The Australia-based cloud security company’s new platform for K-12 schools allows staff to filter and monitor content accessed by students on school devices, with the goal of cyber safety and flagging worrisome behavior.
When COVID-19 public school closures first increased demand for Internet devices last year, many districts had to get their hands on whatever they could find to facilitate virtual learning. Several schools have since grappled with new IT security vulnerabilities after purchasing a variety of devices with different operating systems to meet their needs.
On Tuesday, Australia-based cloud security company ContentKeeper announced its new ContentKeeper Cloud platform to manage web monitoring and filtering across all devices and systems used in most K-12 districts. The company says the platform will enable schools to streamline security and monitor students on a variety of apps, devices and operating systems during remote and hybrid learning.
ContentKeeper Vice President of Operations David Lemmon said the new tool allows filtering — or blocking of content — across several mobile devices, computers, web browsers, search engines and platforms simultaneously, as well as access to granular data on how school-issued devices are used. It provides real-time web traffic analytics and reporting across iOS, Windows and other platforms, allowing administrators to block inappropriate sites and monitor search engine use.
School districts have been allowed to put Internet filters on devices since at least 2000 with the Children's Internet Protection Act. ContentKeeper has been offering web security services to schools for nearly as long, now covering over 300 districts in the U.S. But Lemmon said the need for cloud-based filtering and web monitoring tools, in particular, has become even more apparent in today’s tech-integrated educational landscape that’s made use of different operating systems on devices like Chromebooks, iPads and tablets within school districts.
“The new generation really comes down to, ‘How can districts using distance learning be consistent with web filtering across all devices?’” he said.
While other organizations in the public and private sectors have invested in cloud tools to cover the gamut, Lemmon said there remains a crucial need for such tools in many schools today.
According to federal authorities, public school students and staff have been a prime target for cyber criminals during COVID-19 school closures and in districts operating under a hybrid learning model. With so many people attending class on laptops in 2020, the number of vulnerability points in school networks led to “record-breaking” numbers of cyberattacks according to one study, including ransomware attacks, phishing scams and other emerging cyber threats. Some school districts have made plans to offer virtual learning options long past the pandemic.
Lemmon said granular data on web traffic can help identify and stop cyber threats like these. ContentKeeper’s new tool, he said, allows administrators to “dive deep into particular domains” to expose threats such as phishing scams before they become hard to manage.
Before the widespread use of district-issued devices among students and the emergence of telework, parents and workplaces used similar spyware tools and programs, such as AirWatch, for web monitoring purposes.
However, Lemmon said, many monitoring programs do not work across several different devices and platforms, and some only cover a few search engines or apps. He said many filters were designed with on-site devices in mind, and several have compatibility issues going between systems like iOS and Windows. Even ContentKeeper placed much of its focus on installing on-site security programs for clients before the need for something like ContentKeeper Cloud became apparent.
“Traditionally, all of our deployments have been hardware on-prem, and we are now moving that same management to wherever the school districts want,” he said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, increased online activity and isolation during distance learning can have negative mental health consequences for students, on top of increased exposure to harmful online content.
Lemmon said the new cloud system can keep tabs on social media apps and other platforms used among most students, in addition to all search engines. Through detailed access to search histories, Lemmon said administrators can identify students looking for ways to hurt themselves and direct those considering self-harm or suicide to counselors or other mental health resources.
“Whether it’s on the premises or at a home, library or a coffee shop, we’re going to be able to filter that content and see the traffic and data that the school wants to see in their issued laptop or platform,” he said. “It’s very important to send those alerts into the district so they can distribute that to whoever they want to manage those alerts.”
The practice of remotely monitoring students’ web browsing habits has raised eyebrows among some families and privacy advocates, as well as questions about the future of these tools. Speaking to Education Week recently, Amelia Vance, the director of youth and education privacy at the nonprofit Forum on Privacy, said it’s time for more substantive conversations about student privacy.
“When you’re at home, this monitoring starts to feel much more invasive and creepier. But it is going to continue long after students are no longer primarily at home,” Vance told Education Week. “So there’s the need for clear information from schools that have installed these products, why they’re installed, what the data protection is, and what the rights of students and parents are.”
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