Monthly Archives: February 2009

When is a Geek not a Geek?

When he has spent his holiday as a painter and decorator.

Admittedly, this has given me time to catch up on some podcasts and this week I have mainly been listening to EdTechRoudUp (#etru is the hashtag on twitter now), Digital Planet, JISC Podcasts, The Art Of Service (good old ITIL), The IT Training Podcast, Whitelist – The BCS Security Podcsat, a few MS Technet podscats on the use of MS tools for increaing productivity … as revisiting the Irish and Celtic Music Podcast (Marc Gunn is a genius!)

I have considered doing my own podcast, but at the moment I am happy to listen, or pop my head into ETRU occasionally (finally made it a fortnight ago!) to give some of my views, experience or ideas.

I will be looking out for Sharepoint specific podcasts shortly, as well as a few eSafety podscats too. Any pointers appreciated.

The Promised Post – how to annoy teachers, techies, LAs and RBCs in one go!

I’ll be honest and say that there will be something in this post for everyone … something positive and something that will knock you down so that it makes you re-examine a few of your preconceptions and practices! I make no apologies for this and have done it purely to get people to think all that more carefully about how they approach each other’s views and make the common mistake that others are incompetent, inflexible or just doing things ‘wrong’. They may be thinking the same of you.

Why am I making this post? It all stems from a number of conversations about eSafety, the roles of different staff in educational institutes and the ongoing battle of reliance of technology to solve problems.

Let us fade back a few years to when I was a lowly mouse-cleaner support technician who decided to write an Acceptable Use Policy. I actually wrote 3 sections and it was done with the help and support of a few friends who worked in the ISP sector. It was based around a very precise T&Cs document, with an accompanying more readable description of the services the school ran with the boundaries about how users could use those services and finally an agreement statement that was a basic summary. Since I was a lowly techie it was passed through the chain, adapted and the T&Cs were dropped (not surprised to be honest … even *I* was a bit wary of the legalese in it). The students sign the agreement and the AUP Terms were posted in each IT room. Hmm … not really a rigorous plan for eSafety and still centred around the teacher telling the student off for doing general naughty things and the IT team telling them off for messing about on the computers (searching for stupid stuff on the web, trying to play games, etc). As much as I enjoyed the feeling of control and even felt that by making the students ‘fear’ me it would allow the teachers to get on with the job. However, as I started to become more interested in the application of IT in schools I rethought a number of my ideas around this.

Introducing a 3 strikes policy went some way to trying to push some sense of responsibility onto the students but it still separated the school discipline and the IT discipline. A new Vice-Principal meant that some of this was taken out of our control and I was not happy about some of that … the lack of understanding how filtering worked and how the IT could be abused by senior staff at the school left me feeling powerless as others took more control and made (in my opinion) wrong decisions. Oh how we learn and grow though.

Moving on to another school as a Network Manager I knew that this had to change and the move was made to trying to ensure the responsibility was with the teacher and form tutor for the discipline, but the IT Team would gather evidence … but is that just a case of passing the buck? So, we had filtering in place to make life as easy as possible for the teachers to understand why things worked the way they did. Teachers and students, generally, had the same access and this caused problems. Sites that disrupted lessons where blocked, but then the students used email to ‘chat’ during lessons. We couldn’t block them from that because it was then needed by other subjects … Getting promoted to the Senior Leadership of the school helped to work with staff so they understood the boundaries and having an ICT working group helped feedback into defining those boundaries. They were adapted so that staff could access things like youtube and facebook, and students could use blogger where needed. There is so much more needed but the staff were not ready for it. Things are still moving at the school and it looks as if they are now ready to take more ownership too.

My side line has been with a support community for IT Professionals in education. The IT Managers, Network Managers, System Admins, IT Technicians … a variety of titles and a variety of job roles but generally with the remit of setting up and looking after the IT in a school or schools. This takes me back to my power hungry days of control and there is the idea that because we understand the technology best that we should make the choices about it. Whilst still at the above school I also started working with the LA on a number of projects including working with the local RBC so I had an inside view to their view of the technology as well.

