Why It’s Time to Ditch Your Old-School Firewall

(And ten things you need in your new one.)

GUEST COLUMN | by Amy Abatangle

CREDIT UntangleK-12 schools must maintain a careful balance between internet access and protection. Keeping schools in CIPA compliance and kids focused on learning demands robust web filtering and blocking technologies. Internet access is no longer a luxury; the resources students and staff need on a daily basis as part of the core curriculum are located online.

As with so many things, budget constraints force many schools to live with out-of-date IT infrastructure and ineffective web filters much longer than they should. Schools are hanging on to older systems that block website content based on URL and port 80/443. But today’s websites and applications proactively hop ports, and more and more traffic comes through HTTPS. These old systems are not only too easy to bypass, they can also hamper learning due to inflexible, cumbersome block/allow rules.

To meet classroom needs while excluding the growing array of distracting and inappropriate content out there, a next-gen firewall is a must.

Compounding the problem is that more students bring their own devices from home for use on campus WiFi, and kids are often adept at finding new ways to get around web filters using search engine tricks, proxy websites, and anti-firewall software such as UltraSurf.

Clearly, K-12 network administrators need a new approach to web filtering that can effectively stop unwanted traffic yet optimize access for a growing array of educational activities. It’s a tightrope act with tight budgets making it all the more precarious. But there are cost-effective options out there that can provide a much more flexible internet experience for school staff and students alike – while keeping everyone on task, compliant and safe.

One school’s story

Huntingtower School is an independent, coed day and boarding school in Mount Waverley, Victoria, Australia. In addition to on-premise devices, about 175 of the school’s 700 students bring their own devices to school. Additionally, staff bring about 250 laptops, iPads or smartphones on campus, totaling about 1350 devices on the network daily.

As a K-12 institution, Huntingtower School must prevent students from accessing inappropriate content while on school premises. With a legacy solution deployed, their network administrators found that students were bypassing content restrictions by using HTTPS or web translator pages, and the school’s VPN services did not restrict students from viewing inappropriate content on their mobile devices and tablets.

By choosing a next-generation firewall with web filtering, HTTPS inspection, application control and robust policy management, Huntingtower School can efficiently block students from viewing restricted websites and inappropriate content on all devices brought to campus, including websites in different languages. Modern web filtering including application control features made it easy to block or flag hundreds of applications, including Facebook, games, instant messaging, or file sharing – keeping bandwidth available for legitimate use by staff and students.

Flexibility and granular control were keys to success for Huntingtower School. Their experience with everything from cost control to bandwidth management provides a good checklist for schools looking to update their firewalls.

10 things K-12 schools should look for in a web filter:

  1. A robust, dynamic, real-time URL categorization engine with granular categories and full language support.
  2. Enforced safe search for popular search engines.
  3. Ability to handle and decrypt HTTPS sites so policies are enforced and administrators can see all websites and applications being accessed.
  4. Flexible web filtering with the ability to block inappropriate content to students yet easily allow temporary access to staff.
  5. The ability to make rules on an application basis, not just by URL. This allows for control and blocking of games, videos, torrents, streaming and other application types (Facebook, instant messaging, file sharing, etc.)
  6. Customization to set up different policies for students and staff by user, group, time of day, day of week and more.
  7. Ability to shape traffic via bandwidth control. This helps ensure that the fourth grade’s Common Core testing doesn’t conflict with the fifth grade’s Skype call or streaming video. Bandwidth control lets schools proactively manage bandwidth on the network, prioritize and de-prioritize sites, and give certain staff/groups bandwidth usage rights.
  8. Real-time reporting that lets you drill down to view and control individual user activity.
  9. Free trials and discounts. Some vendors offer free trials that let a school test out the system risk-free, and many offer discounts for educational organizations.
  10. Low hardware costs. Be sure you know if multiple hardware appliances are required to run the firewall or if you can use your current hardware.

