Schools and universities often provide free Wi-Fi services for their students to use. The access can be incredibly useful for access to educational resources for research purposes. Many schools, however, apply network filters to restrict access to certain content. A VPN can be great for providing security on untrusted networks and for bypassing web filters, both of which are issues that affect students at many schools.
Many institutions implement firewall blocks to ensure that only safe or approved resources are accessible. In some places, it may even be a legal requirement to put some blocks in place. For example, in the US, schools must filter or block material that is “harmful to minors” for students under seventeen, to be eligible to receive government funding.
Due to the fact that this sort of legislation is often deliberately unclear as to what content needs to be restricted, implementations can vary wildly. Some schools may just block access to the most obvious things such as adult and violent content, while others may go overboard and only allow access to a few approved sites, or block access to “controversial” topics such as LGBT related content, even if it is no way ’18+’.
In general, it sounds like it makes sense to restrict access to social media sites, as sites like Facebook can be massive time-sinks. YouTube often gets caught up in social media filters unfortunately, even though a lot of educational video content is available on YouTube that could be useful to students. Many schools take a ‘better safet than sorry’ approach and block more than necessary.
VPN’s are designed to help you get past filters. This can be a big advantage in an academic environment where differing world views and sometimes uncomfortable subjects can give you a better understanding of a topic – even if it’s the school’s policy to keep its students in the dark on topics they consider ‘inappropriate’, such as sexual health, women’s issues or even parts of history.
If your school requires a password to access its Wi-Fi, your connection is encrypted. This means that no-one else on the Wi-Fi network can listen to your network traffic and steal passwords. If your school Wi-Fi is instead unencrypted and open for anyone to join, a hacker could see your network traffic.
Tip; encryption is a method of scrambling data so it can only be read with an encryption key.
Using a VPN provides an extra layer of encryption between your device and the VPN server, which will protect you when using an unsecured Wi-Fi network. You don’t need one to connect, but you are safer if you do.
Everything discussed above makes using a VPN sound like a good idea, but you should be aware that some schools may have written policies in place that cover things like the use of VPNs. The main reason for them to do so would be to ban VPNs, as they could be used to bypass the web filters. Some of these policies will only cover the use of school-owned devices, which you shouldn’t be installing software, such as a VPN client, on, anyway. Others may also apply to personal devices, such as your mobile phone, when connected to school networks.
If this sort of policy is implemented at your school, you should be careful if you decide to use a VPN. Flaunting these rules could incur disciplinary action – not to mention your school may even block major VPN providers if they so choose. If you do decide to use a VPN despite these rules, try not to be too obvious with it and only use it when you need it.
Tip: Another alternative is always mobile data – you can still use your normal phone or computer data plan to access the Internet without restrictions while you are at school.