How students get around web filters, and how schools can stop it

Students are technology are getting smarter. And schools need to stay a step ahead

web-filteringChristine Durso knew she was onto something when she saw how easily her 16-year-old daughter was able to work around a Facebook web filter installed by her school.

“She came up with a pretty creative way to utilize the social networking site on the device she uses in the classroom to fulfill her Individualized Education Program (IEP),” said Durso, instructional technologist at The Speyer Legacy School in New York. The inventive teen simply installed the Facebook application on her device and, without the use of a web browser, was able to post various links to websites that she wanted to visit. “She basically just created her own browser using Facebook.”

The level of creativity was both impressive and alarming for Durso, who knows that her daughter is one of many K-12 students who are finding ways to circumvent school-instituted web filters. By screening incoming web pages to determine whether some or all of them should (or shouldn’t) be displayed to the user, web filters help institutions comply with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). The act requires schools and libraries using E-Rate discounts to have appropriate measures in place to protect students from obscene or harmful online content, thus limiting children’s exposure to explicit content online.

As the number of one-to-one implementations in the K-12 space has grown, the need for good web filtering has also increased. At Tustin Unified School District in Tustin, Calif., Robert Craven, senior technology director, has overseen one-to-one implementations at five different school districts. Each one of those implementations came with new filtering challenges. “It’s one of those things where no matter what we do, kids want to find workarounds,” said Craven. “This is a problem that every district has with one-to-one, and our IT team basically just tries to stay one step ahead of the students.”

Next page: Red flags to watch

Covering their tracks

In some cases, staying a step ahead of students who want to explore all corners of the web requires a web filter and an IT team that pays attention to possible workarounds. In other situations, it may require a heavier hand. “I’ve seen schools remove internet browsers from student devices,” said Durso. “So they want to be one-to-one schools, but they don’t necessarily want the kids to be able to browse the web.” Other schools—including the one that Durso’s daughter attends—use web filters or “blocks” to limit or deny access to certain sites.

At The Speyer Legacy School, Durso said the institution uses a number of different filtering methods to keep its students safe. Google Apps for Education, for example, lets it disallow incognito browsing, where the browser does not save a record of what someone visits and downloads. “Students learn pretty quickly how to hide what they’re looking at online,” Durso points out. “By disallowing incognito browsing, you can stop at least some of that.” Another way to keep a student’s browsing history visible is by not allowing the deletion of one’s browsing history. Make this a part of your school’s acceptable use policy, said Durso, and keep an eye out for devices where the history is cleared. “If I go into a browser and there’s no history,” she said, “it’s an immediate red flag.”

Finding and addressing all of those red flags is an ongoing issue in K-12, and Durso doesn’t expect the pressure to let up anytime soon. “There won’t be a digital solution to this problem; it can only be handled through teacher vigilance and non-complacency,” said Durso. “It’s easy for districts to assume that the filters will take care of the issue, but today’s digital natives know how to get around those blocks. It’s just plain fact.”

Safe surfing

When it rolled out a one-to-one implementation in 2014, Meriden Public Schools in Meriden, Conn., immediately put “safe surfing” under the same umbrella as physical school safety. “We view keeping our buildings safe or making sure students are safe online in the same realm,” said Barbara Haeffner, director of curriculum and instructional technology. “With the school environment expanding outside of the physical space, our job is to provide a safe learning environment online. That’s what it really comes down to.”

To achieve that goal, Haeffner said the district follows the guidelines set forth by E-Rate and stays CIPA compliant. “That’s where our filters start—at the highest level,” said Haeffner. From there, she said the district assesses age-appropriate content and sites and either allows or disallows that content based on student age. Students can use YouTube and Twitter, for example, but the latter is only open at the high school level (due to an instituted age restriction).

Sometimes web filtering requires a manual approach to deciding what will and won’t be shown to students. For example, when teachers request that certain sites be “open” — such as a blog that relates to a current event topic in a Social Studies class — Haeffner and her team review the content and decide whether it’s appropriate. “Blogs are generally blocked, but if one has particular educational value,” said Haeffner, “we’re open to reviewing the request and deciding whether to make the resource available to teachers and students.”

To schools that are struggling to stay out in front of CIPA compliance and web filtering, Durso said: “You’re not alone.” In fact, any institution that’s using school-owned or BYOD devices is probably dealing with many of the same issues. “We’re all going through this, so talk to other schools and districts about how they’re handling it,” said Durso. “As a whole, K-12 teachers and administrators are always willing to talk and share ideas, and to brainstorm about what is and isn’t working in this space.”

Bridget McCrea is a contributing writer for eSchool News.

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