Kentucky schools soon will have help in the battle to keep students and teachers from logging on to improper web sites. The state’s department of education is supplying software to each of its 1,400 schools. This will not only weed out inappropriate sites, but also could save the schools $5,000 to $6,000 per year in leased line charges.

David Couch, the state’s associate commissioner for school technology, said the filtering software comes in response to a new state law. Last year, Kentucky legislators demanded that its education department find and distribute software to restrict students’ access to unsuitable material on the internet.

The state hit upon a cost-effective proxy solution that not only protects students from inappropriate content, but also saves useful web sites in a local “electronic library” for lightning-fast retrieval, Couch said.

The solution uses Microsoft’s Proxy Server software to create a three-tiered approach to filtering and caching web sites. It works by creating checkpoints at each school, district office, and state headquarters that can save copies of–and also block–selected internet files.

Because most of the activity takes place between the desktop computers and the proxy server at each school, the state’s schools will be able to achieve the same level of performance as a T1 line would provide with just a 56K connection to the internet, Couch said.

“We’re finding that instead of having to automatically upgrade the schools to T1 lines to increase internet response rates, they can just put in a 56K line, save $5,000 to $6,000 per year per school, and get tremendously fast response rates to meet the needs of students and teachers,” he said.

Kentucky’s effort would put the state in an enviable position if legislation proposed by U.S. Sen. John McCain passes Congress this year. In January, McCain introduced a bill that would require schools receiving eRate discounts to install internet filters on their computers.

The total cost of providing the solution to Kentucky’s 1,400 schools, 176 district offices, and 800 department of education members is $200,000, Couch said.

Local control

Kentucky’s solution calls for installing the proxy software on a server at each of the state’s schools and district offices, as well as on a few high-capacity Pentium II Zeon servers at the state level. The solution sets up a hierarchical caching system to ensure that materials are readily available to all users, Couch said.

When a user requests a web site, the software first looks on the local school file server’s proxy. If the local proxy doesn’t have the site in its cache, it will look to the district office. If the district proxy doesn’t have the material, the software will search at the state level. If that search comes up empty, the user will be routed to the internet. The entire process is quick and transparent to users, Couch said.

Because the software caches sites on a school’s local server, it helps ensure the information is there when teachers need it. It also lets more than one class use the same material at the same time without having to download it from the internet separately. The software can be configured to refresh the material at regular intervals if the data are likely to change, Couch said.

The proxy solution can filter inappropriate sites by exception, by inclusion, or both, Couch said. Though popular educational sites will be cached at the state level, the software gives local schools and districts complete control over what is considered “inappropriate.”

“At the state level we won’t be choosing which internet sites for schools to filter, since we want that to remain the choice and responsibility of each school,” Couch said.

It’s the idea of local control that has led the state’s educators to embrace the solution, Couch said. “With this solution, the technology doesn’t dictate what gets filtered, like with most ‘censorware’ products–the individual school does,” he added.

A tracking feature helps schools keep a log of every web site visited or requested by every computer on the network. The tracking feature helps administrators discover the most popular instructional sites so they can make sure the data get cached on their local proxy server. It also helps identify inappropriate sites to filter and users who have violated the state’s acceptable-use policy.

Couch said the deterrent factor in the tracking system is actually a stronger tool than the ability to filter out sites.

“What we’ve found is that the best temptation reducer is not trying to come up with a list of all the sites people can’t go to. If instead you track exactly where everybody’s been, for how long, and every step he or she took, that’s the best way to keep people on task and from going to non-instructional sites,” he said.

The state plans to have the software installed in every school district by June.

Kentucky Department of Education

http://www.kde.state.ky.us

Microsoft Proxy Server

http://www.microsoft.com/proxy/default.asp