It ended up with me coming to the LA for 12 months to work on a variety of projects, working with some brilliant colleagues and over the last 10 years from starting in the education sector to now I have come across a wide range of technologies and approaches to eSafety and education. The conversations, discussions and heated debates will go on and on, and recently there was one about the use of tinyurl that made me re evaluate a few things and stick things down on paper. Eventually I have come to the following conclusions. Look away now if you are easily offended but stick with it if you want to see my reasoning.

1 – People sometimes are too blinkered to try and understand why technology can be bad, and feel that their small bit (that is affected by larger choices) is being targeted.

2 – Technology is not the answer. Relying on it and relying on the people that control it is not only bad but it is short-sighted.

3 – Disregarding the people who understand the technology is just as short-sighted, nay, even stupid.

4 – Do people really understand the technology involved? Heck, I don’t know everything and if you think you actually do then you are being short-sighted and fooling no-one but yourself.

5 – Top-down decisions are often stupid, and so are bottom-up decisions. Let’s face it … you can’t trust those people in the middle either! Don’t trust the techies, the teachers the LA or the RBC to get it right!

hmmm … there … I think that pretty much covers how people feel about it all. Doesn’t it sound stupid when you see it all together.

Ok, let’s look at the Tinyurl incident first. That will cover the RBC side of things. Tinyurl.com is a fantastic way of shortening really long URLs so that it doesn’t break apart the format or flow of documents, can be customised to make it easy to remember and for things like twitter or IM it keeps messages short. So, what is so wrong with it then? Well, the way the site works is that it wraps the header of the target website as it passes through filters. What that means is that I can create a link for the playboy site and for some filters it will not get automatically get blocked. This works for a variety of sites and I will actually be spending some time of the coming weeks to look at it in more depth, examining the actually technical process of how the website passes through the filter and seeing how things can or can’t be tweak. The main product I will be looking at for this is NetSweeper as this is what my local RBC use. How do you get around this problem? Simple … you block tinyurl.com. There, problem solved. But what about those people who use it and have it in their presentations or on websites? Heck, I have seen it in white papers, research studies and used by those working in government agencies or projects? Oops.

Well, in a number of places schools can actually take control of the filters supplied by the RBC and change the settings to allow tinyurl.com through. Erm … but doesn’t this then allow people to use it to bypass filters? Why yes … it does. Ah …

Ok, then this brings onto the idea of who controls filters. The number of teachers I hear moan (and I do really mean moan) about that fact that they cannot just change something when they need or want it, or that it shouldn’t be locked down in the first place … if I have a penny for each time I could definitely have a decent curry at least, with starter, poppadoms and peshwari nan. The number of techies who moan that teachers constantly demand unfiltered access with no concept of the nastiness that is out there or, when given extra access on their school ‘teacher-only’ laptop, let students go on it (on the teacher’s account) to search the internet … well, that would pay for the train ticket to London for me to go to the nice Indian restaurant not far from Olympia that I usually visit when at BETT. Add the number of techies and teachers who moan about the restrictions put in place by the LA / RBC … I could fly out to Mumbai to have the flamin’ meal! Who’s right and who’s wrong? They all are!

Again, based around the RBC and schools in my LA I will put forward how the technology works. Most large filters / proxies do so by checking the URL / IP of the website against a known database of dodgy sites. There is an official list put out by the Internet Watch Foundation that contains the sites you do not want to visit … ever! On top of this there are various categories such as porn, profanity, weapons, web email, web chat, drug use, gambling, match making, etc …. most filters are pretty extensive and some websites fit into more than one category. If a site is not in the list then the servers do a bit of intelligence gathering and look at the content. This will then plonk the site into a holding place whilst it gets reviewed. You still see the site but it will shortly be sorted.

