Providing technology resources to schools during uncertain economic times is a challenge — and a balancing act.
At Goose Creek Consolidated Independent School District and countless others, IT personnel are seeing an ever-increasing demand for technology resources (both the devices and the network infrastructure) that can capture the attention of and teach today's students. What's more, these resources must be accessible, reliable and secure.
There's no question that having the proper bandwidth to support 21st century learning activities is mission critical. And it's easy to assume that simply buying more bandwidth will resolve any potential access or reliability problems that might crop up. This certainly seems reasonable, because in many cases, E-Rate will fund a portion of such upgrades. Yet, there's no guarantee that you'll secure the discount you need to afford the amount of bandwidth you're seeking.
Throwing more bandwidth at the problem isn't always the answer. Instead, move beyond this thinking and focus on making the most of what you have.
Winning the War
There are many different ways that IT departments can monitor and control Internet bandwidth and usage.
Implement a districtwide firewall that separates the district's network from the Internet. A properly configured firewall allows IT staff to control which networks are allowed to communicate and with which protocols. For example, districts might allow HTTP for surfing the web but deny everything else. In some cases, districts block certain protocols because they consume considerable Internet bandwidth if they aren't carefully monitored and controlled.
Monitor the firewall periodically, including analyzing protocols and network usage. Reviewing the firewall's dashboard can give a network administrator valuable information, such as top 10 protocols, source networks and destination networks. It also can alert an administrator to investigate whether a user or program is consuming a disproportionate share of the district's Internet bandwidth. Another way to automate this process is to capture the firewall's logs and deploy an application that automatically analyzes them and generates regular reports of its findings.
District IT leaders also can get a better handle on their bandwidth through web-filtering applications. Most districts already are using this technology to comply with the Children's Internet Protection Act, which aims to restrict young people's exposure to offensive online content. But content-control software can do a lot more.
When deployed properly, Internet filters can prevent access to questionable websites and to content that consumes copious amounts of bandwidth. To maximize stakeholder satisfaction, I recommend forming a committee of administrators, teachers and staff to determine which websites or categories of sites should be available to staff and teachers and which should be available to students.
Once controls are in place to minimize abuse of these resources, start monitoring usage regularly. Many filtering applications allow IT staff to automate the generation and delivery of reports via e-mail.
At Goose Creek, we use Websense, a content-filtering application that automatically runs weekly usage reports and e-mails them to principals and department supervisors for review. These reports identify, among other things, the top 100 staff members and students using the Internet with the greatest frequency; the top 100 staff members and students attempting to access inappropriate websites; and the top 100 staff members accessing staff-only sites. We also run weekly bandwidth usage reports, which are sent to network administrators to review. When abuses are discovered, we investigate the cause of the usage.
When budgets are as tight as they are now for many districts, IT leaders have no choice but to make the most of existing resources. When purchasing more bandwidth isn't feasible, optimize the performance of what you have using strategic policies and existing network management tools.
Monitoring and controlling your district's or school's current Internet usage is essential during periods of high demand. These tips can help you better manage this limited resource.
- Properly configure and use a firewall to control Internet bandwidth.
- Implement an Internet content-filtering application to its fullest potential.
- Provide weekly or monthly reporting of Internet usage to key staff members.
- Inform administrators, teachers and staff of their Internet usage and explain its impact on limited district resources.