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February 26, 2015

Education, education, education and security, security, security

How do you decide what is too much or too little internet filtering in schools?

By Alexander Sword

The pace of digital adoption in schools has been even more relentless than it has been in other sectors.

Demand from both the pupils and their teachers means that IT has seen enormous take-up in schools, with IT no longer seen as an add-on but an integral part of the education system.

The introduction of the new national curriculum in September2014 , with its emphasis on coding, shows that the UK’s Department of Education is taking IT adoption in schools as a given.

With student use of the internet at school now just par for the course, strict Government regulations compel educational establishments to ensure that access is monitored and controlled.

One vendor that has specialised in an educational web filtering product is Bloxx. Although active in both the enterprise and medical markets, around 50 percent of the firm’s business comes from education and Bloxx sees it as a particular driver of innovation.

The company emphasises the need for a web content filtering system that fits the specific context of a school.

It has recently provided a solution to Moreton School in Wolverhampton. Paul Martin, IT technical support for the comprehensive, had identified problems with the existing filtering solution, which worked from a list: pupils were able to easily bypass it through anonymous proxy websites.

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"I’ve gone from having lots and lots of requests to open websites to having none, so I’d say it’s working the way that staff need now," says Martin of the new system.

As much as protecting children from the internet, Charles Sweeney, CEO of Bloxx, suggests that a system that is properly protected against children is just as important.

"The use of filtering within schools is much more demanding than it is within the corporate world," Sweeney said, speaking to CBR at BETT, the technology in education fair that took place recently.

"The corporate world tends to accept that it can’t get to a certain site at work whereas…pupils are a bit more aggressive in trying to get around that. That’s the curiosity of 14-year-olds – seeing where they can push boundaries."

"Our technology doesn’t work off a white list and a black list," Sweeney added. "It’s looking at content in real time as it comes down – the way we position that is that we will block content at the point of access and not because it’s on a list. And that will take out any inappropriate content and let you through to the ad hoc content that is safe but is not necessarily on a white list within an organisation.

"Technologies are going to have to adapt into that mindset instead of saying that they are going to corral access to a particular set of sites."

Jim Black, head of product management at Bloxx, explains that the software works through "a bundle of different technologies that contextually understand the language that is being used on the page."

He continues: "So it’s not just looking for words – it’s looking for words but it’s contextually understanding those…words on the page.

"So, for example we can tell the difference between a page – and this is very important for education – when it comes to self-harm or anoxeria or eating disorders. Our software can tell whether that page is about promoting anorexia or actually giving people who are suffering from it help.

"There’s been a lot of controversy about loads of the ISPs overblocking content. It’s very important in an educational environment that you’re not blocking access."

In other words, when setting up filters in schools, it’s as important to know which content to allow as it is to know what to block. Semantic filtering technologies will therefore be of increasing importance in an education environment.

Jonathan Hallatt, regional director in the UK, Ireland and Nordics for Netgear, which provides networking solutions for schools, says that the model of the education system has allowed it to adapt quickly. In particular, he argues that academy schools having more autonomy from local authorities has allowed them to prioritise IT spending, raising the game across the entire education system.

"Certainly academies are driving this change…[they] see this as a selling point to attract pupils to come to the school."

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