Why we can’t forget the iPad

securly, iPad, education, schools, students, web filteringExperimentation with tablet computers first began in the mid 20th century; however, Apple is often credited with initializing the consumer market for the hand-held devices. The iPad also forged the path for a new wave of education technology, and many educators were hopeful for its positive impact on classroom engagement.

Soon after the first iPad was released in 2010, other players quickly entered the market with their own –cheaper, lighter, more durable – hardware deviations. Then, the Chromebook was released in 2011 and took the edtech world by storm. Fast-forward to present day, and you’ll find critics condemning the iPad, claiming that the iPad + education “fad” is coming to an end. In the meantime, Chromebooks are taking over the classroom; its keyboard, Google Apps integration, etc. are thought to be more suitable for the learning environment.

However, this recurring argument “tablets are dying” is a narrow viewpoint that considers only a small demographic of the entire population. In fact, the iPad and its variants continue to enable accessible education initiatives outside of a 1st-world, typical use case.

For students with developmental disabilities, the iPad revolutionized learning; the tapping and sliding motions used to control the touch screen are easier for students to interact with than a laptop. Hence, it is an integral tool for schools to improve inclusive education, especially since consideration given to special needs is fairly new.  iPads proved so beneficial for communicative, cognitive and motor improvement that the Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation created the “iPad Program”:

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Testimonial featured by the Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation.

As the iPad continued to prove its worth, (1) app developers began creating more content for the device and (2) competitors began creating cheaper hardware alternatives. Thus, tablet computers became accessible to a wider population and the breadth of information accessible through the device skyrocketed – solidifying its position as a learning tool. In the past month alone, the UN Refugee Agency announced that tablets would be provided to refugee students in Africa, the Jamaican government allocated $7 Million to purchase 17,500 tablets for schools, and the Delhi government announced that all teachers would be given tablets.

Tablets are not obsolete. Instead, they continue to be a valuable educational asset for a wider and more diverse population, one greater than the laptop’s reach ever was. Tablets revolutionized edtech, and Apple’s iPad planted the seed.

 

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Auditor has arrived – our free tool for bullying and self-harm detection on GMail!

auditor, school, student, safety, email, gmail, detectLast year, we introduced “Auditor by Securly” – a free tool that helps schools ensure the safety of their students by monitoring GMail for messages that are indicative of bullying or self-harm. Today, we are emerging from closed Beta after an extended period with 20 customers in which we scanned 70,000 emails daily for indicators of cyberbullying and self-harm.

Already, Principals and IT Admins are finding Auditor to be a powerful asset to student safety. Tom Walker, Massac Unit School District #1, remarked, “The ability to detect bullying, self harm, or other potential destructive behavior is something we’ve never had before. One Saturday evening, I received an email from the Auditor Safety Bot. The email contained wording about a video being uploaded to YouTube with a suicidal line. Upon further inspection, the video was not uploaded by one of our students, but was from a popular YouTube channel that the student had subscribed to. However, the fact that the Auditor was able to detect it gives us another tool to have in the struggle against bullying and self harm. From a legal perspective, it makes perfect sense that a school district would want the Auditor on their side.”

How Auditor Came to Be

As Google Mail became the chosen tool in thousands of schools across the world, we realized blocking these channels is no longer a productive solution. However, from conversations with our customers, we learned that these resources have opened up new avenues for students to vent negative emotions such as bullying and self-harm.

In general, we found that many schools did not have good solutions in place that address this issue due to the following:

  • By its very definition, “web-filtering” does not apply to emails. A lot of schools that we’ve spoken to use Google’s default compliance options to flag emails that contain a predefined set of keywords. This can be prone to lots of False Positives (False Alarms) and False Negatives (Missed Alerts) and does not scale well in a large District where IT becomes the bottleneck in sorting through these flagged messages.
  • Old school approaches to monitoring these channels involving human auditors are costly.
  • The CIPA law is vague about the need to cover this vector – “The policy proposed must address.. security and safety of minors using chat rooms, email, instant messaging, or any other types of online communications.” However, the meaning of “safety” is left too vague.

