The internet is a bit like Star Wars: there’s a light side and a dark side.
As a K-12 district, it’s important to steer students away from the latter. No, the galaxy’s fate may not hang in the balance — but that of your school certainly does.
Luckily, you don’t need years of training or a magical force to protect students from harmful content online. That’s what filtering software is for.
Here, we’ll walk you through the basics of content filtering for schools. From why it’s important to what you should consider, here’s everything you need to identify the ideal filtering solution for your school district.
The purpose of K-12 web filtering
Content filtering — also known as web or internet filtering — is a process of managing your students’ access to internet content based on certain criteria.
More simply, a web filter is a tool that restricts access to certain websites, applications, and other sources that could pose a threat to student safety and/or privacy. For example, schools may use filtering software to discourage and prevent students from using social media or gaming on a school-issued device.
Why is internet filtering so important?
First of all, it’s the law. According to the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), public schools must address concerns about minors possibly viewing harmful content online. Part of this responsibility is blocking or filtering access to “inappropriate content,” which can be considered obscene, violent, sexual, or lacking educational value. Notably, CIPA compliance also requires schools to prevent minors from participating in unlawful activities, such as hacking or streaming pirated movies.
Additionally, school administrators must protect students from web content that could jeopardize their privacy or physical and mental health. This includes the unauthorized disclosure of personal information, cyberbullying, self-harm, and graphic depictions of violence.
CIPA compliance is directly linked to the federal E-Rate program. If your school violates CIPA, you may lose eligibility, sacrificing all discounts received through the initiative.
A crash course in filtering software
In simple terms, K-12 content filters are like gatekeepers that keep certain things out of your school domain. They are special tools that watch over internet access and student activity.
Now imagine the internet as an enormous library with all kinds of books and videos. Some are suitable for minors, whereas some definitely are not. Internet filtering works by scanning web content in real time. The solution determines whether a book (i.e., a certain website or application) contains inappropriate material based on set rules and filtering controls. If it does, it’s blocked and students cannot access it.
Web filtering: Use cases and applications
A high-quality web filter is the Swiss Army knife of edtech tools. In other words, there are countless ways you can use it.
Here are some of the most impactful K-12 use cases for filtering software:
- Maintaining CIPA compliance: Obviously, internet filtering is mandated by law. But, with the right filtering system at your disposal, you won’t have to worry about ever falling out of compliance. The best tools make it easy to fulfill your legal obligations.
- Blocking inappropriate content: More than just unauthorized websites and graphic material, filters can also help you detect and remove content that could be illegal. For instance, students may be using school-provided cloud services, like Google Chat or OneDrive, to share sexually explicit images of themselves. Not only is this inappropriate, but it’s also child pornography — a major threat to your school and all students’ well-being.
- Protecting student safety: Web filters use a process called “keyword scanning,” which means they can identify certain phrases and words. This can be used to flag student conversations about self-harm, cyberbullying, suicidal ideation, and gun violence. Detecting these cases allows the school administration to intervene if deemed necessary.
- Blocking dangerous websites: The education sector is a frequent target for cyberattacks — and the problem is only getting worse. Filters play an important role in data security because they can prevent students from accessing malicious content. For instance, hackers may use a shady website to infect a student’s device with malware, which could spread across the school network to more critical resources.
- Removing classroom distractions: Many schools use filters to block content that could distract students, such as social media, games, video sites, and online forums. Restricting access to time-wasting content allows teachers to boost student productivity and enhance the learning experience.
K-12 filtering challenges
It’s important to note that filtering internet access isn’t always as simple as flipping a switch and allowing your software to do the work. There are several factors administrators should consider before choosing to filter web content.
For starters, schools must contend with the fact that their students are accessing the internet in more ways than ever before. Aside from a school device, like a library computer, minors also use their own mobile devices and school-provided cloud applications (i.e., Google Workspace and Microsoft 365). This means that districts have to find a means of filtering content across many endpoints — even if they’re not owned and managed by the school.
Secondly, CIPA’s narrow focus may lead some administrators to overlook today’s online safety issues. As previously mentioned, these can include cyberbullying, digital self-harm, and online sexual harassment. Including category filters that explicitly identify and block content relevant to these areas of concern is key.
Of course, schools must also ensure they adopt an appropriate filtering policy. In simple terms, they must be mindful of overzealously blocking material, as this puts them at risk of censorship. It’s best to have a healthy balance of blacklisted, restricted, and accessible content rather than issuing a blanket policy. Some schools even tailor rules by age group or grade for a more nuanced approach.
Types of web filtering solutions
Generally, content filters are deployed in one of three ways:
- Hardware: Web filtering appliances may be installed alongside the school’s networking equipment. However, hardware-based filters only work on the school network, meaning they can’t block content when students learn from home.
- Software: Some web filters are installed directly into the school data center as a traditional software solution. However, these tools don’t filter content on devices outside the school network.
- Cloud-based: The third solution is a cloud-based web filter. They’re hosted by your vendor, which means they’re delivered over the internet like any other cloud service. This allows them to work even if a device is being used off campus, whether at home or anywhere else.
There’s a good reason why cloud-based web filters are the ideal solution. They don’t require any bulky hardware or a cumbersome installation process. In fact, they can be set up and configured within minutes. This means they’re uniquely scalable across your entire school district — no matter if it includes a few hundred kids or even several thousand.
More importantly, cloud-based filters are equipped with artificial intelligence (AI). With AI filtering, you can automate the entire process of identifying, analyzing, categorizing, filtering, and blocking suspicious content.
Take ManagedMethods, for example. Our content filter includes AI-powered student safety monitoring, which patrols your cloud domain for signs of self-harm, cyberbullying, violence, and more. Moreover, you can recover lost or stolen devices by seeing their last known location and account activity.
ManagedMethods is natively integrated into Google Workspace, which allows you to enroll in automatic updates. No installation or maintenance is required — just set up your policies, review your alerts, and start protecting your students.
Ready to get going? Schedule a demo today and see how Content Filter can benefit your school district.