Creating a Safety "Net"

The Internet is a free-for-all when it comes to content. While the government may soon take a more active role in regulating content, how the resource is used in education remains a thorny issue.

Ten years ago, words like "Internet," "e-mail" and "World Wide Web" were greeted with blank stares. Today, the buzz surrounding Internet usage in education is aligning around three key terms: turnkey, management and filtering. These terms have helped to refine the concept of districtwide Internet access, and have forged new areas of efficiency.

The turnkey approach At the dawn of districtwide Internet usage a few years ago, a national directive was established that mandated all schools gain Internet connectivity by the year 2000. Thus, the race began to wire schools, upgrade workstations and implement server technology.

Education funds were reallocated toward more aggressive technology purchases, the first of which were Web and e-mail servers. Many educational administrators, in need of quick and inexpensive server implementation, sifted through abandoned file servers and workstations to build the next leg of their networks and make Internet access possible. After hardware upgrades and software reconfigurations, what was once a closet for boxes and technical manuals became a portal to the Internet. Others opted for a local Internet Service Provider (ISP) to connect users through dial-up accounts.

The end result was a solution that enabled complicated Internet access through piecemeal, multi-components. The obstacles for reliable and comprehensive Internet usage brought about the turnkey server.

The turnkey Internet solution is an all-encompassing solution that is easy to manage and highly supported. A turnkey server brings significant advantages over the piecemeal approach. One benefit that directly affects a district's bottom line is overall cost of ownership. The use of multiple servers from a variety of vendors may be seemingly cost-effective at the onset. Purchases of a few individual servers are relatively inexpensive in comparison to somewhat higher-priced turnkey devices.

The difference becomes apparent when inevitable support and technical questions arise. Issue diagnosis becomes increasingly cumbersome when multiple servers attempt to communicate over an array of platforms (i.e., Mac, Windows, DOS or UNIX). Compatibility becomes an issue, as does determining the root cause of server crashes, confusing on-screen error messages and non-working product upgrades.

Some manufactures offer compatibility and integrate services through a single management interface, enabling precise problem diagnosis rather than guesswork. Another distinction favoring the all-in-one Internet server is simplified hardware and software configuration where everything is contained within one device.

Internet management Today, turnkey does not stop with integrating Internet services. Often more important is the means that each service will be managed to an abundant user base. The best solution is a point-and-click interface that manages Internet services from one central point on a local-area network. This solution should provide Web, e-mail, firewall, proxy, caching, Web filtering and other services that are managed through a Web browser interface.

The need to manage Internet services became apparent as districts realized their need to provide different services to a variety of users. Faculty and staff may require access to the Web, e-mail and file transfers to other sites, while students may only require Web access.

Administrators in need of a way to manage which users have access to which Internet services are migrating toward Internet managers. An Internet manager enables a system administrator to point and click his or her way through creating user accounts based on predefined user-group templates. A template, for example, can be created to include all 11th-grade students. This template can be assigned specific user attributes to enable or disable access.

As more users and workstations are added to a network, access is slower, which means a bottleneck to effective Internet use in the classroom. One solution is internal Web caching, which enables an instructor to pre-surf to any number of websites that may be required for a given day's curriculum and automatically stores each Web page on the Internet Server. As multiple users attempt to access these Web pages simultaneously, they can be retrieved internally and transmitted at speeds 30 times faster than a T1 line.

Web filtering The necessity to control Internet access is gaining more urgency as Congress prepares to determine the fate of the Communications Decency Act II and the Internet Library Act. Each will place increasing demands on educational administrators to develop and enforce districtwide acceptable-use policies.

Filtering services that enable administrators to enforce acceptable-use policies are available. Schools need a filtering system that is managed at the network level, and one that functions with an understanding of the flexibility that their acceptable-use policy requires.

Unlike client-based filters that require manual updating of block lists on each workstation, this type of filtering is managed at the network level. Rather than incorporating an approach that blocks websites based on keyword searches, this type of filtering uses a website rating list based upon URL directory structures. Sites are rated based on content in any of 22 different categories. Updated site rating lists can be downloaded automatically to district websites and be modified based on an institution's acceptable-use policy.

Although the accuracy of human site raters and the flexibility of modifiable block lists may seem to resolve Web content issues, an additional need becomes apparent as administrators tackle the varying needs of different Internet users. Older students may require access to Internet sites that are deemed inappropriate for younger students. Likewise, faculty may need freer reign on the Internet for research purposes. This can be accommodated by creating different profile groups for any given user group.

Education, planning and supervision minimize the potential hazards of the Internet. Here are some secondary weapons against misuse:

-Filtering blocks a user's ability to access certain newsgroups and web sites. The content of individual pages is filtered by keywords, phrases or content that fit an objectionable profile.

-Blocking refuses access to web addresses that appear in an index of restricted sites. Indices are compiled either by people, proprietary robot software, or both. Blocking and filtering can be administered on a machine-by-machine basis, or at a site/district level via proxy servers.

-Logging records all requests to Internet resources from within a given domain. Logging does not modify or restrict content-it merely keeps a record of activity.

-Cache/Proxy Server is a machine on the network that can store up to 2GB of recently accessed Web pages, saving the necessity of having to go through possibly slow links to retrieve pages. The server also incorporates a system to block sites that contain inappropriate material.

-Filtering servers use the standard proxy controls built into client Web browsers to channel all Web access through a central point. The central point, or Internet server, decides which sites to allow or block.

-Acceptable-use policy (AUP). In most educational institutions, proper Internet use begins and ends with a sound AUP. AUPs describe standards and expectations for student conduct and relate consequences for noncompliance.

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