Big Brother Gets Bolder
Web sites like those described to the left are likely off limits for most students in districts that have one-to-one laptop initiatives allowing students to take the computers home. And while administrators and parents aim to protect students from downloading naked pictures, chatting on Web sites with potential predators, and looking for non-educational material, some debate has erupted over the fine line of student privacy and squashing student rights to information-whether it be in libraries or on the World Wide Web.
In an age where more school districts are reviewing plans or have one-to-one laptop initiatives for their students, administrators are turning to high-tech answers to keep track of how students use these machines- even when they are not in class and not on school grounds.
Some companies offer their own "blacklist" of no-no Web sites to ensure students are sticking to education when using the laptops off school grounds, and even keep track of tech-savvy and tireless students that try to override the system and change grades, for example. Other companies have a system that can track if a laptop is stolen or lost and even remotely eliminate sensitive information on the laptop.
So, this sounds a lot like Big Brother-once again. "It is," admits Lightspeed CEO Joel Heinrichs. "Schools are in charge of children in lieu of the parents while they are gone. There's an obligation that school resources are being used appropriately. And to protect children from outside dangers and themselves."
But Nancy Willard, executive director of Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, disagrees, saying districts should be concerned with safe and responsible use issues. "The degree of reliance districts place on filtering systems to seek to control Internet use is unacceptable," says Willard, also author of Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats: Responding to the Challenge of Online Social Cruelty, Threats and Distress. "Students can easily bypass these systems to access social networking sites. Students generally are provided with e-mail capabilities and may be misusing the e-mail for cyberbullying. Filtering systems are ineffective in addressing these concerns."
But she notes that she doesn't think these programs can never be effective. "We need significantly greater emphasis on professional and curriculum development and significantly improved methods for Internet use management to ensure that they are effective."
Willard adds that companies which set up these blocked sites might have other agendas. "No one is watching the blockers," she adds. "And we don't know what they're blocking," such as sites that could help students answer questions they have about a sensitive topic.
But it's not only students getting all the attention. Teachers and staff are getting their own share of fixation from software programs. Having potential pornographic Web sites downloaded on laptops or opening viruses at home, teachers can bring that into the school's network when they come back to school. And more districts will spend the money now to avoid or stop it.
Big Bro Goes Off Campus
California is a big state. No one knows that better than Philip Scrivano, who at one time traveled around the state to repair and fix computer and laptop programs when they were compromised. Scrivano, IT analyst for California's Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team, says that changed when they installed Lightspeed Systems' Total Traffic Control v6.0 with a security agent, or desktop content filter, just a few months ago. FCAT's mission is to help the state's local educational agencies with fiscal advice, management assistance, training and other related school business services. Scrivano is based in the Kern County Superintendent of Schools office under contract with the state Department of Education and the governor's office.
Scrivano's job is to keep track of employees' computer work in the field. "I've had, over the last four years, problems with, for example, an employee whose 15-year-old son or his friends are over the house and they used one of our computers and checked out a porn site or other sites that download pop up ads and viruses. Our employee then reports that the computer is slow, not working, or is flooded with pop up ads for bad stuff. At this point, I'm left driving quite a ways to repair or rebuild the home office computer."
The Lightspeed software, however, allows Scrivano to control what programs are allowed on the equipment; ensure the laptops or computers don't pick up any virus or spyware, which keeps them running smoothly; and run all traffic through a content filter that Scrivano sets up so he can stop inappropriate uses. "So the beauty of this is when some of our employees' kids try to go to Playboy.com they can't do it anymore," Scrivano notes. "And teachers themselves can't go home and download naked girls at home and then bring that back to school and put it on the school network."
Although Scrivano couldn't talk specifics, he did say that FCAT is pushing for legislation that would help them prosecute teachers that download inappropriate Web site information or pictures.
And the software allows Scrivano and his team to track the traffic on each computer. The districts that use TTC have readily available reports that track suspicious traffic or can pick up on use of a suspicious search engine. It might show someone searching for drugs or how to make a bomb, which might not mean anything, but it could be deemed non-educational, according to Heinrichs. Every machine is traced via a machine name and IP address, which is given by an Internet Service Provider, like DSL, and which identifies the user. "We know there is a pattern of how people get stuff," Scrivano says. The punishment can be anything from administrative leave to being fired, he says.
Lightspeed has a list of categorized sites that are recommended to districts to block, such as adult chat forums, violence and pornography as well as phishing sites, which are deceptive information pharming sites used to acquire personal information of users for fraud or theft.
Scrivano says certain sites are off limits for obvious reasons, but if female students are preparing for the upcoming prom and want to look for lingerie, the Victoria's Secret Web site is off limits. If someone questions this, he asks: "Show me the lesson plan for that. What is the educational content?"
It's similar with roughly 40,000 laptops in the Henrico County School District's high schools in Virginia, where just recently a 24/7 watch was implemented over students surfing the Web when they took the laptops out of school. "Parents basically wanted a filtering solution that was working 24/7 in response to that," says Jason Cope, systems administrator for Henrico County schools.
8e6's R3000 software, a filter that can sit at the district site, filters all Internet traffic and allows schools to chose which categories of sites to block, such as hate sites and child pornography, on campus and off campus. Tracking is handled individually by each school and administration team. Students who inappropriately use the laptops face detention or up to 10 days of suspension from school, depending on the case, Cope says.
