citizenship and deploying device monitoring software to detect potentially harmful situations and conversations.

Impero Software CEO Sam Pemberton explained in a recent interview for Safer Internet Day that “Restricting access only works on a site-by-site basis, and even then, not that well. Modern schoolchildren are digital natives and fairly crafty about this sort of thing; proxies and mirrors make it easy to evade any barriers teachers might place in their way.”

Schools should do what they do best: educate. Monitoring software can alert members of staff whenever red flag phrases are used on the institution’s network and can highlight when these individual instances of troubling behaviour form a larger trend. But it’s not a magic potion. Good teachers will use this information to explain why certain behaviors are unsafe and take preemptive action to prevent further dangerous usage.”

Adopting a monitored approach to Internet safety in schools

As the concerns over the risks of online learning grow, blocking might seem like the inevitable answer to Internet safety in schools. As experts mentioned above said, however, solely relying on website blocks is the wrong approach. It is proving to be ineffective and limiting. We want young people to learn how to navigate the web safely, but with excessive blocking we aren’t providing them with the opportunity to do so. Equally, how can students and teachers make full use of online resources if half of their sites are blocked — directly or indirectly?

The key to Internet safety in schools lies in both monitoring technology and education. Young people are more tech savvy than ever, but educating students about the dangers and what is deemed as appropriate online behavior is vital. Adopting a monitored approach to Internet safety helps schools recognize misuse as it occurs so action can be taken when required.

Impero Education Pro’s Internet safety features include a comprehensive keyword dictionary that cleverly highlights when a student types a word, phrase or acronym that may suggest cyberbullying, inappropriate behavior or those at potential risk for things like eating disorders, self-harm, suicide and violence. With this, schools are assured that their students’ online activity is being closely monitored without restricting their ability to learn and explore the Internet safely.

More survey findings

Students in the survey were also asked questions about cyberbullying and trolling. Their answers revealed that 35 percent of respondents have been bullied, made fun of or “trolled: online. It can be difficult for young people to voice their concerns, particularly when they are victims of abuse. Young people often feel isolated and unable to speak out about inappropriate behavior or disturbing material online (especially if they encounter it after weaseling around their school’s filters). Providing an anonymous method of disclosure, such as Impero Education Pro’s Confide system, gives those students a voice. Available in the latest version of Impero Education Pro, the Confide system enables students to report a bullying concern, either about themselves or another pupil, with a member of staff.

If there’s a question mark hanging over your school’s Internet safety policies, consider why simply blocking and filtering content is not the answer.

Impero provides classroom management software features for Internet safety in schools

If you would like to find out more about how Impero can help maximize Internet safety in your school, read about the internet safety features of Education Pro.

*Based on a 2014 survey conducted with 203 UK students aged between 13 and 18.