1 to 1 Computing

Safe at Home

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.

Safe at HomeFOR 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 Dell 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.