For School Leaders, A Brief and Vital K-12 IT Security Update

A security expert shares what schools need to know about protecting students and their connected devices.

GUEST COLUMN | by Dirk Morris

When it comes to IT security for students at K-12 institutions, there are many factors to consider. Online assessments, web-based learning tools and mobile devices are driving the future of education. Network administrators have tried costly network upgrades to increase bandwidth and expand the reach of their Wi-Fi networks, but have found these efforts insufficient.

Unfortunately, most schools continue to use legacy web filters that are ineffective and inflexible when it comes to allocating what network resources users, apps and devices have access to. These out-of-date systems provide only basic block/allow port and URL-based functionality that have put CIPA Compliance and E-Rate Funding at risk.

Classrooms need to prepare for the demands of the 21st century, which means next generation web filtering (including application control), SSL inspection and bandwidth management.

The Evolving Classroom

In today’s classrooms, teachers have many tools available to make their lessons more dynamic. One of the most powerful of these tools is access to the internet. It’s important for students to use these tools both in the classroom, and beyond, in order to have the most up-to-date resources and information.

Need an extra lesson? Just watch a Khan Academy video to help supplement your in-classroom experience.

Teachers want to give a real-world example? It’s easy to find YouTube videos or news stories to share to drive their lessons home with students.

While the internet is an amazing tool, unfortunately, it is also home to plenty of inappropriate content that needs to be filtered in order for schools to maintain CIPA compliance.

When you look at the number of tools that have moved to cloud-based software, and the increase in mobile device adoption in classrooms, it’s easy to see why you’d need a solution to help manage students using the internet on these devices.

Basic tools, such as Office 365, are commonly used cloud services for students, but there is increasing concern about the distractions available online for students.

Campuses need to be able to enable students to use the internet, while blocking distracting sites and protecting them from any viruses or threats.

Finding a Solution

Every institution will need to evaluate their own needs, but there are many common issues and best practices when looking for a good solution for your campus. Here are some key points to consider when looking at a solution for your educational institution:

Flexible Filtering. Network admins need a tool that allows them to create granular policies for students, teachers, classrooms, grade level, district offices, and more. Creating rules to optimize bandwidth for online assessments and web-based learning tools will appease teachers and keep students online surfing at bay.

Reporting is Critical. Tools need to quickly and easily give you the information you need to know about users, websites, and bandwidth consumption, so you don’t spend a lot of time chasing rumors and symptoms rather than solving problems. If you have to log into several devices to get this data, chances are you won’t have the complete picture of what is happening on your network. Reporting also provides proof of compliance for auditors and can make an audit check faster and easier. 

HTTPS Decryption is a must. If all you can see is that there was an HTTPS request made, but you don’t have to ability to see what it was, then you are in trouble. Anyone who can ask a search engine “how do I get past my school’s content filter” will get a myriad of things to try, and HTTPS will be in all those answers.

Protect from Proxies. Expect that teachers or students will find a way to check Facebook or blocked social media sites. Anonymous proxy technology is free, easy to find and sometimes laden with all kinds of malware. You want to use a solution that not only identify web requests on non-standard ports but can automatically detect and shut down attempts to use proxies and other methods to bypass the web filter.

Keep it Up. It’s critical to continue to explore potential holes in your content filters. If you haven’t used TOR browsers or other anonymizer technology, download them, play with them, and learn how they work so you can be aware of what staff and students are trying. There are dozens of message boards and organizations that cater to education IT professional; log on and see what others are dealing with and how they are solving these problems.

Moving Forward

While it may seem like a never-ending battle, with the right tools, you can create a fast and CIPA-compliant internet environment for your school. Moving forward, we need to empower all students to take advantage of every tool at their disposal, while minimizing the risk of any harm or distraction in the classroom. With the right solutions in place, we can continue to offer students the opportunity to learn in new and exciting ways, with the latest technologies available.

Dirk Morris is the Founder and Chief Product Officer of Untangle. Prior to Untangle, Morris was Chief Architect at Akheron Technologies, where he invented the patent-pending High Bandwidth Transparent Vectoring used in the company’s proxy firewall engine. He earned a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science with a minor in Mathematics from Carnegie Mellon University.

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