MOUNT VERNON — Last week Centerburg school officials learned of a breach into the high school’s computer system by a senior student. That technology invasion resulted in students cheating on some tests for a required social studies class and that resulted in the school board canceling graduation exercises. If there is a silver lining to the episode, it might be the increased focus on instructional technology and the related security measures needed in the ever-more-connected world in which we live.
Besides educational programs, grade books and tests, school district computer systems handle a plethora of other electronic data, including personal identifiable information and sensitive student information. E-mail, other letters, inventory, fees, who owes what money, fiscal accounts and payroll information are all in cyberspace.
Marialice Kollar is the technology guru for Fredericktown schools. She coordinates a network of 600 computers throughout the school district and said there is an ongoing balancing act between making sure the system is secure and having easy access to the technology so that school staff use it effectively.
“Every computer here is connected to every other computer,” Kollar said, “and all are connected to the world wide web. So, if you have the correct password you could access a teacher’s computer from the computer lab or vice versa or even from home.”
Fredericktown is part of the Tri-Rivers Educational Computer Association, an information technology center site, called an A-site, which is a consortium of over 40 Ohio school districts located in Knox and surrounding counties. TRECA provides software, hardware, staff development, and technology integration support for its member schools and is a member of the Ohio Education Computer Network.
“TRECA puts up firewalls and things like that,” explained Highland superintendent Tim Hilborn. “However, in reality, if somebody wants to get into information, there’s always a way in somehow. We continue to live in a world that changes just as fast as can be, and the kids are keeping ahead of it more than the teachers are. They are learning at a pace that is amazing. ... The instructional technology staff knows what’s going on, but sometimes in following the path of computer misuse you have to have a little bit of bait to follow. The thing is, like throughout all of history, kids know the difference between right and wrong. And that’s part of our goal — to help teach them to do what’s right.”
Also, Hilborn said, teachers are supposed to diligently protect their passwords to make unauthorized access a little more difficult.
“It’s just like having a grade book lying out,” he continued. “You don’t let your grade book get stolen.”
Although Highland has always been concerned about computer security, Hilborn said the district will be double checking “some things” over the summer months.
“Every year during the summer we review our network,” said John Marschhausen, East Knox superintendent. “We do a remapping and make sure everything is functioning the way it’s supposed to be functioning. We are very serious about security. We work with TRECA, who is our A-site.”
Marschhausen said computer lab procedures are part of the annual technology review.
“I think technology is wonderful,” he said. “We just have to be aware of its limitations. Just like you wouldn’t leave a file cabinet unlocked with all of your tests in it, you need to be careful where you keep your technology. We have firewalls to stop people from getting our internal information from the outside. That’s the number one thing. The second thing is, we can set different levels of internal security and of course everything is password protected.
“Our students log in and they’re in a separate portion. Student logins don’t get the same access to the system that a teacher login does. As always, the concern is if a student gets a teacher’s password.
Designing a system to require passwords is essential and protects sensitive information but teachers and administrators need to be pro-active in their use of passwords.
“Some places make teachers change their passwords every 45 days or 60 days,” Marschhausen continued. “That way, if someone were to get your password they would at least have to figure out how to get it a second time after a month and a half. ... This incident at Centerburg has heightened awareness and we will ask our teachers to be more vigilant about where they keep things and how they go about day-to-day operations.”
“It’s the kind of thing where the hackers are always pushing you to be better, so we are constantly reviewing that. You need to be vigilant and I think teachers need to be aware and we need to be aware as administrators if we start seeing things or hearing things, we need to follow up.”
Marschhausen said it is nearly impossible to keep instituting new rules as technology changes, and he doesn’t believe it is necessary.
“For example,” he said, “I think we need to treat cheating as cheating. If a kid had stolen a test from a teacher’s file cabinet or they stole a test from the teacher’s computer, it’s going to be the same deal. If you have something you’re not supposed to have on your cell phone, or if you bring in a dirty magazine, it’s the same thing. Cheating is cheating. Inappropriate material is inappropriate material.”