Filter like a business

To meet classroom needs while excluding the growing array of distracting and inappropriate content out there, a next-generation firewall is a must. The solution needs to be inline, in the flow of traffic, so the web filter is not just seeing proxy or port 80/443 traffic. The filter must fully inspect HTTPS and can’t be 100% dependent on a list for URL detection. It should accommodate reverse IP lookups, understand multiple languages and enforce safe search features in browsers. It must also be able to recognize nefarious student activity such as proxy web site behavior in real time.

As more mobile device types are brought onto campus and as web-based educational resources continue to gain importance, K-12 institutions need the same enterprise-grade firewall protection that large companies demand. Good options are out there for real-world budgets, but be sure to insist on the right feature set. This will keep network administrators, staff and students alike focused on the common goal: education.

Amy Abatangle is Executive Vice President and General Manager for Gateway Products at Untangle, Inc.

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Cool Tool | Panopto

CREDIT PanoptoHere is a video platform that enables schools and universities to record lectures, flip classrooms, capture student recordings, and create a secure, searchable library of all their video assets. Panopto runs on any PC, Mac, iOS, or Android device, enabling institutions to scale any video initiative – capturing video in lecture halls and classrooms of any size, as well as recording micro-lectures from faculty offices, at home, and in the field. And with Smart Search – Panopto’s unique video search engine, included standard – students can instantly find and fast-forward to any word spoken or shown on-screen in any video, helping them to seek out specific topics covered in lectures and review materials in preparation for tests and quizzes. Their flexible video learning technology opens possibilities for fostering interactive classrooms, offering enhanced resources for revision and study, and ultimately, improving students’ academic engagement and achievement. As one of the fastest growing lecture capture solutions at leading universities, Panopto offers academic institutions a cost-effective, easy-to-use solution for recording lessons, webcasting events, managing video, and more. Privately-held, Panopto was founded in 2007 by technology entrepreneurs and software design veterans at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science. Learn more.

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Trends | K-12 Classroom Connectivity

CDWG connectivity Heat MapThanks to E-Rate, 99 percent of America’s K-12 public schools and libraries are connected to the Internet. The majority of U.S. schools, however, do not have enough bandwidth to meet the current needs for digital learning. As 1:1 learning models, online classes and digital content continue to proliferate, the technology foundation needed to support them – down to the classroom level – will become even more critical. To better understand the current state of classroom connectivity, CDW-G surveyed 400 IT professionals from K-12 public school districts and private schools to build the CDW-G K-12 Connected Heat Map. The Heat Map shows the current availability of wired and wireless connectivity in classrooms state-by-state. The survey also found that a majority of schools have an average connectivity speed of 1 Gbps and fewer than a quarter have connectivity speed of 10 Gbps. Over the next three years, schools indicated a focus on increasing bandwidth, budget and number of access points to better support wireless connectivity. On the wired connectivity side, increasing bandwidth, improving network management and increasing budgets to support activities are the top priorities. Currently, Maine and Nebraska are leading the charge with the most connected classrooms. To help tell the complete story, CDW-G needs input from schools and districts nationwide. Check out www.k12heatmap.com to ensure your state is represented and to see how the connectivity picture changes over time.

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Time to Shine!

EdTech Awards 2016 leadershipThe EdTech Awards shine a spotlight on the best and brightest tools, leaders and trendsetters pushing forward today’s education revolution. Our finalists and winners are part of a greater story of 21st-century education transformation. In keeping with the mission of EdTech Digest, we invite you to enter your cool tools, bold leaders and innovative trendsetters to inspire learners and leaders everywhere. Past winners include some of the top trendsetters and leading lights of the education and technology arena, including products and people from K-12, higher education, special education, and others in and around education and technology. Your methods, ideas, apps, platforms, products, services, and environments for learning are working for education, but they must become widely known about and well thought of. If you are reshaping the education culture, creating a new and better future for students everywhere, be sure to enter the 2016 EdTech Digest Awards Recognition Program. For an entry form and full details, including a list of entry categories, click here.