Some filters operated at school level will look at the content of the page each and every time you view a site. This is costly and requires some hefty computers and interesting software. It can seriously slow internet access down if there is a lot of content checking to be done.

To get around the issue some schools will use a white list, a list of sites it knows are ok. The only problem is that access to adding sites is restricted otherwise all sorts of things can be added. And we come onto the first battle between school and LA / RBC, or the first battle between techie and teacher. Present policies in schools operate around the idea of block first and release later, and this applies to everyone. A lot of teachers don’t understand about the change control needed so that should something get through that shouldn’t, then we know who made the change. Since eSafety is ultimately in the hands of the Head and Chair of Governors then *they* are often the people that don’t want it to be too easy for anything to get through! I can’t blame them for that.

So, we then get some schools that leave things too loose so that it removes potential conflict between teachers and techies, or it is seriously loose (at the RBC / LA filter level) because the school is running software / filters in house to make it more flexible. Again, the battle between teacher and techie happens. See my comments about power and control earlier and note that this is often done for the best intentions.

So, we are left with filters that are too harsh because they block things like tinyurl.com or too loose because you can access all but the nastier things that the IWF want blocked. Oh … I haven’t really mentioned students yet either! You know … those funny things that can sometimes smell and tend to create a lot of noise? If we are talking about secondary (my main experience) then we are talking about 1/2 to 2/3 of them are actively trying to bypass whatever security s on the computers and get round the filters to listen to the radio, look at animé or play games, usually instead of getting on with the work they are meant to be doing.

We get to the stage where teacher A asks you to block the internet for student z because they are always on email or playing online flash games instead of doing their work … and teacher B says they can’t be blocked because student z needs access tot he internet for research and to complete work. Hmm … a chance to annoy those teachers reading perhaps? Classroom management! DO NOT RELY ON TECHNOLOGY!!!!!!

Ok, a bit harsh perhaps but try not to segregate abuse of resources and classroom management and discipline. It is a mistake I have made in the past and have tried to point out the flaws about it to people ever since. Technology takes you so far, but you need to do some work too.

However, technology can help and obnoxious techies (their turn now) who are not helpful and look down at you because you don’t have access to the technology (you may understand it, you might never get the chance to find out though) and will take control! Well, that needs to be more relaxed and there are ways of doing this.

The RBC and LA will always go for the highest common restrictions but they can have some darned good advice actually, but be wary that you will have to translate and adapt things for your school!

Ok … John Sutton made a post about AUPs the other day and I posted a response to it based around how I felt that they needed to grow within a school. http://bit.ly/11A1qu for the original post but here is my comment.

I consider AUPs to be a four step process.

1 – get the staff to understand the use and abuse of technology (AUP is not just about ‘Net access!) and why technology is a tool, kids are entitled to use whatever tools are available and why the first thing they should consider is the school discipline model and their own classroom management. Often greeted with disbelief that technology will not fix all their problems (and then onto heated discussions about filters, why staff are better than students and should be completely unfiltered and who are these IWF folk anyway!)

2 – Foster an environment of understanding and boundaries with the students and their parents. There are limits, the same way that life is full of limits. Learning about the responsibilty that students have in the worl is important and within the school access to resources is one of these areas, whether it is to PE equipment (wow … that discus really hurts when flung at someone’s head, and no … you shouldn’t intentionally hit the cricket ball at the windows!) or technology. If we don’t show trust to start with, it is nothing personal but it is about expanding your limits at a safe rate.

3 – Ok … if you really want to have a finite set of rules then here you go. A technical and legal-ish defined set outline the services available, how they can be used, their limits and the processes centred around their development, growth and how changes are made.

