Internet filtering in schools is a difficult thing to get right. Everyone agrees that an element of filtering is required but there’s little agreement on the levelof filtering which should be applied.
Even ‘unfiltered’ access is filtered. All major UK ISPs adhere to a voluntary code to block child pornography sites and the EU and Australia are currently considering laws to enforce the blocking of illegal sites by ISPs.
So what do we actually want to block in schools? Very few teachers would want youngsters to have unrestricted access but very few teachers would agree on what should actually be restricted.
RM’s Filtering Policy, a fairly typical ‘black list’, details the following as the kind of sites to be blocked:
IWF Child Abuse Images database
Pornography and illegal or age-restricted activity
Drugs and substance abuse
Web-based Social Networking
This kind of filtering causes problems for schools, particularly with older pupils. For example, youngsters are taught about drugs and substance abuse but teachers may find some sites tat they want to use are blocked. We need to teach youngsters how to use social networking sites safely but how can we do that if we can’t show a social networking site?
There is no doubt that indiscriminate blocking of all sites which fit a particular category prevents many teachers using potentially useful online resources so flexible filtering which allows schools to open up sites as required would appear to be the answer.
Using a flexible filtering system would allow a school to make a YouTube video available for a particular purpose, to look at Facebook for a lesson on Internet Safety and Responsible Use or look at at site promoting religious intolerance as part of a Social Studies course.
For most teachers, this would be the ideal solution – the background filtering would protect children while the flexibility would allow teachers to use the online resources they want to use.
With school filtering which is controlled by a central body like RM or the Local Authority, individual teachers don’t have to worry about the efficiency of the filtering – it’s not their problem. When teachers have the ability to control the filtering, the responsibility becomes the school’s. When this responsibility is in the hands of individuals, there will need to be clear guidelines about what can and can’t be opened up to children. Who develops these guidelines?
We’re back to the argument about who controls access – a central body or the individual teacher?
Generally, local authorities have guidelines about Internet Safety and Responsible Use based on Scottish Government recommendations. If individual teachers can make any Internet site available to youngsters, clear procedures should be in place to prevent problems. I’m sure that 99% of the time, professional judgement would ensure that flexibility would be used wisely but what happens if a teacher makes available a site which is clearly inappropriate and parents complain? Without clear procedures to follow, teachers could find themselves facing disciplinary proceedings.
So far we have assumed that it is up to teachers to protect children from offensive materials on the Internet but this is only half the picture. This is the Internet Safety part of ISRU, but there is also Responsible Use, where we have expectations of how youngsters will behave online.
If we also factor in the supervision of Internet use, it should be perfectly possible to have flexible filtering and associated guidelines which protects both children and staff.
Here is advice from JANET which I’ve copied in full as I think it outlines a very sensible approach. This extract is taken from this document.
It is suggested that organisations concerned about blocking access to Internet content should adopt a multi-faceted approach to the problem, combining administrative, educational and technical elements.
• Agree a policy about what Internet content is suitable and what is unsuitable.
• Publicise that policy and incorporate its aims into an AUP.
• Ensure that all staff, students and visitors agree to comply with the AUP when first granted computer and network access, and make clear what the penalties are for non-compliance.
• Educate users in how to deal with inappropriate material they may find: in particular, encouraging them to report, rather than conceal, any accidental discovery of unsuitable material.
• Locate public access computers in open, supervised areas; if appropriate, requiring Internet use to be accompanied or supervised.
• Implement technical measures where appropriate (for example, a proxy server) to enforce the policy on acceptable use. Such measures must be accompanied by appropriate configuration of the local network routers or firewalls, or they will be ineffective.
• Use the monitoring capabilities of content blocking software to log network activity, and review the logs on a regular basis. Such monitoring must comply with the Data Protection Act 1998 and Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and in particular, users must be informed that their use will be monitored.
• Take appropriate action against any instances of non-compliance with the AUP.
In conclusion an ISRU regime which protects youngsters and staff alike without interfering with teaching requires
- flexible filtering which allows teachers to create exceptions to general filtering rules
- clear guidelines for staff and young people on Internet use
- acceptable Use Policies which are agreed by all users
- monitoring of computer use to enforce the AUP
Unfortunately, this isn’t the whole story as many children have mobile devices which bypass school filtering. This is for another post.