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A Special Mission in Denver

How data and technology can make a difference for students with autism.

GUEST COLUMN | by Gene Bamesberger, Jo Gunderson, and Jennifer Harris

CREDIT Rethink Autism imageIt is estimated that 1 in 68 children in the United States have an autism spectrum disorder. As these diagnoses continue to rise, schools have a growing responsibility to care for and serve these students. Thankfully, technology is making it easier for educators who serve students with autism to focus less on paperwork and more on the individual needs of the student. Educators who teach students with disabilities are tasked with tracking Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for each student. The plans

In education there are no silver bullets; any move to integrate more data and technology must be done thoughtfully. 

are long and detailed, outlining specific goals and objectives and describing what instruction and assistance is needed to help a student meet those goals. Often times teachers and their paraprofessional staff are teaching students of varying levels of competency with vastly different needs. And, it is not uncommon for teachers to be faced with new challenges for which they lack specific training.

Several years ago at Denver Public Schools, we implemented an online platform that provides on-demand professional development for our teachers and paraprofessionals. As a result, teachers have access to the content they need, when they need it. Rather than attend daylong professional development seminars that don’t always cover the right topics, teachers and paraprofessionals can watch two-minute videos on the issue they need help with. By watching the same tutorials for addressing very specific needs, teaching is consistent regardless of who is working with the student.

The online platform called Rethink is also tied to an integrated data system that gives our teachers easy-to-use tools to track and monitor student progress. Our teachers are saving time by having one comprehensive place to enter updates, prepare information for parents, and most importantly, ensure their students are succeeding. Having quality, accessible data means that teachers can intervene sooner when they notice a student isn’t progressing without losing valuable days and weeks.

In education there are no silver bullets; any move to integrate more data and technology must be done thoughtfully. To that end, we’ve put into place a coaching program that allows teachers to get direct support from district staff. Each coaching team has 12 people and each coach is responsible for several programs. In addition to individual training, our coaches host monthly check-ins with their team to talk through challenges and brainstorm solutions as a group

Between the tech-driven resources and ongoing coaching support, this new program has allowed us to make significant progress with students. Last summer, a student joined us at Morey Middle School. He had previously moved from school to school and even had several aggressive outbursts that required his family to send him to a group home. With our new data system in place, we were able to quickly pull together data from the other schools he attended, establish a detailed plan of action, and meet with his family to discuss his IEP. All of the work has paid off. He has not had a single outburst since January and we are currently talking to his family about getting him back home.

Incorporating technology and data into the fabric of a special education program takes work. These changes didn’t happen overnight and we are still making improvements to our program. If you are looking to bring a new tech-supported program into your district or school, here are few things to remember:

Go slow and be patient. As with any new program, you must gather buy-in. Taking our time and thinking carefully about how to roll out the various pieces gave us the chance to integrate teachers and paraprofessionals into the process. As a result, they love the program and are reaping the benefits.

Provide needed training. To help our staff most effectively use the new tools we provided, our coaching team was key. Our goal was to make it as easy as possible for teachers. We first trained our trainers which made them effective ambassadors for the new program. By making this investment up front, we’ve watched our coaches grow in their confidence and ability to coach teachers. We now have a great partnership between coaches and teachers – they share what is working and what they need and our coaches focus on making things as easy as possible for our teachers.

Streamline. If not done correctly, new data systems can lead to duplication. Use one platform, instead of two. In our case, we used the new system as the comprehensive repository of student information. At the district office level, we can extract information we need without requiring teachers to resubmit information they’ve already entered.

Despite the upfront work involved, the end result is worth it: more efficient and effective teachers, a more collaborative approach between teachers, parents, and school leaders, and most important, happier, more successful students.

Gene Bamesberger, Jo Gunderson, and Jennifer Harris work for Denver Public Schools as Associate Director of Special Education, Associate Support Partner, and Multi-Intensive Autism Teacher, respectively. They have each been instrumental in implementing the software and support program, Rethink, to improve special education and services for children with autism throughout the district.

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