Technology can result in greater online safety, but only when combined with training, education, and the flexibility to use it sensibly, according to a handful of educators, experts, and private citizens who weighed in on the effectiveness of the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), a law that requires eRate-funded schools to use a technology protection measure to keep kids safe online.

The U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) invited comments from the public to evaluate whether currently available internet blocking or filtering technologies and internet safety policies adequately address the needs of schools.

NTIA will use the comments to make recommendations to Congress about how to foster the development of technology protection measures that meet schools’ needs. Comments were required to be submitted to the organization by Aug. 27.

While some respondents were pleased with CIPA and the use of internet filters in schools, the majority said the law should incorporate internet safety education, flexibility to disable filters, and local decision making.

Others expressed concern that the law fails to address emerging technologies and that it stifles innovation and competition.

“We believe that unless technological protection measures are accompanied by adequate training, allow for flexible usage, and are governed by local decision making, they will never fully meet the needs of schools,” said the National Education Association (NEA) in its comments.

Training and education

Teachers need technology training, and besides relying on technology to protect them, students need to learn to use the internet responsibly, respondents said.

“We are convinced that any technological protection measure will only be successful if used in conjunction with appropriate training and instruction for both the children themselves and for teachers and other appropriate school and library staff,” said the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).

The Mid-Atlantic Regional Technology in Education Consortium (MAR*TEC) recommended that education leaders receive training, help, and support in developing and implementing effective monitoring policies and that school-district leaders participate in this training.

“Even if computers are physically placed in a room so that teachers can see the students’ workstations, teachers and educational leaders are unaware of what good computer monitoring entails and how strategies change and develop with students’ grade level maturation,” MAR*TEC said. “Districts need to educate teachers regarding their responsibility and potential liability and to provide them with effective monitoring strategies.”

ISTE recommended that teacher training should include information about how web sites can be added or deleted from the school’s blocked list.

Also, many respondents felt technology alone will never completely prevent minors from gaining access to inappropriate material online, and that teaching them what to do if they encounter harmful internet content is most beneficial.

“We believe programs that educate children to think critically and use the internet safely and responsibly are the most effective measures to protect children from dangerous situations or inappropriate material on the internet,” ISTE said.

The Consortium for School Networking said students need to learn skills to protect themselves when they use computers without filtered access outside of school. They also must be able to know how to deal with strangers online and how to evaluate information they receive through eMail or various web sites.

“URL filtering solutions are a good start toward minimizing inappropriate internet activity by students, but [those solutions] must not be seen as the panacea to a problem that extends well beyond the viewing of web pages,” said Michael K. Reagan, senior vice president for Vericept Corp., which makes filtering and monitoring software for schools and other customers. “If a mandate is made for schools, it should be for a comprehensive program that includes educating students on the dangers of the internet, what is and is not responsible use of the internet, and the consequences of veering outside of the acceptable-use boundaries as defined by the individual school district.”

NEA made a similar point, saying, “Training of staff and of students is also necessary to make them aware of what acceptable use of the internet is, what to do when harmful or otherwise prohibited material is not blocked by the filter, what to do if approached online by someone, and how to report any incidents or harmful sites.”

Simply requiring schools to adopt acceptable-use policies isn’t enough, respondents agreed. Schools should actively impress these policies upon students.

“If a school district treats their internet safety and acceptable-use policy as ‘yet another form’ that children and parents must sign in the beginning of the school year, but they are not reading, using, or enforcing it, it will not be not an effective deterrent,” ISTE said.

The Cleveland Municipal School District, for example, requires its students to pass a “Student Internet Test” with a perfect score before they can use the internet.

Flexibility to disable filters

Several respondents said schools need the flexibility to disable filters and blocking technology, because access to critical information often is blocked and CIPA doesn’t permit teachers to disable filtering software when minors are using the computers, even for research or other bona fide purposes.

“The No. 1 feature needed by educational institutions is flexibility. Unfortunately, although there are tools with considerable flexibility encoded, use of these features is prohibited by CIPA for schools receiving eRate funding for internet access and internal networking,” ISTE said. The law says filters may be disabled only when adults want unfiltered internet access for research or another lawful purpose.

