What to look for in a school Web Filter

As the Internet has become ubiquitous in students’ lives—45 percent of teens say they are online “almost constantly,” according to the Pew Research Center—the challenge of keeping students safe while they’re online has only continued to grow.

For K-12 leaders, meeting this challenge requires constant vigilance. A robust school web filter that includes comprehensive reporting of where students are going online and what content they’re trying to access is essential.

In the last few years, Chromebooks have surpassed iPads, MacBooks, and Windows devices as the top-selling mobile technologies in schools. In response to this trend, a number of school web filters have emerged that are designed specifically for the Chrome web browser. But a solution designed specifically for Chrome limits the options available to users.

For instance, what if a student forgets his Chromebook at home and wants to access the network from an iPhone instead? What if school or district leaders decide to go in a different direction when it’s time to refresh devices? “Bring your own device” (BYOD) programs and mixed-device learning environments become problematic when schools take a Chrome-only approach to web filtering.

In contrast, a multi-platform web filtering solution (such as ContentKeeper) solves these challenges by decrypting, inspecting, and controlling web traffic from any device and web browser. As a result, students have the same Internet experience—and administrators have the same visibility and control—at all times, regardless of what device students are using or where they’re connecting from. That’s critical.

An effective school web filter should not only provide the same functionality across all browsers, device types, and user locations; it should also allow K-12 leaders to apply very fine-tuned control over the types of content that students can access—including within social media websites.

The Pew Research survey indicates that teens have mixed views on social media’s effects on young people. While teens acknowledge that social media offers many positive benefits, such as the ability to connect with others and find news and information, they also recognize its potential negative effects, such as bullying, drama, and other distractions.

This ambivalence is shared by many teachers as well. While some teachers are integrating Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other social media services into instruction, the ability to filter comments and other aspects of social media websites—while allowing access to the elements that have educational value—is particularly valuable.

But applying this kind of granular, policy-based control over students’ web use means that administrators need to be able to identify and authenticate each network user. This process should be seamless and transparent, happening automatically in the background when students try to access the network. If students are confronted with a login screen and must enter their password whenever they try to log on, they might not remember their network credentials—resulting in more work for IT support staff.

Applying very granular control over students’ Internet use also requires a web filtering solution that can decrypt and inspect Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) web traffic at very high speeds. This is something that many web filtering solutions struggle with.

Because SSL decryption is so challenging, Google has developed workarounds that give schools some degree of control over Google and YouTube content through the Google “SafeSearch” feature. Yet, this solution doesn’t offer the same benefits as full SSL decryption and inspection. For instance, it doesn’t allow for detailed reporting of the specific web pages that students try to access—and it doesn’t provide highly granular control over content within non-Google domains (such as Facebook or Twitter).

A school web filter that can decode, inspect, filter, and log the full URL string for SSL-encrypted traffic to and from any website at multi-gigabit speeds—resulting in exceptional visibility and control over all website requests, with no noticeable network latency—is a far better approach.

The ability to provide the same user experience regardless of device, browser, or location; granular, policy-based control over social media sites; transparent user authentication, so administrators know who is using the network at all times (and users don’t have to navigate a login screen); reliable SSL inspection at multi-gigabit speeds across all devices and web browsers: These are just some of the many features of a school web filter that should be considered indispensable for all schools.

To learn more about these features and six others that K-12 leaders should look for in a school web filter, download the FREE white paper Ten Must-Have Features of a K-12 Web Filter.

The former editor of eSchool News, Dennis Pierce has 20 years of experience writing about education and technology.