How our 22,000-student district is using a web content filtering platform to keep students safe and on task when learning remotely

A tech leader’s tips for making remote learning safe

How our 22,000-student district is using a web content filtering platform to keep students safe and on task when learning remotely

When COVID forced school districts nationwide to quickly pivot to remote learning, we not only had to configure mobile devices for students to take home, but also implement safeguards to shield them from inappropriate content while outside school walls. We took both responsibilities very seriously, knowing that families were relying on us to maintain both a continuity of learning and safety for their children.

With 45 school sites and about 22,000 students to manage, we knew this would be a major undertaking. To tackle the challenges, we first upgraded our system to accommodate the 20,000-plus Chromebooks that our students would need to learn from home. Then, we acquired additional licenses for ContentKeeper, a school web filter we’d been using since 2017. Using this combined approach, we’ve been able to maintain control of content within social media websites; allow students access to educational content; and block or unblock sites as needed.

Getting everyone online and on board

Prior to the global pandemic, we were at a 2:1 student-to-computer ratio thanks to our labs, but more like 4:1 for true wireless access. We were in the early stages of going 1:1 when COVID hit, having already secured a bond to fund a full refresh. Unfortunately, we quickly learned that handing out computers to families with multiple children was a problem, and that we didn’t have the equipment to do a true 1:1. Instead, we used our bond money to buy thousands of Chromebooks.

Internet access was our next hurdle. Being situated in an area where there are a lot of mountains, internet and cellular accessibility simply wasn’t available to all of our families. These line of sight issues compounded the fact that not all of our families could afford to have cable or fiber optic access at home. For our remote learning strategy to work, we knew we needed all students to be able to access the web from home.

We looked first at cellular access, but soon realized that adding cell towers to increase coverage was out of our scope of capabilities. However, we knew that T-Mobile provided the best coverage in our area, and that outside of a few “blind spots,” the provider pretty much covered our whole region. As part of our bond initiative for our 1:1 project, we acquired 1,300 T-Mobile hot spots—knowing that 1:1 can create major inequities for some families.

At first, we just wanted to have the hot spots on hand for students to check out one day, use them to do their homework, and then return them the following day. When the pandemic hit, students who didn’t have reliable internet access at home were able to check out the hot spots on a longer-term basis and use them for their daily work. So far, we’re doing pretty well with the coverage–I think we’ve only had about two families unable to get the coverage that they needed.

Safety first

With these infrastructure components in place, we needed a way to filter content when students weren’t on our network. This was important for parents, who didn’t want to suddenly be expected to police everything their kids were accessing via the Chromebooks that we’d given them. Needing a way to filter and stop inappropriate content, we explored different options and decided that ContentKeeper provided the high level of filtering and control that we were looking for, so we purchased the additional licenses and stepped up our use of the web filtering solution.

We saw the benefits of this decision pretty quickly. Using the platform, teachers can do real-time checks on students and quickly tell whether they’ve been online (or not). Then, they can see whether it was a connectivity issue (and troubleshoot accordingly) or someone simply not doing his or her lessons. This empowers our teachers to keep tabs on classroom activity from afar and maintain accurate audit logs for future use—and all within a secure online environment.

ContentKeeper also helps students stay on task and ensures that they’re not jumping off into some wild internet search. Teachers can monitor these activities throughout the day, and IT staff can block or unblock website content as needed. The platform retains all of this information, which teachers can then use to show parents how their children are (or aren’t) progressing in class and whether their internet usage or lack of attendance is impeding that progress. These audit logs also allow teachers to quickly scan for unusual activity and address it accordingly.

A powerful technology partner

With most of our students and teachers now back on campus, we’ll keep using our web filter security system to keep students safe and block only those sites that we need to block, versus using a broad-brush stroke to eliminate entire web domains. We want students to have options and to be able to take advantage of learning opportunities, and we also want insights into what’s going on with our network. This platform checks both of those boxes for us.

To school technology leaders looking for a robust web filter for their own networks: the best approach is to look both at the technology platform and the vendor behind it. Don’t get too caught up in all of the bells and whistles, which won’t be of much help if your vendor disappears once the system is in place. Look for a technology partner that’s Johnny-on-the-spot, and that will help you fine-tune and maximize your investment.

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