‘Big Brother’ in Schools: Where to Cut It

I tweeted a question this morning, and after thinking about it more and discussing it briefly with a colleague of mine Mr. Tim Robinson, thought it deserved more than 140 characters:

Given my role, I am visible in all schools K-12, where staff and students see me as being the ‘IT guy’. I get stopped in the halls with all kinds of questions, and I do my best to answer them. I know my fair share of educational technology, however, some things are simply out of my realm. One area, for example would have been network security – a year ago; but seeing as it is such an important backbone to student learning in classrooms these days, I learned a great deal about it recently for good reason.

network-security There is no doubt that school boards have differing viewpoints on how secure a network should be for their organization. This ranges from open networks with secure firewalls to networks that are both password protected, secure with firewalls and require user authentication.

Here is an example of two very powerful educational tools in particular that, when required to authenticate through the firewall, become affected by such a setup.

Chromebooks and iPads

Firstly, Chromebooks will not work on a network that requires a prompt for authentication by the student. Chrome OS does not allow for that prompt. There are a few workarounds for this, however, they do not provide that quick, easy access of what a Chromebook is really all about.

Secondly, when the connection for iPads requires authentication to access the internet, they do not work seamlessly either. This is particularly frustrating for students as the prompt does not ‘pop up‘ unless they open an internet browser. If the student wanted to simply turn on the iPad and open an app to work online, nothing would work if a connection is required.

These two scenarios have led to me to beg the question:

How secure do school networks have to be?

I may out of my realm with this, but I think we are at a point in education that we can forgo the excessive security. If schools continue to think that they need to police the internet as some still think they need to, we are in trouble as both leaders and learners. Any number of layers of security should be invisible to students during their learning, providing a seamless learning experience.

I think it is time that schools rethink the difference between what is needed and what is wanted with network security. If we continue to worry about security as some still do, we are not only (in my mind) infringing on their privacy by collecting such things as browsing history, but creating an environment of distrust.

More importantly – harming student learning.

4 Replies to “‘Big Brother’ in Schools: Where to Cut It”

  1. Brilliantly put! Also, the weight of the positive vs the negative effects. There is far more positive, in my opinion, that would come out of a “less” secure network. The students would be able to utilize tech more and the teachers could teach more effectively…Cons: Administration couldn’t collect data. There will always be risk but at what cost? And why should it be at the cost of the students….Really…putting our students first! Peter you are a great IT advocate for education. Please keep it up!!

    1. Kind words Lisa! Thanks for the reply!
      Are you sure you’re not mistaking me for another Peter Anello? 🙂
      See my reply to Brandon’s comment – it addresses similar points that you made as well.

  2. Hey Pete,

    I totally agree with you. Some of the security measures we have in place on school networks are reasonable (for example, students can’t install software on board computers; this is good so they can’t intentionally or unintentionally install malware), but others are more trouble than they’re worth (don’t say “content filter” near teachers in my board without earplugs – EXTREME frustration this year).

    The real trouble, as a colleague of mine pointed out this week, is that our “protection” of students only applies to those who must use our devices and networks. The student who brings their own laptop and/or uses their own cell data plan is not restricted in the same way other students are. This is another facet of the economic divide in schools: now the rich kids can see the Internet and the poor kids get the crippled version we provide.

    We’re better to open things up and teach them how to use it properly. They’re going to use it anyway, so we might as well be fair about it.

    Thanks for posting!

    1. Thanks for the reply Brandon!
      I was going to mention exactly that – some students do have the luxury of bringing the realinternet to school, whereas some students are left behind wall upon wall of security, not experience the world wide web as it is.
      This is problematic in so many ways.
      To clarify, I am not asking to open up the internet without filters. That’s what a firewall’s job is – to block the bad (or whatever we think is bad).
      The key to providing students with a real network experience that is going to be real for them is to knock down these walls and teach them how to be good online digital citizens. Many boards have taken steps to unblock sites such as (for example) Facebook and Youtube. In discussing this with them further, their cases or incidents related to these services are so minimal that they do not see the openess of their security being a concern.
      There are so many programs out there that could be embedded into instruction – whether it be searching the internet, or maintaining social media profiles. Some people may would probably say:

      Why should I have to worry about that? It’s not part of my lesson.

      In all fairness, they are probably right, but we have to start realizing that our students are going to be living online more than we do. We best take an initiative as individual teachers, program leaders and administrators to realize this and prepare our students for a real future.

      Hmmm…. sounds like an opening for a next blog post 🙂

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