4 – Agreement. The AUP is implicit as it is part of the school ethos. The same way you agree to wear a particular uniform, to take part in certain activities, to be a constructive member of the school community then you also know there are limits (expandable depending on your growth) that you have to operate in. This applies to staff and students. Some schools opt to have the same set of limits for both … it’s a school by school thing and is based on whether you are happy that use of technology is embedded in the school. The agreement is a conscious move by the school, the staff, the students and the parents to affirm that the understand this. If they refuse to sign then the school must question whether the family truly understands what the school does with regards to technology as part of the curriculum and ethos of the school. If, after discussion with the family (or teacher) there is still a refusal to sign then the school repeats that they are the limits that the school applies. Lack of affirmation to follow them does not mean opt out. It means that you are still in but if you complain when your son / daughter (or you as a teacher) gets hauled up about breaches of the AUP then you cannot use refusal to sign as an excuse!

A number of groups (including rehab groups, church groups, sporting societies, etc) will affirm their stance in agreement with their group on a regular basis. refusal to do so does not mean they are not part of that group, but it is a positive thing that should be embraced. If someone does not take part in it then it is a chance for other members to take the person to one side and find out what the issue is. It can be something minor … a few tiny bits of phrasing that is difficult to publicly say … or disillusionment with the group or a felling that they need additional support.

So .. it is not just about AUPs and technology. It is about affirmation and being positive about your role and the limits you operate in, help define and help grow.

So, there you have it. In spite of doing my best to annoy pretty much everyone, most of the above is based around compromise and a common understanding.

Ok, group hug is over and done with, and normal service now being resumed.

If you want to take more control and ownership as a school, as a teacher or as a techie then I will highlight a number of things for you to look at and investigate. I am not saying that these are right or wrong, but most have sufficient background behind them to show good practice. Also remember that I am basing some of my comments about how filter systems operate on my local RBC. Your Mileage May Vary and access to this level of control may be different from LA to LA, even within the same RBC.

1 – RBC filters are granular. It is common to set a site default level. This means that should people just go onto any old machine and try to access the ‘Net then they get a predetermined level of filtering. Set this as high as possible so people will not just go straight in and browse when bored. For us we can also set it so that when users log into the RBC portal they get a filter level as defined by the school. This means that should the site level be 4 (the most restrictive) and a student logs in then he/she could pick up level 3 or 2. This not only gives you the option to be more flexible, but to also allow you to audit when and what students are doing. You might want to set staff at level 1, the most relaxed, and give them access to tinyurl and youtube. Remember that if you do this then when they are logged in and have their computer hooked up to the projector, should then click on a wrong link then it could take them somewhere very embarrasing, and there is also the temptation for staff to allow students to use their computers / accounts! Data Protection stuff is for another day!

2 – If you want more control then yeah, run your own filtering, but be careful! There are a number of products out there that will do what you want, can sit inside your school and can give you even more granularity. They can tie into your school network so you don’t have to log in to anything, it automagically picks up who you are and what you are entitled to. Access to this sort of control can be delegated to staff (ie temporary blocking of ‘Net access for a specific student) but remember that this is admin work … something that Unions get a tad unhappy with if they find out that teachers are doing it. Also, one teacher may block, another unblock the student and it becomes political. You need to have some sort of change management in there … and this is more paperwork (electronic or paper-based). And this doesn’t get around the fact that you are still not allowing teachers to unblock specific websites. This level of control gets a little scary, but what it does mean is that you can have more control about what each specific group can and cannot use! This harks back to allowing the boundaries / limits that we put on our students to grow.

3 – This is still bypassing a chunk of the classroom management that I made a fuss of earlier. There are a number of tools that can help with this, some automated and some they truly do put power in the hands of the teacher again. If we take the automated tools first, there are the keyloggers and screen grabbers. If they see something going on (eg typing a bullying email) then key words will be recognised and a screenshot taken, a nominated person emailed with the screen shot (sometimes a techie, sometimes a head of year) and it is dealt with under the school’s discipline code. This works in two ways, it creates the environment of controlled watching (ie big brother) whilst forcing students to take responsibility for their actions. The down side is that it is too police like and open to abuse by pupils using other pupils’ accounts. The other option is to use active monitoring tools such as AB Tutor Control or SynchronEyes. Tools that allow a teacher to view each workstation in real time, lock out browser access if required, share a desktop with a student to support them and other tools that each piece of software gives you (eg SynchronEyes gives a virtual interactive whiteboard for the class to use). Again, this fits into the growth of boundaries as you will spend less and less time monitoring as students show responsibility.