"The intent of one-to-one initiatives is ultimately to dramatically improve the teaching environment in school," says Paul Myer, president and COO of 8e6. And the second goal was to give Internet access to more disadvantaged students.
If a student at the Irving Independent School District in Texas downloads music or movies from his laptop at school, he may have to pay a fine to re-image it. Other students using laptops are also monitored and blocked from certain sites.
But when they take home their laptops, they are pretty much on their own when it comes to Web site searches. They don't have blocks. It's up to parents to watch over them. "We need parents to be partners in this," says Alice E. Owen, executive director of technology at Irving ISD. "They can't expect the school to do everything. We can't monitor kids 24/7."
But if that laptop is stolen or lost, district leaders can track it using Absolute Software's Computrace Data Protection, which can be built into any Dell, Gateway, HP or Lenovo computer. The software allows the district to track fixed, remote and mobile computer assets and remotely swipe data if the computer is lost, stolen or near the end of its lifecycle.
It tracks where the laptop is, right down to a house address, Owen says. About 2 percent of computers have been stolen this school year, she says, compared to about 5 percent in the corporate world.
The software also keeps track of how often the machines are used to make sure the computers are indeed being used, and it can help administrators identify the number of licenses they are using for software, according to John Livingston, CEO of Absolute Software. Online reports highlight where students logged in from as well as what software they have installed-something the IT department likes so it can manage the assets.
Outfoxing the Fox
But as many administrators and teachers have realized over the past few years, students are outwitting the systems. They have time and energy to try to override a block.
"It's a hard battle to fight," Owen says about Irving students who try to find ways around firewalls. "It's a challenge to them." No system is 100 percent foolproof, she adds. "They find proxy servers on the Web that bypasses our network."
A student could direct requests for banned sites like MySpace through a Web address at home, thereby tricking the school's filter.
"It's kind of a holy grail for students, for fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth-grade male students, for their ego, to want to change the grades. It's like a status symbol," Scrivano adds. Lightspeed's software can trace someone who has been trying to get into the district's grading system, he adds. The reports show various failed attempts, with times and dates: "Johnny is trying to connect to the front end server that has the grade book on it," it will say. "They will try for five or six hours," Scrivano adds. With that information, administrators can go to Johnny and ask what is up.
Although school security systems originally came about out of fear of outsiders or outside hackers coming into the network, it's now more of an internal problem, whereby "our own students and teachers and our own people are abusing the network," Scrivano says. "We have firewalls on the wrong side. We need to protect ourselves from our district offices."
Cope in Henrico County adds that a team of technicians watch over student Web site traffic. "We have a remote control desktop and see what they are doing on laptops," Cope says. The software's learn feature takes the top 50 highest hit sites so administrators can examine those. Students at home or at school might find a controversial url and then pass it on to others, spreading like "wildfire" across a school district, and "if you see a trend in the traffic we're able to categorize it as inappropriate and we can shut it down immediately," Cope says.
At Connecticut's Kent School, a boarding school for 563 high school students who each have a laptop, there is a trust that is instilled in staff and even the pupils. Adam Fischer, Kent's director of Information Services, says he tracks where students go on the Internet. But students-that live on and off campus-have no firewalls and no blocked Web sites.
"We know that we're trying to teach them how to use the tools properly," Fischer says. "When they get to college no one will be watching them... At least you are preparing them for what kind of things are waiting for them."
Often, laptops come back to school after summer break crawling with viruses and spyware, which is a royal headache for the IT department.
And curious high school boys may go to sites that are inappropriate or non-educational, Fischer says, but that is discussed. "We talk about it regularly and if an issue comes up we deal with it like any other discipline issue," Fischer explains. "We look at it kind of the same way as an inappropriate poster hanging in their room."
Fischer can track the Web sites via each computer, via a username, but several million entries are logged every few days. It's usually another issue that draws attention to a specific student surfing the Web inappropriately, such as a student not getting his work done. "I'm not going to win that fight" of securing Web sites, Fischer adds. It's better to answer their questions about blogs, such as, does anyone really see my picture on chat forums? Can anyone get more information on me if I post on these social networking sites? Fischer warns them-"Just don't put stuff out there."
And Scrivano agrees, saying that if districts get too restrictive on what students can see on the Internet, it will only turn off tech-savvy students. "Your best security is a good teacher and a good lesson plan," so students will be too busy and too involved to start looking for trouble sites, he says.
But such blocking software is more sophisticated now as well, Heinrichs adds, in that it can be as restrictive or open as districts want. And if a teacher or student or staff person wants a certain Web site to be accessible, and it's blocked, the IT administrator can override the block and open it for a few hours or a few weeks, or it can open the site to just teachers or students in science lab or library.
Scrivano says blocked sites on his end can be opened within 10 minutes.
Cope says requests to open sites are followed by the team members looking at them and considering the request. For example, a math site might be totally kosher, but because it includes a message board and forum, it is closed under the category of "e-mail and message boards." That site would be opened for the educational purpose, Cope says.
But Cope adds that some students might have an issue with a blocked site and whether it's harmful or not, it's not educational. "What is instructional and a diversion," he asks. "One thing to understand is that you can have the best filtering system in the world and be accurate 99.9 percent of the time but it has to balance with the policy and instruction that goes with that."
Angela Pascopella is senior features editor.