web filtering

How much do you know about web filtering?

A Q&A with a web-filtering expert

eSchool News sat down with Brian Thomas, president & chief executive officer of Lightspeed Systems, which builds software that helps schools keep their devices safe and is used by more than 6,500 districts across 52 countries, to talk about the web-filtering landscape.

You’ve been with Lightspeed Systems for 20 years. How have you seen things change in content filtering?
When I first started with Lightspeed, we were selling an all-in-one product that did antivirus, traffic management, web filtering, spam filtering, and email archiving. At that time, web filtering was really a back-office IT tool that nobody else in the district cared much about. But as technology in schools changed and networks grew and mobile devices came into classrooms, the needs around filtering really evolved—and just blocking bad content wasn’t enough.

What else were schools looking for?
Well, for one thing they wanted less blocking, or at least less over-blocking. Teachers and students and their IT teams were looking for filtering that blocked inappropriate sites but didn’t block content that could be used for learning.

Web-filtering companies have come and gone. What keeps Lightspeed around?
We really listen to our customers so we know what their latest challenges are and we respond to them. When Wikipedia and blogs were really hot, schools wanted to allow some of that content but nobody knew how to filter that social, ever-changing content. We developed a solution for that. Web access during testing was another challenge that we helped them solve. Then everyone saw the power of YouTube but didn’t know how to allow good videos while blocking bad ones, so we solved that too.

Today it’s all about how to keep mobile devices safe–on the school network and off. District IT teams are over-burdened and under-staffed, so these solutions need to be simple to set up and easy to use.

(Next page: The latest changes in web filtering)

You mentioned YouTube. How does Lightspeed respond to concerns about safe videos?
YouTube has so much great content; schools really miss out if they just block it. But one of the issues is that it’s a contributor-built community, and those same people who create and upload videos are the ones who choose the category and the rating. You can’t trust those ratings. We developed a feature called Smart Play that doesn’t rely on YouTube or the video creators to say if a video is educational; we’re categorizing it ourselves. We’ve been building and evolving our database technology for 20 years, so we know how to categorize educational content.

What’s the biggest challenge schools have today with filtering?
SSL traffic is the number-one thing we hear about. More and more of the Web is moving to encrypted traffic, which gives schools a new challenge. They need to be able to see students’ Google searches and allow some YouTube videos while blocking others, but that requires decrypting SSL. There have been solutions to that–setting up a trusted man-in-the-middle proxy–but it ends up being a lot of work for schools and they’ve asked us for a better solution.

Is there a better solution?
Yes. You can’t avoid the proxy and the trust certificates and all those things because they protect you when you’re shopping or banking online. But we’ve tried to make that easy for schools by doing it within our product. Our latest cloud-filtering solution, Relay, lets schools get the SSL decryption and the granular filtering and reporting that comes with it, but they don’t need to do anything with proxies or PAC files or trust certificates.

What about teachers? How do they fit into all this?
We realized early on that content filtering impacts students and teachers more than anyone. So we’ve created features that let teachers share in the role of blocking and allowing content in their classrooms. This could mean locking down access for testing or opening it up for a special health lesson. Right now, though, teachers have classes with 30 students and 30 devices. It can be overwhelming. If they’re in the front of the room teaching, they don’t know what’s happening on the devices. The answer has been programs that show student screens, but that ties a teacher to their desk, watching screens roll by to see who might be on a site they shouldn’t be. Our next solution, Classroom, builds in some automation and pushes the information teachers need right to them: Who’s off task? Who needs help? We’re including this with Relay, because we think the IT filtering and the classroom solution go hand in hand.

What’s one thing you think schools need to know about web filtering?
Don’t just set something up and forget about it. Keeping students safe is so important as they’re using the web and social media more and more. With the right content-filtering solution, you can prevent cyberbullying and self-harm and violence. Equally, making sure students can get to great content is critical to learning. Filtering is as much about access as it is about blocking.

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