1 to 1 Computing
Safe at Home
- By Charlene O’Hanlon
Combining high-tech safeguards with face-to-face user education is a must
for schools whose laptop programs allow students to take the computers off-site.
FOR A CAUTIONARY TALE on the consequences of
rolling out a take-home laptop program without any regard to
security, talk to Lloyd Brown, director of technology at Henrico
County Public Schools in Richmond, VA. Brown saw a failure to
plan for the mischievous browsing of student users threaten
his district's 1-to-1 effort in its first year out of the chute.
"Kids being kids, they loaded anything they could on them,
and that put our network at a big risk," he says. "It hit us like
a ton of bricks in two months." The network began to tie up as
viruses and malware infected the machines after students
inadvertently downloaded poisoned programs. "We hadn't
really given security a lot of thought," Brown says.
That lack of forethought forced the district to recall and
reimage all 14,000 or so laptops over the winter break. The
devices were then returned to the students-- lesson learned
and Norton antivirus software in place. "What was done was done," Brown says.
"We just had to take our processes and fix them."
Today the district protects its laptops on- and off-site with an "image management control" plan, Brown says. A Lightspeed web filter blocks inappropriate
sites and the latest antivirus software is on constant watch.
Students are kept from loading unsanctioned applications
onto the machines without permission from above. When a
student wants access to an unauthorized program, a "software
request" flows upward from the student to the teacher, on to
the department chair, and then to the district office for review.
"We have to be cautious of what we let the kids get to on
the internet," Brown says. "It's for our protection as much as
it is for theirs."
PC, Phone Home
The IT team at Battle Ground Academy, a private K-12 school
in Franklin, TN, takes similar measures to protect its takehome
laptops, using Sophos antivirus software
to prevent unauthorized apps from running. An even more
critical part of its defenses is Kbox, a desktop
systems management tool from Kace. The system regularly inventories
all the school computers and undoes
any installations of programs that have
been flagged by the school's administrator
of technical operations, Andrew Peercy. If
any forbidden software is found, it is automatically
uninstalled the next time the user
turns the machine on. "I don't even have to
know," Peercy says.
Putnam Valley Central School District lasers its name onto all
of its PCs, reducing their resale value on eBay to zero.
If the shame of being caught by Kbox isn't
enough of a deterrent, improper installations
come at a price: a stack of demerits
from Peercy. Each demerit brings an hour
of Saturday detention for the offending
student. "If you get too many a semester,
it begins to hurt your grades," he says.
"Being a private school, we can do that."
Putnam Valley Central School District in
upstate New York doesn't stop at monitoring
student use; it stays on top of the physical
device itself. Should a machine go missing, a sophisticated tracking system is used to hunt it down. The
technology acts much like a GPS, sending out a signal when
the laptop is turned on, which administrators can use to find its
whereabouts. Michael Lee, the district's network administrator
and CIO, says the system is "a 'phone-home' solution built inhouse." The custom application, developed using technology
from Skyhook Wireless, is buried
within each laptop and enables "pretty accurate" location information
based on WiFi positioning.
"When a kid says, 'I lost my laptop,' we're able to query
our database and say, 'This is the laptop's last known location,'"
Lee explains. "'Why don't you look there?'"
Lee recalls one instance when the solution found a missing
laptop in a student's locker, resting under a pile of clothes. He
then relates what happened at the end of last school year,
when an inventory of all the computers revealed that some
students had not turned theirs in, as required. Lee put the
tracking system on the case and it quickly found the houses
where the wanted machines were located. Using Google Maps to cross-reference the addresses of
those houses with addresses included in the district's student
information system, Lee was able to confirm the guilty-- or
merely absent-minded-- students' identities. "Over the course
of two days, we got all the computers back," he says.
The district backs up the high-tech security strategies with
a distinctly low-tech way of making sure its laptops don't grow
legs. "All our laptops are laser-etched in large, bold print with
the phrase 'Property of Putnam Valley Central School District'
and our phone number directly on the top of the laptop," Lee
says. "This effectively reduces their eBay value to zero."
Getting Parents on Board
Technology coordinators seem to agree that a district is
asking for trouble if it doesn't complement its laptop security
tools with a user education program. Battle Ground Academy
speaks to students directly. "At the beginning of the year, when
they receive their laptops," Peercy says, "we break the students
into small groups and talk with them for a couple of hours
about the dos and don'ts, rules and regulations, proper internet
etiquette, where to go for help-- things like that."
The school considers educating parents about the machines
to be no less critical. Parents are "highly encouraged," Peercy
says, to attend the information sessions, and the school
periodically hosts workshops for parents on technology use.
At North Daviess Community Schools in Elnora, IN, parental
education is also a high priority of the 1-to-1 program. A
Parents Night is held early in the year, where Technology and
Curriculum Coordinator Todd Whitlock and other staff explain
the workings of the laptops-- their maintenance and care, their
capabilities, and what students are allowed to do on them.
"We want to make sure parents know, for instance, that
the laptop has a web camera," Whitlock says, noting that a
webcam opens up security risks by capturing images that
students can transmit to other users. "We want the students
and parents to be aware that you must pay attention to what
is in the background of images as well as what you type."
The district hosts online-safety sessions during the year at
each of its schools, led by law enforcement officers who make
a point of addressing the issue of unintentionally sharing
personal information over a webcam. "They'll go into a whole
dialogue about bringing up pictures that have been posted
and pointing out things in the background like family pictures,
school names-- just pointing out how easy it is from those
pictures to then locate the people," Whitlock says.
Although North Daviess doesn't systemically check its
laptops for threats, students know that at any time their
computer can be reset to its original image and impermissible
programs wiped off. Usually, Whitlock says, the toxic applications
themselves rat students out. "The normal way we
find out is when their computer quits working, because that
means they've loaded something that has spyware on it."
Whitlock says the district's acceptable use policy is intentionally
generous, granting students access at the level of
a local administrator. "We know they're going to do some
exploration, and for non-educational uses, and we're
fine with that. The more they use [the computer], the more
proficient they become, even if it's used for entertainment
reasons. We feel it's better to teach responsible computing
than to limit their ability to be creative and complete the
tasks asked of them."
That's a feeling common to school districts with take-home
laptop programs. They're willing to take on the risks of 1-to-1
computing in order to stretch the classroom to the household. "Computer use in today's world is an 'all-the-time' thing, not
a 'sometimes' thing," Lee says. "Everything I do is now on
my laptop. Everything students will do will also be associated
with some form of technology. If the laptops were kept for
in-school use only, they would be used no differently than a
desktop; we would lose all the benefits a 1-to-1 program
affords us. The foundation of the program needs to be educating
students on proper and ethical use."
Lee believes his district has found that modest middle
ground between having a strict but not restrictive program. "I
think we have an ideal balance between security, safety, and
usability," he says. "While we continue to refine and improve
our methods, I think we're already 99 percent there."
This article originally appeared in the October 1, 2009 issue of THE Journal.
Charlene O’Hanlon specializes in technology reporting and is based in the New York area.