IT Trends

What School District CIOs Need to Know about IoT

With the focus on providing better services to students and teachers, the applications for Internet of Things is projected to grow exponentially in the K-12 setting, but questions are becoming increasingly apparent on how to protect school data under controlled conditions.

What School District CIOs Need to Know about IoT

The Internet of Things has the ability to transform how school districts work and operate in the modern area. Through applications such as connected school buses to remotely-controlled HVAC systems, the opportunities to provide robust connectivity options and more focused solutions for school management are attractive options for school district CIOs.

However, all of the possibilities must be considered with student safety as the top priority. Concerns about student privacy are also paramount and the ability to track students through RFID cards and monitor website traffic comes with its own set of challenges.

“People are surprisingly lax about their own security practices, but they are hypersensitive and concerned about giving data up around their children,” said Kelly Calhoun Williams, a research vice president at Gartner. “There are complexities in the application of IoT for K-12 that is different than what the typical consumer wants. The presence of IoT is going to continue to increase in school environments and they will overcome sensitivity over time.”

While districts have shown an interest in making their schools more connected through IoT applications, the first area of deployment for many is making school buses into hubs for doing homework and increasing safety visibility for bus drivers.

Mechanics behind connected school buses

According to CoSN’s 2018-2019 Infrastructure Survey, 35 percent of school districts do not provide support for students without broadband access at home. To fill that gap, many school districts are exploring options to outfit school buses with WiFi hotspots to allow students to complete their homework in route to school, field trips or sporting events.

Missouri’s Raytown Quality Schools has found success with implementing WiFi on school buses, but they realized that barriers needed to be placed on the type of information that could be accessed almost immediately. On the first day of the district’s pilot, Kevin Easley, Raytown’s department of transportation director, found students consumed all of the data that his team had budgeted for entire month.

“We chose to allow students access the app store on their phones on the first day that Apple released an iOS update,” Easley said. “After we figured out why we burned through so much data, we took steps to limit the use of the network to things that are only educational.”

Now, students are able to get a seamless experience between using cellular network hotspots on their school buses and getting immediate connectivity through wireless networks as they enter school grounds. School bus drivers can also get advantages through the use of connected technology solutions.

Kajeet has developed a SmartBus solution that enables administrators to track buses through GPS, an RFID reader to track when students get on and off the bus and cameras to monitor student activity inside and outside the bus. Companies like Cradlepoint provide the network routers and the connectivity with companies such Verizon and AT&T to make the end-to-end connections.

With school districts gaining the ability to provide Chromebooks and tablets to students for school use, the need to provide connectivity outside the classroom becomes more paramount. Greenville County Schools, the largest school district in South Carolina, recognized that need and deployed WiFi hotspots to its entire 425 bus fleet to give students an additional 28,000 hours of instructional time.

“The WiFi on the buses creates an extension of the classroom. The students know exactly how to log on and can seamlessly continue their school work once on the bus,” said Bill Brown, executive director of Greenville’s education technology services. “Once WiFi is on the bus, it opens up a plethora of other capabilities and a whole new opportunity.”

Implementing IoT in practice

Other IoT solutions can help teachers and administrators inside and outside the classroom. CrisisGO is a platform that allows school staff to build a reliable line of communication through an app to manage public safety crises hosted through Amazon Web Services. The app enables teachers to set off alerts through a panic button, access school emergency plans and submit incident reports to school administrators.

“We are trying to make safety embedded into the daily life at schools and make it as ubiquitous as possible,” said Jim Spicuzza, chief product officer at CrisisGO. “It could be a sensor that tells you that you have a carbon monoxide problem or a mechanism in the refrigerators in the cafeteria that lets you know about spoiled food. These kinds of IoT solutions are going to make everyone safer while getting embedded into everything that we already do.”

Another potential application comes from mytaptrack, which using an IoT solution to track the behaviors of students with disabilities. Teachers are given a programmable button to mark behavioral trends of students during different learning activities.

“Teachers are finding that having a button is not intrusive to the learning experience,” said mytaptrack CEO Nikody Keating. “When they are sitting down for conversations with parents, the data collected changes the entire conversation because there is data to back up the conversation rather than just relying on a teacher’s memory. We’re seeing a lot of data myths dispelled and more discussions with parents to make the learning environment a collaborative experience.”

However, most school districts are not as advanced in their IoT solution development. For California’s Fresno Unified School District, Philip Neufeld, executive director of Information Technology, sees the need to focus on how to provide internet connectivity to as many students as possible outside of the classroom.

Fresno has WiFi on school buses through Cradlepoint’s IoT solution set, and the school district is also offering WiFi at remote sites for suspended students to keep up with their coursework. Connectivity is essential for school district services such as healthcare clinics and disaster recovery operations as well.

Providing security for devices

As school districts start to explore providing more options to teachers and students in terms of connectivity, cybersecurity concerns become more prevalent. The extent of the Mirai botnet attack that took advantage of unprotected IoT networks showed CIOs and their industry partners that IoT systems need separate and distinct networks that are not connected to district data centers.

One solution is to create a software-defined perimeter for all IoT devices to enable students to access the WiFi and 4G LTE connections in the classroom and on school buses, but to limit the number of websites or applications that they can access.

“We can route the traffic before it goes anywhere and make specific addresses accessible so all other addresses are null and void, which prevents a sensor from getting hacked by a foreign country,” said Kajeet CEO Daniel Neal. “We tighten up the traffic so it is only routed to the designed place that is supposed to be routed to.”

Network segmentation can also be a valuable tool to direct traffic for specific purpose areas. For instance, the technology behind connecting student devices would be running on a dedicated part of the network that is separate from the mechanisms that control the HVAC systems. By using this kind of technology, the different networked systems can still be monitored and tracked, but the information following through these environments is kept separate and distinct.

Gartner finds that school districts looking to cement their cybersecurity strategies should segment their operations into four operational areas: cybersecurity, risk management, business continuity and audit and privacy. While confidentiality, integrity and availability are important security objectives, a priority should also be placed on privacy, safety and reliability.

“The challenge in education today is how to make a difference in student educational learning outcomes with all the data that is now accessible,” said Gartner’s Calhoun Williams. “The IoT schema expands on that challenge exponentially, but the data doesn’t do anything until you get insights on how to do something better.”