Everyone has an opinion on web-filtering in schools. While most educators and parents can agree that 100% unregulated web access is the wrong formula for students, there’s merit in the belief that students should learn how to responsibly participate in the (mostly) open digital world.
I recently shared an article around Newmind Group, written by a Minnesota high school student, examining the value of digital freedom in schools, and it sparked an interesting conversation in the office about the future of web access in schools, and the ways that certain challenges are being tackled in edtech, such as the the relationship between web-filtering and BYOD.
“Bring your own device” (BYOD) is the practice of individuals using their own tech devices to work on their company’s network, rather than using company-owned devices. Over the past 10 years, this trend has begun spilling over from the business world into schools, especially since the advent of smartphones, tablets, and other low-cost consumer devices—and this has been making waves for school IT staff for some time now.
In both the education world and the business world, a big concern for IT staff is network visibility, or the tracking and management of the devices and equipment wired into your school’s network.
Now zoom out a bit—many schools operate on a district-wide network, so you’re looking at hundreds (or thousands) of computers spread over as many as a dozen schools, and when personal devices like smartphones and tablets come into the mix, network management becomes a massive effort.
The American Association of School Librarians conducted a survey a little over a year ago, looking at the BYOD parameters set by schools, and found that the most popular methods of dealing with devices are web-filtering software at 94% of schools and acceptable use policies at 87%, while only 8% have stuck with an internet access “by request only” approach. Additionally, 73% of schools that replied said that they have the same blanket filtering settings for students of all grades, rather than adjusting the filter according to the age of the student.
In Maryland, the Montgomery County school district has begun an entirely open BYOD policy, not only allowing students to bring devices, but encouraging it and working this into their current infrastructure, alongside school-owned devices and computers.
Through the use of secure school WiFi channels and reliable web-filtering like Securly, schools like Montgomery are able to create an environment safe enough to permit BYOD. The true ideal for most schools is to reach a 1:1 environment, in which each student has access to a school-issued device (sometimes even to bring home), but budgetary concerns limit many districts from reaching this milestone.
Montgomery County hasn’t disclosed their exact means of regulation and filtering on their tech policy page, but they say that the plan for these devices has been under continual revision since the program began 3 years ago, undergoing tweaks to their policies as the technology evolves.
Where to draw the line, and when?
Before any steps can be made towards a more open web environment for schools, CIPAand COPPA standards must be met, but then the question becomes: at what rate should students begin shedding these filters? Should these be in place according to grade, class, or even individual student performance?
The web has become an even more dynamic place in the last decade, with sites like Youtube and Wikipedia becoming gray zones for “appropriate” content. Moreover, mobile data connections on personal devices are still a blind spot for school IT staff. It seems that a new rubric for student web exposure is due in the coming years.