Do internet filters really protect students from being exposed to pornography, or do they just offer schools a false sense of security? Are acceptable-use policies enough to protect schools from legal action if a student downloads inappropriate material from the web?

A new web site called “Safeguarding the Wired Schoolhouse” addresses these questions and more. The initiative is designed to help school leaders understand their technological options for managing the content that students access over the internet.

The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), a nonprofit organization that promotes the use of technology to improve K-12 learning, developed the site with funding from N2H2, Education Networks of America, and America Online Inc.

“This project is designed to inform school leaders about all the options available and the differences in technology solutions,” said Keith Krueger, CoSN’s executive director.

“CoSN firmly believes that each school or district should decide for itself how and whether to manage the internet content that its students access after receiving input from students, parents, teachers, school administrators, and [makers of] the technology,” he added.

Although many schools already have decided what to do about inappropriate content on the internet, schools now face greater challenges because they have more computers and internet access than ever before.

Surveys indicate the number of students accessing the internet at school will grow from 14 million to 44 million by the year 2003, according to CoSN. Given these figures, it’s clear that school officials must understand how to protect themselves and their students and staff.

“I don’t want to suggest schools have been lax, but as school networks have grown, it was felt some schools just needed further guidance,” said Sara Fitzgerald, project director of Safeguarding the Wired Schoolhouse. “There are lots of new solutions coming [on the market], and they haven’t been addressed in a complete solution about what works.”

When school officials understand how different filtering products include or exclude web sites, then these educators are better equipped to pick a product, she said.

On the Wired Schoolhouse web site, educators can find a briefing paper that examines a school district’s options for providing internet access and content management. It explains the history behind filters, how they were developed, how to write an acceptable-use policy, how monitoring and filtering work, and more.

“The white paper itself tries to lead you into the background of some of these issues,” said Fitzgerald, who wrote the paper based on testimony given before the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) Commission, as well as recent surveys.

The document “helps you think of things you might not have thought of,” she said. For example, should school officials manage internet content for their students? If they decide to do so, what factors should they consider? Will they have one policy for the entire district? Or, is it more appropriate to have a different policy for elementary students, high school students, and staff?

“There’s a long list of things. We tried to think of the kind of process [school officials] should go through,” Fitzgerald said. “Above all, we express that schools going online should have an acceptable-use policy.”

The Wired Schoolhouse site also offers a checklist of questions school leaders should ask before deciding whether to manage internet content and when evaluating the various types of filtering products available.

Eventually, CoSN plans to add a downloadable PowerPoint presentation to the web site for schools to use. The presentation will be similar to the one designed for CoSN’s Total Cost of Ownership project, which helps school leaders understand the long-term costs involved in building and operating a network of computers, Fitzgerald said.

“I think [the site is] useful, and it may save some time,” said Dick Barkey, executive director of information technology at Adams Twelve Five Star Schools, serving the Colorado communities of Broomfield, Federal Heights, Northglenn, Thornton, and Westminster. Because the Wired Schoolhouse web site gathers statistics and research in one place, district officials can disseminate information quickly to all decision-makers if an incident occurs and the district wants to make an immediate change, he said.

“In our first year of internet access, we opened up very wide internet access to students. I was very concerned about opening up such wide access without the use of filters, but we didn’t have any problems,” Barkey said. “If we had a severe incident, we would probably [want to] clamp on some type of filter fast.”

Legislation pending in Congress could require schools and libraries to use filtering technology, but CoSN maintains the government should not mandate the use of filters in schools.

“Some [educators] view the school opportunity as a way to teach safe use of the internet,” Fitzgerald said. If schools teach students how to deal with inappropriate internet content at school, they’ll be prepared to deal with it when they encounter it elsewhere, she said.

Links:

Safeguarding the Wired Schoolhouse Project
http://www.safewiredschools.org

Total Cost of Ownership Project
http://www.cosn.org/tco

Adams Twelve Five Star Schools
www.ad12.k12.co.us