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School Security | News

Schools Migrate to Free Filtering, DNS Services, But Concerns Persist

Faced with both budget cutbacks and growing threats to students' online safety and computer system security, schools throughout the country are opting for free, reliable services for Web content filtering and digital security. One provider, OpenDNS, has announced that one in three schools in the United States is using one or more of its services.

"We've been using OpenDNS for over a year now," said Gus Tochoy, network administrator for Baltimore City Public Schools. "OpenDNS was very easy for us to implement and has required very little maintenance. We've found it to a valuable resource in our efforts to protect our children."

While the company offers premium and enterprise versions of its online software suite for businesses, organizations, schools, and individuals, all of the services are available to all users, including cash-strapped schools, in a basic package for free. These include content filtering to prevent students from visiting inappropriate Web sites, domain blacklisting and whitelisting, proxy and anonymizer blocking, and protection against phishing and other attempts by outsiders to access secure information illegally.

Successful Internet filtering software has also given rise to some practical concerns regarding the ways in which they can prevent those being "protected," e.g., students, public library users, youngsters on home computers, from conducting legitimate research. Many filters work using preprogrammed and/or customizable lists of prohibited keywords, such as "sex," "religion," or the names of many commonly used but illicit drugs, such as "cocaine." After the user the enters the URL into the browser, the filter will scan the site and block access based on the mere appearance of such words in the body text of the site. However, such rigid standards for blocking often prevent users from researching important and widely discussed topics in academia and society such as sexually transmitted diseases, the relationship between religion and politics, or scientific inquiry into the dangers and potential benefits of certain drugs and their chemical derivatives.

In an article entitled "Access Denied: Internet Filtering Software in K-12 Classrooms," published in the journal Tech Trends in November 2005, author Rebecca Meeder discussed the dilemma of online safety versus access to necessary research material posed by the limitations of filtering software. Allowing that technology alone can never replace a combination of rational and philosophical human decision making, Meeder recommended several possible approaches schools might take to address the dilemma, including: reaching a consensus among teachers, parents, administrators and students as to what types of material must be accessible and what must be blocked at each grade level, and establishing school filtering policy based on this consensus; educating students, in detail, as to school policy regarding "acceptable use" of the Internet on school grounds, including consequences for violations; doing in-depth research into available filtering technologies before choosing a solution; and implementing a technology ethics course into the school curriculum.

The decisions reached through such efforts may also impact the decision on whether to use free filtering and DNS software or to seek out the greater capacities and more advanced features offered by paid solutions and to make determinations of cost versus value. For instance, an elementary school, or one whose network has an unfavorable history of phishing violations by outside sources, may choose to pay reasonable access and/or subscription rates for the added security of a paid solution. But a high school with a strong network and a relatively mature student body may find a free solution will meet all of its needs.

Ultimately, Meeder wrote, it must be up to the stakeholders in a school or district to determine the best approaches to filtering. "Classroom practitioners have a much better sense of what is best for their students than do a group of software engineers working for a corporate software manufacturer. At the very least, if educators are aware of the dangers on the Web, they can commit themselves to helping students navigate around them."

For a side by side comparison of the features of the free, premium, and enterprise solutions from OpenDNS, as well as the subscription costs of the two latter options, visit the company plan page. Additional options for Web filtering software used in K-12 environments, with varying price points and features, include: Net Nanny, WatchGuard Security Suites, and a broad range of products from K12USA.com.

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