Auditor’s Unique Benefits – COMING SOON

Automated sentiment inference approach: While existing tools rely heavily on keyword matching to detect inappropriate behavior (e.g. by looking for words like “suicide” or “ugly”), Auditor will use our tried and tested machine learning techniques. For example, consider the following post that was flagged by our algorithm: “slowly i’m realizing i don’t really have a purpose here say good-bye cause Fryday it’s all over <3” It should be clear to the reader that a keyword-based approach would not have worked in detecting this.

911 Emergency Response Notifications to Parents and Guidance Counselors: We will extend our existing Delegated Administration and Parent Reports functionality from our flagship web-filtering product to Auditor. In the context of Auditor, these services will become 911 Emergency Response notifications to both guidance counselors and parents. Parents, principals and guidance counselors will receive an alert whenever our Auditor detects disturbing emails sent or received.

It’s free? What’s the catch?

No catch! Keeping Auditor free –forever – is our commitment to the pursuit of student safety. Given the lack of any compliance requirement, and cash-strapped schools already reluctant to spend on paid solutions, we felt it necessary to introduce a free tool to address this serious issue.

As with any other company that is trying to build a sustainable business, we need to charge a fee for our services and grow our revenues year over year. However, while achieving this somewhat “practical” goal, we aspire to make a dent in the universe. In our mind, that “dent” has always been (and likely always will be) ubiquitous child safety – both at school and at home.

 

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The first ever proxy-less browser-less DNS-based iPad filtering solution for K-12

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iPads have a prominent place in the K-12 ecosystem. While we often see the higher grades go with Chromebooks as the 1:1 device of choice, lower grades typically go with iPads due to its tactile interface. Educational apps minimize the need to type while fostering learning.

With many schools choosing to send these devices home, both the CIPA law and pressure from the local parent community forces schools to provision their iPads with some form of filtering. Apple’s architectural limitations have thus far allowed only 2 options. Both of these have their own limitations.

Safe browsers: This approach requires uninstalling Safari and installing a specialized browser that filters web traffic. The approach suffers from the following limitations:

  • App traffic is not filtered.
  • Hyperlinks on any webpage tend to use Safari as the default browser.
  • Removing Safari breaks a number of Edu critical apps such as docs and drive.

In other words, Safe Browsers are simply not an option for a school or district trying to ensure that their taxpayer dollars spent on devices will move the needle on student achievement.

Proxy: Apple provides the option to push out a global proxy setting via MDM. This would mean that every byte of data from the iPad would need to be routed through the designated proxy. This approach has the following downsides:

  • Most proxy solutions are hardware appliance based. When the device leaves the network, the traffic is forced back through the appliance which is usually installed on the school’s network. By definition, this requires the school to become a 24/7 ISP for at-home traffic!
  • Even those proxy solutions that are cloud based like Securly’s often see Apps “break” because many cloud based services simply do not like to see their App traffic be proxy-ed. These services need to be constantly exempted from PAC files as the school runs in to them.
  • Many Firewalls tend to block proxy traffic out of the box. To address this, schools often need to maintain a running proxy whitelist on their Firewall.

The holy grail of iPad filtering: Thanks to months of often time frustrating R&D + recent advances in iOS 10, Securly is able to introduce the first proxy-less off-site filtering solution for iPads that is not a safe browser. The solution involves provisioning the iPad with a lightweight DNS setting – as a result of which ~1% of the device’s traffic is selectively proxy-ed. This includes App traffic. Securly is also able to avoid proxy-ing all of the traffic.

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Web Filtering: equally beneficial for your 5-year-old & 15-year-old

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Web filtering is required by law, as long as schools wish to receive e-rate funding to supply their digital classrooms. The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires that schools “block Internet access to pictures that are (a) obscene (b) child pornography or (c) harmful to minors.” CIPA also requires schools to monitor student online activity and provide training for responsible technology use.

The general sentiment: students –especially teens– hate web filtering*. Most students find web filtering to be unnecessarily inhibitive, citing that it blocks perfectly acceptable web pages due to one keyword or denies access to social media pages. One argument goes that filtering prevents exploration and blocks students from using tools like Facebook for academic causes. Another, that it is a breach of student privacy.


