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Examining the impact of web filters on school network performance in K-12 schools

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The internet’s central role in K-12 classrooms gives students access to a wealth of resources for research and discovery. Yet it opens a Pandora’s box of potential distractions, some mere time-wasters while others pose real danger. The widespread use of web filters underscores the importance of student safety and well-being while learning online. The best web filter for K-12 protects learners without slowing down network performance.

How web filters function in the K-12 setting

Internet filters work by blocking or allowing access to websites. School districts use criteria software or hardware-based solutions to control and monitor internet access. School web filtering software can restrict content based on keywords, categories or website addresses. The smarter the web filter, the safer internet search results will be.

Not surprisingly, when district administrators consider the best web filters for the K-12 level, discussion largely centers around safe teaching and learning while connected to the internet. Web filters also perform other vital tasks that may be taken for granted. Many are behind the scenes at the network level. 

Top reasons K-12 schools use web filters

Student safety

Whether working online in class or on a school device at home, K-12 students need to be safe. 

“Ensuring that students are learning in secure and appropriate online environments is one of the top priorities for every school district,” explains Wayne Poncia, President of Hāpara. “The objective is to create a secure online environment and prevent students from accessing inappropriate or distracting content during school hours.”

Federal compliance

Administrators have a legal obligation to ensure the safety of each of their students. Due to the effectiveness of web filters, they are obligatory in most K-12 settings, thanks to the Children’s Internet Protection Act enacted in 2000 by the United States Congress. Among CIPA guidelines is implementing a web filter to protect children from accessing harmful or obscene content online. 

Time management and digital citizenship for students

Web filters help reduce opportunities for students to lose focus during class time. For example, a web filter set up to limit access to pages with games helps learners stay more focused on their assignments.

Learning how to manage distractions and remain focused on tasks is a valuable life skill for all K-12 students. The opportunity to do schoolwork on a device and deal with potential distractions in the context of a class with teacher support is helpful practice for future employment. By teaming with technology, educators have an opportunity to instill in students practical skills for addressing distractions that can aid them in their lives. 

Deledao ActiveScan, presented by Hāpara can be set so that teachers can approve student requests to unblock websites without needing to send the tech admin a request. A student who completes assignments may be granted teacher permission to get on an educational gaming site for the rest of a class period. This can give students an opportunity to make choices and practice digital citizenship skills.

Network health

A web filter can improve the healthy functioning of the school system network. By managing bandwidth consumption as it filters out nonproductive traffic, web filters free up bandwidth on the network. This enables educational data to flow more rapidly.

Selecting the best web filter for your K-12 school

Different web filter solutions offer distinct features and filtering technologies. Several types of filters are on the market from basic search engine filtering solutions to those that use artificial intelligence. Some can be installed on devices, others on browsers or networks, while others are cloud-based. 

These affect district networks in different ways. When in the market for a web filter, understanding what will work for your school or district is key when selecting the best web filter for your institution.

Deledao ActiveScan, presented by Hāpara is a cloud-based AI browser filter. It works by screening each webpage in real time and analyzing images and videos as well as text. Inappropriate content in search engine results is immediately blurred. This technology reduces the need to spend time constantly maintaining long lists of blocked categories, keywords and URLs. 

In other words, the AI does the remedial work. 

How web filters benefit network performance for K-12 schools

Manage bandwidth

Web filters help ensure sufficient bandwidth so students and educators can easily access the educational resources and applications they need. This is done by restricting student and at times educator access to so-called bandwidth hogs. Bandwidth-intensive websites include those with streaming content or large downloads.  

Improve network speed

In blocking access to noneducational or non-work-related websites, web filters promote a more efficient use of the network. They help reduce the load on the K-12 school network which promotes faster internet speeds for curriculum-related online activities. This is critical for an efficient flow of activities in classrooms throughout a school.

Increase productivity

Certain filters allow school districts and teachers to enforce time restrictions and limited access to certain websites. This helps promote productivity by helping students focus on doing their work and achieving their learning objectives. Noneducational sites may be accessed when or if the district or teacher decides. Generally, students spend less time on noneducational sites.

Protect the network from outside risks

One way IT teams maintain security is through filtering and monitoring. This helps prevent users from going to sites where they could pick up malware or other things that would jeopardize their district networks, according to an EdTech Magazine article. By restricting access to websites prone to cyberattacks, web filters help safeguard school and district networks as well as the devices connected to them.

Along with keeping out harmful and inappropriate content, web filters protect the privacy of users within the network. Web content filtering software protects networks from web-based attacks such as ransomware or malware downloads.

How to overcome challenges with web filters

Three web filter challenges

  1. Overblocking
  2. Misclassification
  3. Administrative overhead

Solutions for overblocking 

The most publicized concern is overblocking, which is the idea that filters can hinder free learning since students cannot access certain sites or certain keyword searches are blocked. Blocking educational content due to misclassification or overly restrictive criteria set by the school district can hinder students’ access to needed or desirable resources. This can affect their ability to research and learn online. 

One simple solution is to use a smarter type of filter that does not block entire categories and can distinguish among the content shown. It is also helpful for tech administrators to engage in best practices for managing web filtering, such as allowing teachers to use their discretion to unblock websites during class when learners send a request. Another practice is building in flexibility to cover instances when a teacher wants learners to access websites in certain categories for an assignment or special project.

Avoiding incorrect classification

Poncia notes that some web filters may incorrectly categorize websites. In some cases,  legitimate educational sites are blocked, which he calls “false positives.” Meanwhile in other cases, inappropriate content isn’t blocked, known as “false negatives.” 

Incorrect categorization be frustrating or dangerous for learners and educators, It also puts more demand on technical staff who are responsible for reviewing and updating web filters to eliminate false negatives and positives. This may contribute to administrative costs that could be avoided.

The AI technology in Deledao ActiveScan, presented by Hāpara, understands the context to evaluate online content. It blurs or mutes harmful or inappropriate content in images, video or audio. For example, learners can watch educational YouTube videos, without IT needing to make updates to their web filter day to day.

Managing administrative overhead

District IT departments must regularly maintain and configure their web filters. Such updates and adjustments ensure smooth operations for teachers and students across the district. 

Adopting a balanced approach to web filtering in K-12 schools

Regardless of which type of web filter your school or district employs, Poncia urges district and school leaders to strike the right balance between safety and access to learning content for both educators and students.

Regularly reviewing and updating web filters is a basic requirement in order to maximize protection while minimizing overblocking. Not only will this facilitate unrestricted access to educational resources it also helps ensure an effectively managed network.   

A healthy network is literally the backbone of well-functioning technology throughout a school system. Therefore, making the necessary investment to keep that network vital is one of the best ways to support student performance.

Explore how schools use a web filter and screen monitoring to keep students safe and teach digital citizenship.

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