Web Filtering Improvements Continue

Adjoa Mante, Staff Writer

Last month we reported on the current state of events on the “firewall” of Harriton. Mr. George Frazier, the Director of Information Systems for the district, commented on the feedback the firewall received from students and parents and the steps taken to fix some of the issues students have been having. We followed that up this month with an interview with Mr. Frazier:

THB: Thanks for talking to us again. First, what improvements have been made regarding the firewall in the past month? What challenges are you still facing?
GF: I have one small correction; it’s not really a firewall. A firewall is a device that protects a network like Lower Merion’s from outside intruders. What we’re encountering issues with is, in fact, web-blocking software. The web-blocking software had three issues and we believe we’ve corrected two out of the three issues. One issue was “the gray screen of death.” We sent out a software update on a Monday that corrected the “gray screen of death.” Another issue we had was slow performance and we think we’ve fixed that through updated hardware. The final issue that we’re still trying to correct is some secure webpages are blocked. And we’re working presently with the manufacturer of the web-blocking software to correct that.

THB: What specific technical difficulties have the Information Systems Department faced in the past months and how is it working to correct these problems?
GF: Every summer we collect all the student laptops and we reimage them with the newest software that we have available. Since we’re putting new software on them we try to test them as much as possible for compatibility and any issues. Sometimes we discover new issues after they’ve been deployed. Primarily those issues come out as a result of scale. Its one thing to test software on one or two laptops, but when you deploy 6,500 laptops you can imagine the scale suddenly becomes an issue. So each year we implicitly encounter issues and we try to prevent those issues as much as possible.

THB: How has student and parent feedback changed in the past month, if at all?
GF: Interestingly, we were getting two types of feedback in the beginning of the year first month. Parents were thankful that we were taking steps to put filtering software on the machines and students were encountering issues with the web-blocking software. As soon as we resolved the issue, I started receiving feedback about the ability for more web-blocking parents were asking us to do more: to block Facebook and ichat. We believe that students use both Facebook and ichat for communication and collaboration and we’ve asked parents to reconsider not blocking that website and that application because of the use of the students for collaborating and communicating for projects. It was interesting that as soon as we straightened out the problems the feedback changed and the new question was can you put more on?

THB: Can you give us any additional insights?
GF: We certainly hope to continue getting feedback from the students on what we can do to improve the 1 to 1 laptops. I think in each high school there is a student in the student government who represents technology, and I would encourage students to share with that student their feedback, and that person can share that information with me.

THB: Thanks for talking with us.
GF: My pleasure.

The Lower Merion School District combines network-level filters and OS-level software blocking in order to ensure three things: that students obey the contract they signed at the beginning of the year, that the school does not violate federal law by allowing access to inappropriate online material, and that the laptops are more useful for education than other uses, or distractions.

Internet filtering is enforced both at school and on the rest of the planet. The system does a relatively good job of categorizing domains as appropriate or inappropriate.

The real difficulty lies in what it does not or cannot categorize; the “unknown” category. This includes many low-profile sites, such as databases that students end up using for research. It also includes anything we choose to host on our home computer.

So the filter must take the model of a “whitelist” instead of a “blacklist,” meaning that everything is blocked by default until, or if, it is screened.

Student feedback does show that the district seems to have fixed the problem with the computers failing to connect to the filtering server and respond to individula issues if they are brought to the technology department’s attention.