*Misdirected blame: Web filtering is different at each school. Federal law doesn’t specifically require schools to block Facebook, Twitter, etc. Your web filtering provider doesn’t dictate that X, Y, or Z website needs to be blocked. Besides fundamental protection against pornography and similar graphic content, it’s at the discretion of each school district to whitelist or blacklist the specific sites that students take issue with. Some schools leave social media open, some schools restrict access, etc. Web filtering, when used correctly, can be utilized to help –not hurt–the student experience.


Web filtering applies to all schools, which means the measure applies to all students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Older students are particularly irked by filtering and feel that although filtering content is necessary to shield younger kids, it is gratuitous for those close to adulthood. Web filtering does vary dramatically from elementary, middle, to high school – however, it offers additional aspects often forgotten that are equally optimal for students of any age.

1. Cyberbullying & Self-Harm Detection

Particular web filters can screen for instances of bullying and self-harm in social media posts. From 2007-2016, the number of students who experienced bullying roughly doubled from 18.8% to 33.8% according to a Cyberbullying Research Center report.  The CDC analyzed cyberbullying by age group and found that 15.5% percent of high school students are cyberbullied, as are 24% of middle school students. Technology is now integrated into daily life at a very young age, leaving even elementary school students at risk for cyberbullying.

37% of cyberbullying cases go unreported; often, students are fearful that 1) the bullying will get worse 2) they’ll be considered a “rat” 3) no one will listen if they seek help. Given bullying’s devastating consequences, detection of bullying and negative sentiment can allow schools/parents to give students the proper care. And even save lives.

2. Productivity and screen time management

In our recent international survey, 53% of students aged 9-18 reported being productive only half of the total time spent working on school assignments. Blocking sites like social media and gaming (especially for younger children) keeps students focused on learning. Some filtering services even allow the admin to establish time restrictions on certain sites (social media, gaming, entertainment, etc.) to create a good balance between recreational and study time.

Also, overexposure to screens may have harmful consequences for cognitive development. Although 5-year-olds may not have research papers to write and assignments to finish, web filtering can help parents and educators manage healthy levels of device usage.

3. Defense against malware and phishing

We asked students their take on web filtering. One student responded, “You don’t get rude ads or viruses.” Pop-ups and pseudo-content are not only annoying but also often dangerous.  Online aggressors specifically target children, enticing them to click on attractive advertisements or links leading to viruses.  

A web filter screens the origin and content of a web page, checking for objectionable content, spyware, and viruses that may compromise your network. It helps keep students safe online and protects from intrusive viruses, malware, and ransomware.

4. Helps teachers understand students

On his blog, an IT admin expressed how web filtering helped school staff understand student preferences: ”…you can see stats for student web access. Not blocked pages, which they have a view for too, but sites kids are using. In our case, as we begin having discussions about whether Newsela is a service we want to pursue as a district standard, we now have compelling data telling us that it’s already being widely used and is, in fact, our most accessed website on a weekly basis.”

Teachers can use these insights to create engaging lesson plans and foster a collaborative learning environment, while best-integrating technology into their classroom.

 

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Now you can install Securly from a web browser

securly, web, network, self-serve, schools, web filter

We’re not only the leading cloud-based provider of Internet security for K-12 schools, but also the industry’s first self-servable web filter.  “With our self-serve update, Securly is realizing its long-held vision of giving IT Admins a product that can be set up in minutes,” says Paul Katcher, UI developer at Securly.

Since the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) in 2000, web filtering has been required for schools that seek e-rate funding. Customarily, the industry has been heavily dominated by appliance hardware players.  Their products need to be shipped, painstakingly setup and often end up as bandwidth bottlenecks on K-12 networks that are increasingly turning to bandwidth-hungry applications such as streaming media.

By contrast, we have been cloud-based from day one. With no need for a hardware appliance, customers can deploy Securly with a few simple network configuration changes and benefit from functionality such as granular auditing and policies that they are familiar with. In doing so, they are assisted by our award winning support team based in Charlotte.

Setup can be independently completed through a web browser session without ever needing to speak with a sales or support person. With this update, Securly eliminates the complexity of network based web-filters with the simplicity of EdTech tools like Remind and ClassDojo.

