Increasingly, schools and school boards are exploring online filtering as a way to prevent kids from being exposed to inappropriate material. As discussed elsewhere, filtering isn't always a foolproof solution; but if schools do decide to go with filtering software, there is much to consider when selecting it.
The American Library Association says that filters fail to block out about 15 per cent of sites containing objectionable content and as much as 20 per cent of appropriate sites that would be useful. Other organizations say the figures may be much higher. Filters have other problems: they may create a false sense of security; they may increase the appeal of blocked material (the old "forbidden fruit" syndrome); they may not reflect family or community values; they don't promote the development of critical thinking.
Thoughtful educators seek to strike a balance between protection of the child and the development of critical thinking skills for the World Wide Web. Certainly little children should be protected. In fact, they need close supervision, some good rules and the beginning of training in critical thinking. At the other end of the spectrum, in high school, students need a great deal of training in critical thinking, a good deal of information, and much less protection.
The US-based Consortium for School Networking has created an excellent checklist titled Controlling the Internet: Checklist for Decision-Making that can be used by all those involved in the decision-making process in order to determine what type of filtering is best suited to the needs of a particular school or board, and whether filtering is your best option.
- How will students use the Internet?
The planning process for every school technology initiative should address this question. Is it anticipated that students will be using the Internet unsupervised, as a research tool? Or will teachers be managing their experiences more closely? How many computers are in classrooms, labs and media centers and how will that impact the ability of school staff to closely monitor how students are using the Internet? Answering these questions will help determine whether students' Internet access should be supervised and whether staff will be in a position to do it on their own.
- Do you want students to be able to direct their own learning or is it more important for teachers to retain control of what goes on in the classroom?
To what extent does your school or school district foster a classroom culture in which students are independent learners? Or are you more comfortable with a more structured, more formal classroom model? How your school or school district answers this question will provide guidance on how comfortable you will be with giving students unrestricted access to the Internet.
- Should different standards be applied, based on the age of the student?
Your district may decide that different approaches are appropriate, depending, say, on whether a student is in high school or elementary school. If so, you will want to make sure that your proposed solution will give you that flexibility. You may decide to adopt content controls only in certain schools, or you may decide to choose a product that will let you set different levels of restriction for different age groups or classes.
- Should school employees be subject to the same rules as students, to their own set of rules or to no rules?
Are you concerned about how your employees will use the school district's online resources? If so, what kind of rules or limits do you want to impose? Should staff members be required to follow the same rules that students do, or is it more appropriate to adopt a separate policy for adults? Should you distinguish between the kind of online activities they pursue during school hours and those that they pursue outside of school hours?
- Would you prefer to simply monitor how students and employees use the Internet, rather than blocking their access to sites?
Would this approach raise any privacy concerns? Will your staff have time to monitor these logs and respond to potential abuses?
- Are there other issues that you want to address at the same time?
Some content management solutions address other concerns about the Internet or network operations. These include protecting a school network against hackers or viruses, protecting the privacy of students, and restricting children's exposure to advertising messages. If so, you may wish to evaluate whether a certain approach will provide a cost-effective solution to more than one problem.
- How will school officials respond if students are found to be accessing inappropriate material?
This issue should be addressed in your Acceptable Use Policy. Students should know how they are expected to respond if they access a clearly inappropriate site, whether or not it was intentional.
- What strategies will your school district use to teach "information literacy?"
No matter what approach a school district takes, it should ensure that its students understand the "rules of the road" when they go online and how to evaluate the content that they find there. These lessons can be imparted either as part of regular online class-work, or as special activities that must be completed before a student can go online.
- Who should make the decision on what kind of sites are blocked or accessed?
- If school personnel will make the decision on which sites students will be allowed to access, will they have enough time to devote to that task? How frequently will they be able to update their lists? Who will be responsible for updating the list of approved sites? Will that give students access to a wide enough variety of sites?
- If a third party will make the decision on which sites will be blocked or accessed, do you understand the criteria it uses to evaluate Web sites? Does the organisation or company have any particular bias? How easy will it be for personnel to override those decisions if they disagree with them? How frequently does the organization or company update its lists of sites, and how easily is that update accomplished?
- What kinds of content are you concerned about?
Are you primarily concerned about children's access to pornography and obscenity, or are you concerned about their access to materials on topics such as weapons, hate groups and alternative lifestyles?
- What has the experience been with the solution you propose to use?
To what extent are children able to access inappropriate sites, either directly or through search engines and other links? If a product appears to be effective in blocking problem sites, does it go too far in also blocking sites that would be considered benign or needed by a class studying a sensitive topic? A team of staff members may want to test proposed solutions to see what kind of results they turn up. Research papers and testimony compiled by the COPA Commission provides information about the methods that have been used by other researchers to test the effectiveness of blocking software.
- How are users notified when they try to access a blocked site?
Some products provide a clear notice when a site has been blocked. Some allow this message to be tailored to the network's needs. Some products block in a more invisible way. Is it important for your Internet users, both students and staff, to know if they have tried to access sites that were blocked? Or would you prefer that this information be withheld?
- Does the proposed solution address other forms of content besides just Web sites?
Does it provide tools for controlling such things as e-mail, access to chat rooms, and Instant Messaging? Is it important for your solution to include that kind of functionality?
- How easy would it be for a child to hack into and disable a particular filtering solution?
Generally, tools are more difficult to disable when installed on a server, whether it belongs to a school, an Internet service provider or a filtering company, than they are when installed on a desktop computer.
- Does the proposed solution incorporate advertising messages? Will third parties be able to collect information about how your students are accessing the Internet?
Some products incorporate these features, sometimes in exchange for reduced fees, or no fees at all for the product or service. School officials should understand whether advertising or marketing messages are incorporated into a product and what information, if any, will be gathered about users, either individually or in aggregate. Sites that gather information about children are now subject to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act and the role schools are expected to play in the administration of this law is still under discussion.
- If your students speak many different languages, does your proposed solution control access to sites written in languages other than English?
Some children learn to subvert content controls by making their requests in a foreign language. Further, if a child's native language is something other than English, will he receive the same level of protection that a child typing in Web site names in English would?
- How will the proposed solution serve your district in the future?
Will the solution still work as the number of Internet-accessible computers grows? How will that change the price? What future enhancements are on the drawing boards? If your district plans to let children access the Internet through other kinds of devices, how will you extend the controls to those products?
Source: Controlling the Internet: Checklist for Decision-Making ©2000 Consortium for School Networking. Used with permission.
The Consortium for School Networking is a non-profit association that promotes the use of telecommunications to improve K-12 learning. Its members include state departments of education, state networks, school districts, schools, individuals and companies that are committed to this goal.