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Keeping schools digitally safe

[Ian Jackson, managing director of Imerja, considers the challenges of keeping students safe whilst enhancing the role IT can play in education.]   IT is integrated into our everyday lives. Whether it’s using mobile phones on-the-go or laptops and tablets at home, we’re never far away from a powerful device. In the past, technology was often seen as a ‘nice to have’ – now it’s something we continually rely on. We manage our finances and do our shopping online. We interact with our families, reconnect with friends and meet new people online. It’s fair to say that the internet is now firmly anchored in all facets of contemporary culture. Consequently, children born into this generation grow up with their worlds built around digital means. It’s not an extra, supplementary layer of their lives – it’s a fundamental part.

The younger generation are constantly connected, keeping in touch with friends, playing games and expressing themselves through technological and online mediums. Societal shifts in lifestyle and behaviour are something that schools have to consider and respond to. With IT becoming central to everyday lives it will inevitably affect teaching and learning, and arguably it has already, but education policy makers have sometimes been slow over the years to get IT into the classroom effectively. The best teaching is that which is relevant to the learner, and in a medium that they understand and can associate with, which is why there is a desire and need to more widely adopt digital methods of learning.

IT in the classroom IT can help to educate students in the most basic of ways, utilising simple technologies. The use of word processors and spreadsheet software can improve numeracy and literacy, while web-based investigation can help with research skills. In addition, proficiency at these now elementary tasks will set children up well for further learning, and more importantly their future careers. Most occupational paths at the very least require basic IT skills, and interacting with public services increasingly involves using IT. Historically, education has not always been associated with digital innovation, but the latest technologies are slowly finding their way into the sector.

Classroom based computers and interactive whiteboards have become commonplace, but more recent examples include using 3D projectors to explore the inner workings of the human body, or the use of tablets to display enhanced textbooks. Whether it’s simple or inventive, the effective use of technology in schools can enhance learning – bringing education to life and making it more accessible to students. With IT taking on a more integral role in society and the benefits of using it within the classroom growing, it’s easy to see why the digital world is becoming more important for schools. Information and communication technologies are no longer relevant for just computer studies or media and business lessons – they now stretch across the whole curriculum.

Broadband in schools The vast majority of schools now provide students with internet access. Since 2000, the National Education Network has worked to realise the promise of broadband technology in education, attempting to connect the learning communities across England. In 2009, a survey from the British Educational Supplier Association found that 92% of secondary school computers could connect to the web – a proportion that has grown in the last three years. Universal internet access for education establishments is an excellent concept, not only aiding in teaching and learning, but also bringing the education sector up to technological speed with the rest of the public - and private - sectors. Unfortunately, as the internet has developed and advanced it’s been subjected to increasing misuse. Whether it’s malware, viruses, grooming or digital abuse, the online world presents many potential dangers, especially for vulnerable individuals such as children – and understanding this is of paramount importance for schools.Dangers of the internet The recent scandal surrounding Habbo clearly illustrates one of the hazards. The social media site, advertising itself as a hangout for teens, enables users to log on to the site, create a virtual avatar of themselves and then meet and interact with other players in a digital hotel. The site claims to have over 200 million registered characters, with around 3 million new users signing up every month. In June of this year, Channel 4 uncovered huge amounts of sexual and perverse chat occurring on the site, even though Habbo is aimed at children as young as 13 years old. The horrifying report crystalised the real and present danger that children can find themselves in when surfing the net. When it comes to the safety of young people, internet sites cannot always be relied upon to provide adequate protection and safeguards to their users. This incident will have set off alarm bells for IT leaders across the education sector. It is a school’s job to protect students, and exposés such as this illustrate that threats are increasingly of a digital nature, rather than taking a physical form. Schools have to make decisions as to what pupils can access online. If Habbo is off limits, should other social media sites also be restricted? Although providing pupils with protection from various internet threats is the most important issue in regards to online risks, reputation damage following a security breach can have severe negative effects too. These factors alone illustrate the importance of cyber security in the education environment, including primary schools, secondary schools, colleges and universities.

In addition to security, the growing use and dependence on the internet has meant that online connections need to be completely reliable. The delivery of educational content across the internet and the use of bandwidth hungry multimedia applications has meant a dependable broadband service is essential. Otherwise, there’s a risk of disruption to teaching and learning. Cuts in public sector funding, specifically in respect to education budgets, have brought uncertainty over the longer term affordability of secure and reliable internet services in schools. However, keeping pupils safe and providing good quality web performance should still be a priority, as sub-standard approaches in either respect could have lasting effects - particularly in regards to child safety.What schools must do When it comes to security, it’s imperative that schools have all bases covered. This should involve:

  • Up to date antivirus software to keep data and applications safe from malware and viruses.
  • Anti-spam measures for email, to ensure pupils don’t receive potentially inappropriate email or harmful content to their internal addresses.
  • Content filtering software to prevent users from visiting unsuitable websites. These tools are integral whenever children are accessing the internet. Moreover, the parameters for this can be set by teachers or internal IT departments, giving schools control over what pupils can and can’t access.
  • Firewalls to stop unauthorised infiltration of the network and wider IT systems. These are key in keeping networked computers secure, protecting data and mitigating the risk of pupils surfing the web.

A managed service approach Implementing a system, maintaining it, reacting to issues and updating software requires schools to invest a substantial amount of time and resources. Although the importance of a secure network for pupils cannot be overstated, it’s understandable that it is not always easy to justify dedicating scarce funds to an area that aims to lessen risk, rather than providing something that yields a direct and quantifiable reward. There are solutions though, such as outsourcing the responsibility of internet management to firms that can offer a dedicated managed service. Probably the most compelling argument for managed services is that they let organisations concentrate fully on their core activities – in the case of schools, teaching. Although it comes with a capital outlay, a managed security service can improve student safety, streamline the IT infrastructure and leave all responsibility with a trained and committed team.

The fees are charged on a month-by-month basis, allowing schools to treat the charge as operating expenditure, and plan their budgets effectively. The benefits of consortiums Schools that work together by joining forces and pooling together their resources and knowledge can often help improve internet security within their group and even contribute to the general progression of IT in the education sector. Schools can inform each other of what products, software and systems work best – sharing opinions and ideas. Sadly, collaborative efforts such as this are not commonplace within education, but where they exist provide an expense-free way of improving service delivery. For instance, if a school had trouble with a piece of content filtering software, which hadn’t been as effective as they’d like, they could inform the consortium. Then, when the other schools are reviewing their content filters, they would know to stay away from that particular product. Conversely, if a strategy or system had been very successful for one of the schools, they could recommend this to the rest of the group. Not only can these forums enable schools to be more cost efficient with their IT, they also have the potential to drive up standards of IT security for the sector as a whole. Perhaps a bold goal given present day to day challenges being faced, but one that is worth pursuing.

It requires zero outlay, but can result in savings and improved efficiency – a dream economic scenario. Prioritising online security and reliability Against a backdrop of austerity and funding cuts, internet security may not top the list of priorities for headteachers and education decision makers. But as mentioned earlier the potential negative consequences of a breached system, or pupils accessing inappropriate materials, are real, large and far-reaching. Outsourcing the management of online security infrastructure to a specialist firm can harness many benefits, improving reliability and adding an extra level of support. Furthermore, the resources and time saved can make it a cost-effective investment. Nevertheless, a simple option to improve IT systems is to collaborate, share and communicate with other schools. This is all with a view to improving technology use in the education sector, and in turn, enhancing teaching and learning.

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