Ask A Student: Content Filters

We asked a Middle School student to tell us thoughts on school content filters. Perspective is everything, right? Tech departments stand by CIPA, COPPA, and FERPA! We block the bad! We allow the good! We know that our content filter (and every content filter) has issues (If you find the perfect one, post about it on the Message Board!), but we stay the course and do our best to give students a safe and school friendly environment. We think a content filter is a good thing, and well, we’re required to have one if we want to be compliant with CIPA. But, what about the kids? Do they agree? We asked a Middle School 8th grade boy to tell us his thoughts. Below are his words, not ours.

Why do you think we use a content filter in middle school?

Well, it’s actually pretty simple. If you were to give all of the middle schoolers in the world a search bar without any sort of limitations, there would definitely be some problems. That’s why I assume every school in the US uses a content filtering system.

What do you think are the benefits of a content filtering system?

As a middle schooler, I can tell you the painful benefits of these systems:

1) Blocks bad results from searches. Many times before, I have accidentally typed… questionable things into the search bar. Because of these systems, however, I haven’t gotten any sort of questionable results.

2) Prevents any sort of viruses. Sometimes, I can click on things I probably shouldn’t and download things that should definitely not be on my computer. The filtering system at my school doesn’t even let me access these websites.

3) Keeps me focused. I like to play games. If all of the game websites in the world were unblocked, I don’t think anyone (including me) would get their work done on time. Every now and then, I’ll find a nice page on Google Sites with fun little HTML5 games, but that’s not too often.

What do you think are the drawbacks of a content filtering system?

Now, there’s definitely some drawbacks to these systems. Here are the main ones:

1) Can be too “broad” at times. At times, websites can be like a coin. One side is harmless, the other isn’t. For those kinds of websites, these filtering systems don’t just block the bad parts of the website. They block the entire thing. There might be some good information for a research project on a certain website, but there also might be some bad stuff as well. Now, there’s not much you could do about that, because the filtering system would have to be infinitely more complicated to block certain pages instead of websites, but it’s still a drawback.

2) Can block non-explicit pages. This mostly happens with YouTube videos. Many times during a research project have I clicked on an educational video and it ended up being blocked. Later, I would find the same video on an unfiltered account and it’s perfectly fine. This happens with websites too. The filtering system my school uses likes to block things that could maybe be explicit, instead of the actual stuff. Any kind of forum is completely blocked, even if it’s got useful information.

3) Doesn’t always work. On the complete flipside, some things will just stay unblocked. One time, I stumbled upon a knockoff version of YouTube from Kazakhstan. It was 100% unfiltered and 100% unblocked. It was awesome. I could watch my unrightfully blocked videos with absolute ease. I didn’t really share the website, because it seemed like a pretty bad idea, but it was a good couple weeks of fun.

What’s the conclusion? Do you think your school should have a content filter?

To wrap everything up, content filtering systems have their pros and cons. The pros definitely outweigh the cons, but the cons put up a mediocre fight. I do think schools should use these systems, even if they can sometimes be frustrating.

Chris, Jay, and Eric… What are your current content filter picks and why?

Chris – Lightspeed Systems. I use the Lightspeed Filter. I’ve used Lightspeed for years now. Overall, it has been a solid solution for me over those years. I’m able to tweak our categories and allowed/denied lists well. Our elementary, middle school, and high school students all have different access levels. As they go up in grade levels, they “unlock” more access. Lightspeed lets me do that how I want. I’ve used Mobile Device Management for iPads before with decent luck too (although we ditched iPads for Chromebooks so I don’t use that anymore). I don’t think any content filter solution is perfect, but I do think Lightspeed is good stuff.

Jay – Blocksi, I use their content filter, classroom management module, and reporting tool for self-harm, bullying, threats, etc… We previously used Securly but had frequent issues with their platform that ended up breaking things. Also, I felt that the quality of their support had gone down. We switched to Blocksi a year ago and we are happy with the product and support. Their self-harm/abuse reporting module has been a great addition as it has caught a handful of potential suicides this school year and it sends the alerts straight to our phones. I also like how detailed the reporting system is and how much you can drill down into the data. It’s a young product but constantly improving.

Eric – Securly, I use their content filter as well as their reporting tool for self harm, bullying, etc. It’s not perfect, but it has served us well. We sometimes find ourselves trying to tweak a category because students have figured out a way around a block. The main thing about Securly is how simple it is. Maybe too simple at times, but it takes a lot of the guesswork out of setting up a filter. Also the unification of self harm reporting, etc. is a really useful feature. Finally, the parent reporting and control within Securly has been great for parents who want extra visibility into their child’s internet history/behaviors.

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