We hope self-serve will save IT Admins time and frustration during the back-to-school rush.  For more information, contact support@securly.com.

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Introducing “Dr.House” – Our New Debug Tool to Automate Network Troubleshooting

tool, web filter, network, debugThe back-to-school rush is fast approaching, and we have just the tool to ease IT admins and school administrators back into the swing of things…

Meet Dr. House, our new tool that allows customers to certify that their networks are up and running correctly. Dr. House launches a series of automated checks meant to detect the most common network misconfigurations. It performs a variety of tests including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Checks for the presence of a caching server that could be impending filtering.
  • Makes sure that there are no rogue DNS servers without securly DNS configured.
  • Verifies that the Securly certificate is installed.
  • Confirms that all outbound IPs are registered.
  • Ensures that critical Securly services are reachable from the network.

 

Securly was founded on the premise of a quick deployment – the antithesis to the customary web filter setup experience. While other web filtering products require a physical appliance (that still needs to be shipped and laboriously setup), we have been cloud-based from the start.

In the weeks ahead, we will also become the industry’s first self-servable web filter; setup can be completed through a web browser session. Our own Jayesh Agrawal, a software engineer who was instrumental in implementing this tool, says, “The release of Dr. House is a huge leap forward in automating network misconfiguration detection. We hope that this tool will save customers time and frustration while easing the deployment experience.

For more information, contact support@securly.com.

 

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Introducing PageScan – our Blacklist that Learns

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Today, we are announcing that we are Beta test complete on PageScan – our proprietary approach to building a “Blacklist that Learns.”  As any user of a web filter is aware, these products have two different ways by which they maintain their blacklists:

  1. Maintain a static list of websites that are updated periodically.
  2. HTTP response parsing to infer unknown bad content.

The first approach leaves you vulnerable to newer websites that may not be part of your blacklist. The second approach has severe performance limitations.

About PageScan

PageScan is able to accurately block new content and meet the strict performance constraints of modern K-12 networks. We accomplish this using the following approach:

  • The first time we come across  a site that is not in our database, we let it through.
  • We then fetch it offline and scan the response content for keywords indicative of inappropriate content.
  • Our first pass is designed to produce False Positives. We narrow things down with a second pass done with an API call to a third-party service that we have identified as “best-of-breed”.
  • If the site is identified to be inappropriate for kids, we add it to our blacklist.

With this approach, we can recognize an inappropriate site accessed from a school in the UK and use that intelligence to benefit a school in Texas. We are able to identify –with high accuracy– sites belonging to the following categories: porn, drugs, gambling and proxys. Our beta tests have shown an extremely low False Positive rate.

We have decided to release this at the end of September for the following simple reason: we would like to get through the start of school, making only minimal changes to our core system in the interim. Changing the way we handle our blacklist is fundamental to how our system works and the risks of releasing early may outweigh the benefits. As always, should you have any questions, please reach out to support@securly.com.

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Securly’s Brand New Dashboard

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“Good design is as little design as possible” -Dieter Rams

To kick off the “Week of Innovation” –live from the ISTE floor– we are excited to unveil our brand new Dashboard! At Securly, we follow a simple rule of thumb for all product design decisions:

Useful > Usable > Attractive

Useful: Does a customer find a feature useful in the way one finds an automobile useful? Does it serve a basic purpose?

Usable: Is the feature designed to be self-explanatory? Will a customer need to file a support ticket to understand what we have built?

Attractive: Does the design evoke an aesthetic that has instant appeal?

We realized that in the previous version of the Dashboard we built, we had flipped this thinking on its head. Our Dashboard had visual pop, but there was very little about it that was useful OR usable. Hence, we set about redesigning it – adhering to the quote from Dieter Rams at the beginning of this post.

First, we enumerated the stats and graphs supported by our old dashboard and classified each into “useful” and “useless”. Next, we went over customer feedback through support tickets and surveys. We picked a couple of key asks that were worthy of the “front page of the Securly UI”.

