Affordable Network Management Solution Helps Novato District Make Technology Work for Its Students a

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Among the many challenges schools face today are tight budgets, growing enrollment and new demands from government. On top of these external pressures is a basic educational challenge that will be with us for at least the next decade. I am referring to the effort to prepare our children for a world permeated by technology. We have all heard it many times: Technological proficiency, especially the ability to use the Internet, is the equivalent of being able to read and write. It is a baseline skill that will empower today's students to become tomorrow's productive citizens.

More than 7,840 students in 17 locations depend on California's Novato Unified School District — located just north of San Francisco — to teach them these skills. My job is to make sure that teachers within the district have the proper support to provide their students with a positive computing experience. While fulfilling this responsibility, I've had many experiences that have taught me the best way to manage a network.

Network Traffic Control

I was recently confronted with a situation that required immediate attention when our district's Internet access crawled to a halt within a 12-hour period. Traffic analysis at our high schools suggested the problem could be the result of heavy downloads of large files. A friend in another school district suggested I contact Lightspeed Systems, a company that specializes in education technology solutions. I took the advice and ended up installing the company's Total Traffic Control version 4.0 (TTC v.4.0), which quickly taught me why simply monitoring the network had not been enough.

Upon installing the software, we were able to generate reports indicating that students and staff were running open music servers on the district's network, which opened our network to those outside. People from outside the district were actually using the network's bandwidth to download and upload files, as well as to traffic international spam. If we hadn't decided to invest in software with reporting capabilities, we never would have been able to get to the root of the problem in such a quick and precise manner. We were quickly on the road to a remedy, with the software increasing bandwidth utility and closing our network to outsiders. Now, our district is also better able to monitor and control content on our network because TTC v.4.0 contains an easy-to-use firewall.

In addition to restoring our Internet access and managing content, this software has had other positive effects. For instance, teachers from all disciplines feel more comfortable allowing their students to access the Internet because they know that we're helping to monitor them. The reports that the software generates also allow us to demonstrate compliance with the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA). We use these same reports to help newer staff members better understand the network's flow of traffic.

Best Practices

This experience of monitoring and safeguarding the network has also helped me to better understand some of the following key principles for effectively administering a large network.

First-rate hardware and software is a must. While this sounds obvious, it's difficult to achieve in today's budgetary environment. It is always easy to relegate equipment upgrades and acquisitions to next year's wish list, but sound technology solutions will eventually save your district time, trouble and headaches. I would suggest taking the time to shop around in the market for reliable solutions so that you aren't forced to make a rushed decision later on.

Fortunately, there are many sources of public and private funding available to purchase and maintain Internet-related equipment. Companies like Lightspeed Systems even provide free assistance in identifying and applying for grants. Grant resources are also available through various print and online publications.

Trained staff. Today's technology can be very difficult to understand, let alone manage. With a large network like ours, it is paramount that my team understands how traffic flows and where problem areas are located. Therefore, it is important to find technology solutions that your team will be able to understand and use. There are solutions on the market that are more user-friendly than others, so consider this before investing. However, we've found the Windows-based user interface of Lightspeed Systems' software to be very manageable.

In addition to having trained staff, make sure that you create alliances with companies that will go the extra mile in providing the support and service your team needs. When I recently placed a call to Lightspeed Systems, they sent the beta version of TTC v.5.0 to me within two days. They also answered numerous phone calls and helped us troubleshoot our way back to a functional network.

Content monitoring and control. The Internet can open the world to students. But some of what it opens to them isn't always what they should be able to access. Pornography and other harmful materials are extremely easy to access online. Even tamer material, like music or video clips, can violate copyright laws and cause excessive network traffic not related to educational goals.

Teachers appreciate assistance in monitoring students' access to the Internet. The best way to do this is to use a blanket standard that is applied equally to every student in a school. Of course, with CIPA this is exactly what is required if schools want to obtain federal funding for Internet-related equipment. Being cognizant of which software solutions will best help your district comply with CIPA is important. Software like TTC v.4.0 provides a firewall, e-mail and instant message monitoring and filtering. Lightspeed Systems' solution also produces reports that are very easy to read. This means that I can prove to my superintendent that we're CIPA compliant.

Effectively using ever-changing technology is an unsolvable problem. But I believe it can be managed through common sense, sharing best practices and the assistance of experienced private-sector companies. If we want our students to learn with and through technology, we must continually learn as well.

— Jan Langtry

Contact Information

Lightspeed Systems

(877) 447-6244

www.lightspeedsystems.com

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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