Breaking IT down


Finding the middle ground between an open internet access policy or one of total restriction is difficult. Mark Evans advises.

Children born into this generation grow up with their worlds built around digital and with an expectation of instant access to information. It is not an extra, supplementary layer of their lives – it is a fundamental part. 

Historically, education has not always been at the forefront of digital innovation, but this is changing as the latest technologies are finding their way into the sector to support new ways of teaching and learning.

Whether it is used to simplify and streamline, or to innovate and differentiate, the effective use of technology in schools can enhance learning and make it more accessible to students.

The internet offers schools a host of opportunities in terms of teaching and learning. From using it as a seemingly endless data bank to carry out research, to watching educational and cultural videos on-demand, the online world has the ability to educate in ways that traditional teaching cannot.

Unfortunately, with this opportunity comes potential risk. The internet houses an abundance of hazards which have to be understood and properly mitigated in order to protect users. Whether it is viruses that destroy data, ransomware that encrypts user files and demands money for their release, grooming or online bullying, the online world presents potential dangers, especially for vulnerable individuals – and schools have a responsibility to protect students.

Secondary schools need to find a way to regulate and restrict access, while still ensuring the internet can play a beneficial role. Finding this middle ground can be difficult.

In the past, the safest strategy was often considered to be locking down the internet, only providing access to sites that were completely risk-free, prioritising security and safety. While this fulfils the need to protect pupils, it can end up repressing the very reasons the internet is advantageous in the first place. A blanket approach to security such as this is easier to manage, but brings few benefits.

An alternative strategy is to look at security at a more granular level; a way that puts schools in control and allows for flexibility. Different situations require different levels of internet security, and a school’s IT policy should reflect this.

For example, one level from which to differentiate security is by lesson. Schools may have rules banning websites that stream music, but during a music lesson allowing students to temporarily access these sites may be valuable to teaching and learning. Or particular research for media or film studies could warrant visiting video websites that would otherwise be off-limits.

What schools need are simple, centralised management systems that allow for the real-time adjustment and modification of security measures. It should be flexible and user-friendly, so teachers or IT managers can easily remove restrictions for a single lesson and then swiftly revert them back afterwards.

Another approach would be to manage internet security by groups or individuals. This could be by year group, class or even a specific student, offering each category tailored internet security levels. 

For example, an 11-year-old student who has just started school could be presented with greater restrictions than a 16-year-old. Internet security management should enable this to be taken into account.

A granular model could also be applied to trigger a change in a student’s security restrictions when enrolling on particular courses or modules at the beginning of the year. For example, those studying German would be automatically granted access to German-language websites that were previously blocked.

This method requires a means of profiling users, and could be achieved using a self-service enrolment portal for students. The basis for this may already be in place at many schools, with users having their own individual log-in details and accounts.

There are many technologies on the market that can deliver this level of assurance but they do require a degree of technical capability to manage, not to mention the up-front capital expenditure to buy and install.

Under the previous structure of regional learning grids, many schools chose to have a secure internet service delivered directly by their regional grid which met Becta-defined standards for security. With the demise of the learning grids and greater budget autonomy passed to schools, there is seemingly more choice – and perhaps more confusion – over what to do to maintain the required level of security and control over internet access.

Whether schools choose to handle their security in-house, or outsource it to a provider as an operational expense, it is a facet of IT that is only going to grow in importance. 

Schools have often struggled to fully exploit the internet for the purposes of teaching and learning. There is no doubt that security should take precedence, but a well-managed, granular system of internet security can allow for innovative and creative teaching and learning while safeguarding pupils.

  • Mark Evans is commercial director at Imerja.


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