A new report says current internet filtering technology meets most, if not all, the needs and concerns of schools but recommends that vendors train teachers, administrators, and librarians on their products’ specific features so they are better equipped to use them.

The report also recommends that Congress expand the Children Internet Protection Act’s (CIPA’s) definition of “technology protection measures” to include a wider array of technologies that can protect children from inappropriate online content.

The Aug. 15 report, entitled “CIPA Study of Technology Protection Measures,” was prepared for Congress by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“Existing technology protection measures are capable of meeting a number of the needs of educational institutions,” the report said. “However, some educators are unaware of the capabilities of these measures or lack the knowledge about how to use many features of the technology protection tools.”

For instance, CIPA, the law that requires federally funded schools to use filters, sometimes allows adults to disable a filter for research purposes–but some educators do not know how to do that.

CIPA charged the NTIA with evaluating whether currently available internet filters adequately address the needs of schools, as well as the development and effectiveness of local internet safety policies.

To do so, the NTIA issued a public request for comment last May that elicited 42 comments from associations, technology vendors, government agencies, university professors, schools, and libraries.

Respondents identified six main needs and concerns that schools have about filters:

  • Balancing the importance of allowing children to use the internet with the importance of protecting children from inappropriate material;
  • Accessing online educational materials with a minimum level of relevant content being blocked;
  • Deciding on the local level how best to protect children from internet dangers;
  • Understanding how to fully utilize internet protection technology measures;
  • Considering a variety of technical, educational, and economic factors when selecting technology protection measures; and
  • Adopting an internet safety strategy that includes technology, human monitoring, and education.

Most respondents agreed filters keep students from being exposed to inappropriate content. “Where filtering fell short of being effective, the situation usually involved either overblocking or underblocking of material,” the report said.

For example, the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), which had polled its members, told NTIA that school filters often block web sites that teachers include in lesson plans prepared at home, leaving teachers to scramble at the last minute to find replacements.

Also, some schools expressed concern that the rules for using filters differ for those schools receiving eRate discounts and those receiving U.S. Department of Education (ED) funding. For example, the recipients of ED funds may “disable [filters] for certain use,” and recipients of eRate funds may “disable [filters] during adult use.”

“These provisions generate confusion and reluctance within educational communities about using disabling technology to accommodate override requests for fear of breaching CIPA,” the report said.

Reaction to the report

N2H2 Inc., which owns about 40 percent of the market share for filtering software in education, was pleased that the NTIA’s report recognized the effectiveness of filtering technology.

“N2H2 will immediately begin examining the best ways to help implement the report’s suggestion of providing training for educators on the use of filtering,” company spokesman David Burt said. “Some possibilities include an online teachers guide for using N2H2’s software, online webinars, and live sessions at educational conferences.”

Sara Fitzgerald, program director for CoSN’s Safeguarding the Wired Schoolhouse project, which offers school officials free internet safety resources, was pleased with the recommendation to expand CIPA’s definition to include new technologies.

“There are companies that are coming out with new solutions, and CoSN was concerned that any time a new law is passed it might freeze technological innovations,” Fitzgerald said.

The Free Expression Policy Project, a New York artistic and intellectual freedom think tank, said the report reads like a sales pitch for filtering software, even though it outlines the software’s over- and underblocking problems.

“The report cites one [comment] that ‘children need to be trained to think critically and use the internet safely’ but does not explain how youngsters are to develop those skills if they are kept in an intellectual bubble until they are 18,” said Marjorie Heins, the director of the Free Expression Policy Project.

She added, “The NTIA report is a poor substitute for the much more detailed, thoughtful, and analytically rigorous report released by the National Research Council–part of the National Academy of Sciences–last year.”

William I. Bauer, assistant professor of music education at Case Western Reserve University, who teaches preservice teachers, expressed the same sentiment.

“My feeling is that schools would be far better off teaching students about responsible use of the internet, rather than trying to ‘protect’ them by keeping them away from sites that have been deemed inappropriate,” Bauer said. “As soon as these students leave school, many of them go home to their computers connected by cable modem or [digital subscriber line] to the internet and can access the entire gamut of what is out there on the internet. Students need to be taught skills that they can take out into the world and use.”

Bob Moore, executive director of information technology for the Blue Valley Unified School District 229 in Overland Park, Kan., said vendors already offer the training recommended by NTIA’s report. When his district selected its filter, he interviewed several of the largest vendors and found they all included training.

“Why would anyone buy a product or service without training as part of the agreement? You’re going to spend tens of thousands of dollars a year and not get the training you need to get the most out of your purchase?” Moore said. “It’s the school district’s responsibility to ask for it and take the time to learn the product with the help of the vendor”–and to make sure all staff members understand how to use the software appropriately.

Links:

National Telecommunications and Information Administration
http://www.ntia.doc.gov

“CIPA Study of Technology Protection Measures”
http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/ntiageneral/cipa2003/index.html

CoSN’s Safeguarding the Wired Schoolhouse
http://safewiredschools.cosn.org

Free Expression Policy Project
http://www.fepproject.org

N2H2 Inc.
http://www.n2h2.com