The new dashboard has the following new sections:

  • Securly System Health: In the spirit of full transparency, we will at all times provide you an overview of System Health. On those rare occasions when there is a systemic issue, we want you to know that we’re working to bring things back to normal.
  • Recent Releases: All of our regularly scheduled releases (including bug fixes) will now show up as a live feed.

Our new dashboard is scheduled for release on Tuesday 28th of June. Should you have any questions, please reach out to support@securly.com.

 

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6 Student Suggestions to Improve Web Filtering

 

web filtering, web filtering for schools, edtech, online student safety, safe search

 

The following are real student responses from an international survey we conducted during Summer 2015.  We asked students what changes would improve the web filtering experience.  Note: our survey participants included both Securly and non-Securly users.

1. Quick Whitelisting

“At school, I would appreciate the ability for teachers or someone to quickly unblock a website for us if it was blocked wrongly or if it was needed for schoolwork. It usually just says, ‘see an administrator’, which isn’t helpful at all.”

School districts are allowed to use any web filter, as long as it complies with the FCC Children Internet Protection Act.  Thus, each web filter has different functionalities and protocol for unblocking sites.  Securly allows teachers to immediately whitelist a blocked site, making the site available to the entire classroom (temporarily, or not, depending on the school district’s chosen master settings).

 

2. Image vs. Text

“The filter should see if the page has any learning stuff on it. If it is blocked because of pictures, they should only block the pictures and not the entire page.”

Students often feel that some pages are unnecessarily restricted; this hinders their academic research, leaving them frustrated.  In the meantime, students can use safe image search sites and databases to find credible information.

 

3. Balance

“Have a certain amount of time set for being on a particular website (games, social media, entertainment sites). This would be a good change because students would be able to play games but still focus on school. And not worry about trying to get around the filter anymore.”

A quick game break may refresh students from their afternoon stupor, allowing them to refocus on the topic at hand.  In addition, teachers can utilize technology and social media to their advantage in lesson planning.

 

4. More Than Keywords

“It filters any websites with drugs which is annoying. For dance class, I’ve needed to research them as part of my coursework. I would like to see a more specific filtering system that doesn’t filter a whole site because of one word.”

Many of the comments we received had similar sentiment.  Securly supports customizable user policies, focusing on a handful of filtering categories that matter most for the K-12 environment.

 

5. Stricter Filtering 

“Web filtering also doesn’t filter everything it should. Only the things that are more popular.”

Seems like some students feel web filtering is not strict enough.  Students with siblings in younger grades were particularly concerned about the availability of inappropriate information online.

 

6. Digital Citizenship Education

“I feel like web filtering at school is definitely necessary, however, this type of filtering is not usually used at home and therefore they [students] are not really being taught to use the Internet safely. They are just restricted from content that is seen as inappropriate that could be accessed easily at home.”

Many of the students we interviewed felt that their school did not clearly outline an Internet Safety policy or teach digital citizenship practices.  Check out these tips to successfully integrate technology into your 1:1 classroom.  

 

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The Key to A Successful Online Safety Policy

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70.3% of students we surveyed did not know what web filter their school was using, if at all.  ALL of the students we interviewed were unaware as to what sites were prohibited on their school’s network.  Teachers themselves are often surprised and irritated by blocks to YouTube clips planned for class lecture.  Both teachers and students feel that they waste time trying to navigate their school’s web filter.  The solution is simple:  greater transparency.

Transparency may seem counterintuitive; isn’t the whole point of web filtering to screen content?  Well, teaching the school community about their web filtering system will optimize internet safety features and help students/teachers maximize web resources.  Students seek knowledge of the categories of websites that are blocked, which they feel would preempt incidents of being surprised upon being served a blocked page.  In fact, majority of students understand the rationale and support the concept behind web filters and safety measures that schools have put into place.   

By the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), schools are required to 1) employ technology protection measures and 2) educate students on appropriate online behavior.  The latter should:

 

In addition, IT Admins should notify teachers of protocol for whitelisting sites.  Each process is different depending on the specific web filter.  Most school web filters require approval from the IT Admin, others allow teachers to temporarily whitelist a website using Google Apps for Education.    

This simple tip should help schools safely integrate technology into the classroom!  For more information on creating a CIPA-compliant Internet Safety Policy, check this out!


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