So, we have a range of tools, with a range of people having ownership. There should be enough there for everyone really.

Your discipline policy will vary from school to school, but I would recommend that there should not be a difference in the status of teachers and support staff in it, unless it is a defined role (eg behaviour management tutor, dedicated pastoral specialists, etc). This helps to break down the barrier of them and us (from both sides).

Work with your LA to understand the limits of the technological solutions available and rather than have a go for it not being flexible enough have a look at whether you need to employ alternatives to fill gaps or give you room for expansion and growth.

Remember that as a teacher or techie, the responsibility does not ultimately fall with you, but your head. If he/she needs educating as to the possibilities available for using sites that are typically blocked then you need to show you still have some safeguards … an audit trail … and ensure that this is based on a whole school process, not just something for you as a techie or an ICT evangelist!

Finally, you may have realised that I haven’t actually been that offensive to anyone, just making use of stereotyped view points to show how little communication there may be within a school, between schools and LAs / RBCs and between society in general.

This is not a perfect blog entry, far from it. It has a number of holes that need patching over the next year and is based on a considerable amount of common sense. It has been aided and abetted by the AUP produced by an LA colleague, but conversations with frustrated ICT evangelists, conversations with Techies, with LA staff, with RBC staff and with providers of tools for schools.

It has also been aided by chatting with students, who are the first to admit that they want to push the boundaries they have been given, but they want something to push against otherwise how do they know they are growing? But the second thing they usually admit is that given a choice between work and play … it takes a good teacher to make them want to work and it take a good IT system to allow them to do it!

*Edit – decided to remove the password protection from this as I am pretty sure that I have covered everything I need to and no-one I have showed it to yet has threatened me with castration!*

Geeking again

You know when you are a geek when you are listening to a podcast on your phone, you hear about a tool to allow you to post to your wordpress blog and so you have to go and try it.

Well I did and here it is. It means that I can draft some ideas during the day and then post them once I have things refined.

I am also looking at tools to do this to a sharepoint based blog I use too, but one step at a time.

Vision Statements

We have all read them at one point or another. That 6 page document that is meant to explain everything about how wonderful things will be in the future of project X or Y. The next stage of reading a few is to try and translate them based on examples of application of technologies to reach the lofty (and often wordy) goals. Then to see if there are common applications / technologies … and use this to formulate a generic vision document.

I mist also dig out BullFighter again. It is a little add-on to Office 2000 / XP that will check your documents against a dictionary of certain words that I tend to call ‘Manglement speak’. It can be very enlightening. Unfortunately it has not been kept going for Office 2003 or 2007.

My colleague (the illustrious Mr Ford) has dug out a multitude of possible resources over the last week whilst I have been digging out schools or contacts. I would point people at http://future.ncsl.org.uk/ (thank you Mr Ford) as well as http://emergingtechnologies.becta.org.uk/

More later … must go and update my other blog (talking about sharepoint).

Web 2.0 – It’s Alive!

It’s true you know … there is a real world example of using web 2.0 for student voice and parental engagement. I couldn’t believe it when I heard it was something so simple, easy to duplicate and it only took the brave step of one Head to think that something that had been in place could truly be pushed to see how for it could go.

Many thanks to Andre Field for this example … http://opensourceschools.org.uk/utility-open-source-school-blog.html … I’m sure we can add to that over the coming weeks. We already have plenty of examples of use of twitter and wikis with students …