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How to set reasonable web restrictions for students

There are certain things we can all agree on, like the fact that school should be a place where students are safe, focused, empowered, and free to be kids all at the same time. But building that perfect atmosphere is enormously challenging, particularly because we don’t all agree on what words like “safe” and “empowered” should mean. 

With digital devices flooding into schools, one of the toughest questions teachers and administrators face is how to empower students to use technology for research and self-expression while keeping students safe from the darker corners of the web.

There are a wide range of philosophies on how to approach online safety. To figure out which one makes sense for your students, it’s helpful to understand the debate.

The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA)

In 2000, the U.S. Congress enacted CIPA to require more schools and libraries to have Internet safety policies that included technology protection measures. Under CIPA, schools that receive discounts for Internet access or internal connections through the E-rate program must block or filter Internet access to pictures that are obscene, pornographic, or harmful to minors.

In addition, these policies must include monitoring the online activities of minors and educating minors about appropriate online behavior, including cyberbullying awareness and response.

Most of CIPA’s stipulations relate to filtering sexual content, but where it gets trickier is in the requirement to filter sites that contain “inappropriate language,” “blogs,” or are deemed “tasteless.” Because those terms are vague, and even highly regarded literature can include inappropriate language, this often means that students are blocked from accessing what might otherwise be considered appropriate content.

The American Library Association (ALA)

In 2001, the ALA challenged CIPA on these grounds, saying it was requiring libraries to block access to constitutionally protected content. However, in the end, CIPA was upheld by the Supreme Court, who said libraries did not have to accept E-rate funds.

The ALA continues to push for limited restrictions on student Internet usage, as a way of protecting first amendment freedoms and giving students access to a full range of protected speech and thought.

Checklist: How to Decide Which Sites to Block

You can find plenty of lists online of popular sites schools block. But since reasonable minds can differ on what students should and shouldn’t see, it’s important to do some due diligence as a school before setting your policies.

?   Step 1: Organize a Task Force

It’s a smart idea to gather a diverse range of perspectives when deciding which sites to block in your school or classroom. Bring together a task force that includes representatives from the following groups: principals, teachers, librarians, students, parents, and IT. You may even find value in speaking with leadership from other districts or schools to find out how they’ve handled their own decision-making process.

?   Step 2: Level Set

During your task force meetings, it can be useful to break the categories of often-filtered content into different “levels” of urgency. Your level system may differ, but here’s an example:

Level 5: Bare Minimum

The least restrictive schools may choose to ban only websites that are unquestionably inappropriate for children, such as pornography and gambling. Most will want to also ban sites related to dating, weapons, and hacking.

Level 4: Low Restrictions

This level is all about student productivity, so in addition to the bare minimum, it will block sites that are geared toward student distraction. This may mean entertainment sites like Netflix and Hulu are blocked, although YouTube and Vimeo may still be allowed as they offer learning content.

Level 3: Moderate Restrictions

Level 3 gives access to educational gaming content but blocks social networking sites and video sites like YouTube and Vimeo.

Level 2: High Restrictions

Level 2 blocks even educational gaming content, as well as blogs, cloud storage, and any site that can possibly be used for purposes other than education.

Level 1: White listed Sites Only

After implementing the banned sites list, the most restrictive schools may choose to implement a “whitelist” policy, in which all websites are blocked unless specifically entered as acceptable. In practice, this will be severely limiting when it comes to student research and teaching and may not be the most feasible approach for most schools.

Ranking and categorizing the different types of content that can be blocked is useful for making decisions.

?   Step 3: Run a Pilot, Gather Feedback, and Improve

There’s no better way to decide what works best for your students than to put a plan into action and see how it works. Run a three-week pilot at your chosen restriction level, then regroup and ask for feedback from teachers and students on how it’s affected them.

Accept that It’s a Complex Issue

Defining reasonable web restrictions for students is a complex and challenging question, which is why a multitude of perspectives are needed to form a clear plan and consensus. Like many decisions we make for children, setting web restrictions may not be black and white, but the more data, logic, and understanding we can bring to the situation, the more likely we are to find success.