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Taking Action: Investigating School Technology Security Measures

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – Huntsville City Schools took a landmark and bold step last year when they introduced laptops and iPads into the learning environment.

It’s vastly changing the landscape of how students learn and how instructors teach. Most everyone would agree it’s a step in the right direction when it comes to the cutting edge of education.  But it’s new territory, and hiccups are inevitable.

A WHNT News 19 viewer and parent emailed with concerns after learning a student at her son’s school was reprimanded after viewing “inappropriate” materials on his school-issued laptop. “How can this even happen?” the viewer asked.  So, what measures are in place to make certain students stay on track when using school resources?

It’s a legitimate question. Most parents share the sentiment of the majority of teachers in that adding technology into the classroom is an asset for everyone involved.

“Seventeen, 18 years ago when I was first teaching it was textbooks, paper, pencil, 20 or 30 kids – I hope they’re getting it,” says Columbia High School math teacher Jessica Breece. “Now teachers and kids are getting immediate feedback.”

These days, the classroom is a far cry from the era of blackboards and chalk. It makes perfect sense parents would want to ensure school resources are used for their intended purposes.

comp2WHNT News 19 went straight to the school system to investigate the inquiry.  It turns out making sure students use laptops and other tech devices as learning tools – not toys –  is a full-time job.

“We want to ensure the curriculum-based activities of the student are front and foremost,” explains school system IT manager Sandra Simmons.

Simmons is one of several IT professionals who work daily to monitor the online activities of students. The department has the capability to monitor such things as bandwidth usage to scout for any data anomalies that send up red flags.

On the district level, IT personnel have the capability to actually pull up a student’s desktop and see the activity in real-time; it’s the biggest deterrent to any unauthorized activity.

At the classroom level, teachers take advantage of software called DYKNOW that gives them immediate access to student devices.  They can use this technology to help an individual student with a math problem for example, or to immediately call up a webpage or example problem and push it out to the desktop of every student in the class.

The broadcast capabilities of the software also help at home, when students don’t have their teacher right there over their shoulder; from help with homework to last-minute or unanticipated questions about assignments.

It’s the connectivity of it all that serves as the biggest boon to the educational process and the new frontier of modern learning. And even if teachers in the classroom aren’t holding vigil over their students every second of class time, they can keep a watchful eye right from their desk.

“You can actually filter the URLs and block them from certain things – you can even shut down the machine,” explains Mrs. Breece.

Those functions not only aid in teaching, they are also yet another added security measure.

“They are able to see what that student is doing and ensure they are staying on task,” Sandra Simmons says.

The monitoring and filtering system is mobile, so it even follows students when they leave school.

Huntsville City Schools is the only system in the state using multiple content filtering programs in their arsenal.  While most systems strictly rely on the Alabama supercomputer, Huntsville has purchased an additional educational-based filtering systems that can encompass everything from what sites students visit, to what games they play.

Of course, kids will be kids, as they say. And even the most studious can be tempted from time to time to try to circumvent restrictions put on school-issued technology. In cases of severe infractions, a student can lose their technology privileges – reverting back to textbooks and paper in the classroom.

“We have to stay one step ahead of them at any given time,” says Simmons – a task that keeps the entire IT department alert and on their toes.

Any inappropriate use of school issued computer will result in immediate parent/guardian notification and disciplinary sanctions outlined in the student code of conduct. View the student computer use agreement.