Should I Use VPN while on the School Wifi Network? 

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When K-12 schools provide WiFi, they limit what you can see. Some of the reasons are obvious. They don’t want students opening up porn pages, even by accident. They’re trying to limit time-wasting. But a lot of the time they get carried away. They block access which you need to do assigned work or learn more about the subject.

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A lot of the time, they figure it’s safer for their jobs if they block too much rather than too little. Whether it’s good for your learning is less important. The result is that sometimes you have to engage in a bit of guerrilla access. A good way to do it is by using a virtual private network, or VPN.

Why blocking runs to excess

Schools have to pay attention to the law. A United States law says they must filter or block material which is “harmful to minors” for students under age 17 if they want government money. Sometimes they block so much they get in the way of education. They can get in bad trouble if they don’t block enough. If they block too much, the worst they face is protests.

Sometimes the choice of sites to ban has more to do with the administrators’ biases than anything else. Some filters were specifically designed to block LGBT-related content. Whatever your views on those issues are, you can’t develop an informed opinion if you can’t even read about them. Besides, not being able to read controversial material takes all the fun out of research.

The American Library Association has published a report saying “over-filtering blocks access to legitimate educational resources.” It mentions a case where filtering stopped a school counselor from getting information about teen suicide in order to help a student. In some districts, sites required by the AP curriculum were blocked.

There are schools that “whitelist.” That means they have a list of sites you’re allowed to visit, and everything else is blocked. That kind of service is very frustrating to work with.

Wasting time or doing work?

Schools block some sites, like YouTube and Facebook, because they’re “time wasters.” It certainly isn’t hard to get sucked into those sites for hours, but sometimes you need them. Vimeo and YouTube have informative videos on how-tos, history, current events, and health. Facebook may be mostly gossip, but it has some important articles.

Any set of mechanical rules for blocking sites is going to block useful material along with harmful content. The best of intentions won’t stop filters from getting in the way of learning.

Using a smartphone might be an alternative. It doesn’t depend on the school’s WiFi. A lot of schools ban phone use during school hours, though. Besides, a phone’s tiny screen isn’t very convenient for reading a long article or watching an important video. You’d like to get at that material with a WiFi tablet or laptop.

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WiFi privacy risks

There’s another reason for worrying about school WiFi networks. A lot of them are set up with no security at all. Equipment for snooping on their traffic is both legal and easy to get. If you connect to a secure website, it’s reasonably safe even over public WiFi, but the history of what sites you’re accessing is wide open. Your email, coming and going, might be visible. Any personal information you give to a site that isn’t secure is visible.

Secure WiFi exists, and a lot of schools have it. If you had to enter a password when you first set up your connection (not when you accessed a website), it should be secure. Your computer’s WiFi settings for the hotspot will tell you if it is. Even then, whoever operates the hotspot can view what you’re doing.

The VPN alternative

A virtual private network lets you get around a local network’s filtering. It’s basically a network set up by software and encryption. The rest of the network could be anywhere. Think of it as a kind of invisibility cloak. All your communication with it is private. Your school’s WiFi network can’t tell what sites you’re accessing or block them.

Many VPNs belong to businesses for their own use. They let employees connect from home without being snooped upon. We’re talking about a different kind of VPN here. You subscribe to it, and you access the Internet the way you normally would after setting it up. The difference is that everything goes through the VPN’s Internet gateway, which is outside the school’s reach. It’s as if you were connecting to the Internet from someplace far away.

Many options are available. Some are better than others at protecting privacy, accessing blocked sites, and delivering a fast and reliable connection. You can learn more from Surfshark’s “What Is VPN Guide”. Make sure to choose a good service. Free ones may be very slow, badger you with ads, and not be available all the time.

Your school administrators can see when you’re using a VPN, even though they can’t see what you’re using it for. Some schools block VPNs. They might block specific VPN sites, or they might block the protocols used. Either way, you might have better luck by trying a different one. If your school uses whitelisting, getting to a VPN may be very hard.

If the school bans VPN use, you might get into trouble for using it, even if it isn’t blocked. Teachers are more likely to look the other way if it’s for legitimate study purposes.

Use your freedom responsibly

Using a VPN lets you access pretty much anything you want to, but you need to be responsible about it. If you use it to play games when you should be paying attention, that’s going to hurt your grades. If you get noticed, you need to have a good explanation.

Don’t take the “invisibility cloak” idea too literally. There are still ways people can see what you’re doing on the Internet, starting with looking at your screen. But if what you’re trying to do is reasonable, they most likely won’t mind as much. A VPN can help you to learn with fewer barriers, and that’s a reasonable educational purpose.