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Exploring different types of web filters for K-12 schools

Every school needs a web filter to protect students. But which type of filtering software for schools is best? Explore the web filters available for K-12.
Product Updates December 2022-01

Every school district needs to protect learners and educators as they navigate online, as well as protect the network and school devices. That’s where a powerful web filter comes in to keep out malware, protect privacy and restrict harmful and inappropriate content. There are several types of web filtering software for schools, though. So which kind is best for your school district and learning needs? Read on to explore the different types of web filters available for K-12.

What is web filtering software?

A web filter’s main goal is to block online content that internet users shouldn’t access and keep harmful malware from breaking into a network. The most basic kind is a search engine’s web filtering feature. Other web filters include those you install on devices, browsers or networks. Web filtering software for schools can restrict content based on categories, keywords or website addresses. Some also use artificial intelligence to filter content. 

Many web filters include an “allowed list” or a “blocked list.” When IT staff adds a URL to the allowed list, learners and educators can access that website at any point. On the other hand, adding a URL to the blocked list will prevent them from being able to access the website. Some web filtering solutions also allow technology administrators to set up separate filtering rules for different types of internet users.

Why do schools use filtering software?

The United States Congress enacted the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) in 2000 to protect children from accessing harmful or obscene content online. If a school receives E-rate program discounts for Internet access, they need to follow CIPA guidelines, including implementing a web filter. 

Schools must filter or block online access to obscene or harmful images and pornography. CIPA also requires schools to monitor learners’ online activities and educate them about digital citizenship. Monitoring software like Hāpara Highlights allows schools to model safe and responsible online behavior and help students safely navigate the internet during learning. With clarity into how students are using the internet, Highlights provides opportunities for educators to have digital citizenship conversations in the moment with learners. Plus, features such as guided browsing sessions help learners gradually gain online independence.

Discover how a South Carolina school district supports SEL with browser monitoring

Watch the video to hear why Highlights helps educators like Kathryn combine monitoring with social and emotional learning.

What are examples of web filtering software and features?

Organizations and companies across the globe use web filtering tools to protect users, networks and devices. But what do K-12 schools use to filter websites? The following tools and features are examples of what schools use to restrict content, but not all may be effective enough to meet your school district’s needs.

Search engine filters

A search engine filter restricts search engine results so that obscene websites or URLs with inappropriate content are not displayed. This type of filter is a feature that’s available as part of the search engine.

Google SafeSearch is an example of a search engine filter. It works by restricting explicit results in Google searches. While this is helpful when learners perform an online search on Google, if they visit a website directly, SafeSearch won’t block the website or its content. If a learner types the URL for Tik Tok into the address bar, for example, SafeSearch won’t be implemented.

Device-installed filters

Another type of education web filter is device-installed. In this case, IT staff set up the filter as a program directly onto each school computer or tablet. While this could work for a small number of devices, this type of web filter setup isn’t practical for a larger school district.

Network filters

A network-based web filter works across the school district network to block websites. These web filters work by blocking or allowing categories, domains, URLs or keywords. This kind of web filter is more powerful than a search engine web filter and is easier to set up. If learners in your school district use multiple devices or work on learning activities outside of the school network, though, online content won’t be filtered in those cases.

Browser-based filters

A browser-based web filter is usually an extension that is pushed out via the cloud to devices. When learners or staff members log into their school accounts and use a browser such as Chrome, the web filter works to keep online activity safe. There are several different types of browser-based web filters. Like network filters, browser-based web filters can block or allow content by category, domain, URLs, search terms or combination. This type of web filtering software works across devices anytime learners are signed into their school accounts.

DNS filters 

A DNS filter blocks entire domains or websites. In this case, a technology administrator enters domains into a blocked list. This restricts learners or staff members from accessing those websites, including any page within the website. For example, a school district may want to completely restrict access to social media sites during school hours. 

The drawback is that it doesn’t allow a school district team to get more specific about what they want to restrict. Because the DNS filter works off entire domains, IT staff can’t add URLs to block or allow certain web pages. For instance, there may be a math website that teachers want learners to visit for formative assessments. But they find that some learners are getting distracted by a page within the domain that has games. With a DNS filter, the entire website would have to be blocked to stop access to the games page.

Category-based filters

A web filter that uses category-based filtering restricts access to any website or page that falls under a category. With this type of filter, technology departments need to select from available categories to block or allow access to content. Categories to block might include VPNs, gaming, adult content, social media, gambling and shopping. 

When a web filter relies primarily on categories for blocking content, some educational websites may end up blocked. For example, YouTube could be blocked entirely because it falls under social media. But what if a language arts teacher wants to share a YouTube grammar video with learners? Or what if a social studies teacher wants to share a video about the Great Pyramid of La Venta in Mexico to show learners what it looks like up close? In these cases, a web filter that blocks entire categories could disrupt teaching and learning opportunities.

URL filtering

Another type of web filtering available to schools is URL-based web filtering. A URL is a specific address that points to a web page. IT staff can manually add a URL to a blocked or allowed list to get more detailed about how they want to control access to online content. For instance, a school district may want to restrict access to a specific page within an educational website because it has shopping features.

Keyword filtering

Some web filters use keyword filtering to block websites. For example, if an IT team adds “online shopping” as a keyword, any website related to it would be blocked. This type of filtering is often available in web filters, alongside category and URL filtering. Some web filters work, though, by requiring technology administrators to select from thousands of keywords in order to filter content. It can be challenging to keep up with this type of filtering, especially as online content changes day to day.

AI-based web filters

A more powerful example of web filtering software for schools uses artificial intelligence or AI. This kind of web filter uses AI to understand what’s on a page and block it if unsafe or obscene. Some web filters claim to be AI-based because they used artificial intelligence to build their database of keywords. A web filter with true AI, though, can understand context and restrict content in real-time.

What about firewalls?

A firewall protects a school district network against cyberattacks by monitoring the traffic that is coming and going. It monitors that traffic through IP addresses and domains. Keep in mind that it only works within the school district network, so if a learner is using their school device off campus, the firewall won’t protect it. A firewall also doesn’t support URL-blocked and allowed lists, so a school team can’t get granular about what they need to restrict.

What is the best internet filtering software for schools?

The best web filtering software works in real-time and uses true AI. Deledao ActiveScan, presented by Hāpara is a Chrome browser-based web filter that uses AI to understand context in real-time online. While technology administrators can select categories, add URL allowed and blocked lists and input keywords, they can also rely on the AI to keep learners safe as they explore online. It ensures that learners won’t see distracting, harmful and inappropriate content. 

How does the web filter do this? The AI analyzes content such as text on a page, videos and images. It then blurs or mutes just the content that is inappropriate or unsafe. That means that schools can keep more websites, such as YouTube, available for learning.

What type of web filter does your school or district use? School content filtering solutions should safeguard kids without limiting learning. It may be time for your team to upgrade to a more robust web filter that can keep up with an ever-changing online environment.

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

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