Are iPads cybersafe enough for school?

As Internet use has exploded over the last decade, the biggest issue for education has been how to protect our children from the evils of the Web. And for the most part it has been well meaning and justified. We’ve always battled with bullying issues at school but it’s been taken to a new level with the Facebook/SMS generation and their out of hours cyber bullying. Stranger Danger and neighborhood safe houses can’t protect Emily from her online ‘friend’ who later turns out to be Bill, a 50 year old pervert with a pigtail fetish. We used to send the kids to bed when their was an “interesting foreign film” on TV. Now they can see far worse on any website with more Xs in their title than XeroX! Protecting the innocent is a lot harder than when I started teaching pre-Internet.

To combat this, schools had to resort to proxies, filters and monitoring software. It stopped the kids from seeing the bad stuff, wasting their time on the stupid stuff and allowed ICT co-ordinators like me to check whether Johnny was wasting valuable school bandwidth searching for shooting games to play during wet day programs.

Then along came the iPad. Completely new system designed for personal consumer usage. Through the power of coolness, the magic of Apple and that damned usability factor that made it so necessary, this truly personal tool has made its way into the multiuser, sharing world of the school. Does it play by the rules of what protective schools want? Without spending a fortune on new systems, can we trust the iPad to be a cybersafe computer?

I’ll be upfront here. In my previous posts, I’ve spoken with some authority as an expert iPad user and contemporary tech teacher of the 21st century. In this area, I’m asking as many questions as answering them. I’m asking for some help on this because I haven’t found all the answers ( and neither has our IT guy). So I’m just going to be bringing up what I see as issues, what I think about them, suggesting some ideas and sharing some possible solutions I’ve found with the little research I’ve done so far.

Proxy servers and iOS.
My great dilemma at the moment. As a former school Internet administrator, I get why we need a proxy server. Sites need blocking and monitoring. We need to protect the young kids from surprise viewing of inappropriate sites. We also need to stop older students from trying to find those same sites. Some educators and IT guys blogging on the net want to get rid of proxies. To makes life difficult sometimes. I’m not one of them. But it makes life with iPads a pain. Safari and Mail talk to proxies through iOS settings fine. Blocked sites are still blocked. Monitoring still work. Pre iOS 5, no apps worked with Internet. With iOS, most proxy issues were resolved – with one very major omission for us anyway. Dropbox. Download yes. Upload a big no. Importing into other apps yes. Exporting from other apps to Dropbox no. You get the picture. It makes for a half solution to the whole file management/sharing issue I’ve discussed earlier.

Now if you can live with that and find other solutions to Dropbox, life with iPads continue happily and you can skip this. If like a lot of schools I know, you want Dropbox, you have two options. Difficult workarounds that I’m not familiar with and would really like some help in ( HINT:really need the help if you have solved the Dropbox/proxy issue – PC server, not Mac unfortunately). The other solution is to bypass the proxy. Bypassing the proxy though, then opens up the Internet and disables all that monitoring/ filtering software that has made us feel comfortable with letting the students roam freely online all these years.

No proxy – what now?

Use the iPad but not the Internet.

Definitely an option. There’s a lot more to the iPad than internet browsing. If you focus on iPads in Junior Grades, use the wide range of reading, word study, story writing, or AV Recording apps and leave the Internet alone. Alternatively there are dedicated browser apps with built in web filtering designed to block sites that are deemed inappropriate. K9 Browser(Free) is a good solution if you want students to use the internet safely. You can disable Safari in the Restrictions settings and use K9 instead. It is however, too limiting for older students. There is also the problem of disabling mail links since they only work with Safari.

Teach responsible Digital Citizenship
You can look are the lack of internet security ( related to monitoring/blocking sites ) as a great teaching opportunity. There are many educators in the blogosphere that believe instead of blocking and limiting access to the Internet we should be developing an understanding of what is safe, responsible use of the internet. Often, the children are left unsupervised at home online, viewing anything they find, writing and uploading anything they want to on Facebook and YouTube. We may be the only resource available to them who can guide them to think about what is appropriate behavior. We can be there for them when they find something unacceptable and turn that into a teaching moment. We can show them better alternatives available to replace their unacceptable choices. So an unmonitored, unfiltered iPad isnt an issue in this world of openness and digital citizenship building. I agree with this in principle but am unconvinced everyone can handle the possible problems that arise.

iPad monitoring software is available
There are software options available that can replace the functions of the proxy server while still allowing the iPad to fully function with all Internet reliant apps. I haven’t used them but list them here for you to investigate yourself. The biggest issue for me is it becomes an extra cost and another program to monitor. In the end it just may not be worth the effort and price.

So where does this leave us?
If you are required to maintain a proxy server, are happy with using Safari and Mail for Internet based file sharing, , accept that some apps that sync with the Internet won’t be 100% functional and are more interested in the other uses of the iPad besides websurfing, then there is no real issue.

If you don’t wan’t to compromise, take the risk of bypassing proxies or maybe stick with laptops. The iPad can’t do everything, wasn’t designed to do everything. What it does, it does brilliantly. As an Internet device in the consumer world it’s a winner (Flash limitations aside). As an Internet connected device in a school setting, it has its limitations. Decide what you want. Do you think the iPad is cybersafe enough? Have I over reacted? Are there solutions I’m unaware of? Does it really matter? Comments welcome.

One thought on “Are iPads cybersafe enough for school?

  1. I have discovered that you can connect the iPad 2 (not 1 though) to the DEC wireless internet in public schools (yay!!).  It is connected to the proxy server, so that means that all the sites that are blocked by the DEC will also be blocked on the connected iPad.  In this case I am relieved, as a lot of sites that are blocked really need to be.  It is just the web 2.0 tools and website creators I really have a beef about:)  So yes, given the filtering by the DEC proxy server, I think that iPads are cybersafe in the public sector.
    The whole annoyance about having to use dropbox and other workaround tools to
    still get a less than satisfactory method of sharing files is a real drawback for the iPad.  Nonetheless just using the apps is enough reason to use them in school.  As you say, most of the time the internet is not necessary, given that there are plenty of desktops and laptops in the schools anyway.  

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