“We believe that it is appropriate for schools to be empowered to disable the filtering or blocking technology when they believe it to be educationally appropriate to do so,” ISTE said. “Technological protection measures are not effective at every age or grade level, and indeed may hinder educational opportunities by blocking access to critical information. Therefore, we believe that realistic flexibility in the use of blocking and filtering software in classrooms and school libraries is both necessary and appropriate.”

ISTE also urged the NTIA to examine the issue of unblocking carefully, report on the current availability and usability of unblocking features, and advocate more research and development in this area to make these products more appropriate for “real-time” classroom use.

To completely avoid the limitations of filtering technologies, others recommended allowing students to search only a list of approved web sites.

“Through my Sandia job, I have found that allowing only approved sites is effective at keeping inappropriate content from entering a network,” said David Duggan, principal member of the technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories and the volunteer technology coordinator at a parochial school in Albuquerque, N. M.

Local decision-making

Several respondents said the decision to use a technological protection measure should be left up to local school districts and not the federal government.

NEA pointed out that 75 percent of schools used filtering or blocking technology in at least some circumstances before CIPA was enacted.

“These choices, and the thousands of other choices made by schools and school districts throughout the United States, reflected local decision-making processes and encouraged flexible, innovative use of technology,” NEA said.

ISTE agreed that use of filtering technology is best left in the hands of local decision makers, because they have the greatest knowledge of the community.

New technologies and innovation

Some felt CIPA doesn’t make provisions for newly emerging technologies—such as beaming features of handheld technologies—that also can expose minors to harmful content.

“MAR*TEC recommends that research is commissioned to understand how point-to-point technologies are used in schools. The [Regional Technology in Education Consortium] organizations could design, coordinate, and implement this research,” MAR*TEC said.

Others said CIPA could do more to encourage alternative solutions to internet filters as a means of protecting students online.

“We are concerned that CIPA is having the effect of locking in filtering and blocking technology as the ‘technology protection measure’ of choice, thereby stifling potential innovation in the marketplace. With a large block of the education market required to purchase filtering or blocking products, and [with] most schools barred from disabling those products, CIPA provides blocking and filtering companies no incentives to develop new technological protection measures or improve the flexibility of existing software—for example, by developing simple overriding or disabling procedures for classroom use,” ISTE said.

Nancy Willard, director of the Responsible Netizen Project of the University of Oregon’s Center for Advanced Technology in Education, echoed this concern.

“CIPA has actually undermined the development of new technologies. The vast majority of school administrators think that the only way to comply with CIPA is through the use of the current type of commercial, proprietary-protected filtering software. They think that if they try anything else, they will end up in trouble with the [Federal Communications Commission],” Willard said.

Economics also plays a large role in the development of innovative internet protection technologies. With tight budgets, many school districts must make cost a primary consideration for choosing a solution, ISTE said.

Also, financial difficulties at the business level have forced many companies to shift their focus away from education customers’ needs.

“The internet-access-management industry has fallen on very difficult times. Many of the previous vendors who were in this market are either leaving the market entirely or are significantly de-emphasizing their focus on education in lieu of more lucrative and easier consumer, small business, and enterprise markets for the same technologies,” said Nicole Toomey Davis, co-founder and president of DoBox Inc., a provider of parental control technologies for broadband connectivity.

For example, Davis said, SmartStuff Software provided a web-filtering solution to the education market, but since being purchased by Riverdeep Inc. last year, the company has shifted its focus primarily to its desktop management tools as opposed to its web-filtering and access-management software.

Also, Davis said, N2H2 Inc.—a vendor well-known in the K-12 filtering market—has seen its stock plummet from $30 a share to penny stock. (At press time, the company’s stock was trading at under 20 cents a share.)

Educators, their associations, and their corporate colleagues have now had their say on CIPA and related matters. Now, it’s up to the NTIA or Congress to decide what impact those comments will have on the law and federal regulations.

Links:

Comments on the Effectiveness of Internet Protection Measures and Safety Policies
‘http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/ntiageneral/cipacomments/index.html