Saturday, 26 November 2011

Is this the beginning of the end for the proxy server?


Proxy servers have been great for schools. The ability to apply policies, filters and firewalls to a range of academic establishments has helped keep millions of students protected from less than savoury websites. In Birmingham, UK, Europe's largest education authority, nearly all the 420+ schools use the same proxy, meaning that the costs of maintaining it are much lower than they would be should each school have to manage their own one.

Essentially a proxy server is an extra computer that sits between your network and the rest of the world, although if you want a more technical article, see the wikipedia article.

In short, proxy servers do a good thing and they save money.

As an ICT co-ordinator, I have seen the proxy server as a necessary evil.

It does more good that it doesn't.

I need the proxy - but it does often cause me problems.

For example, to make the school Kindles work, I have to take them home to set them up (where I have a direct internet connection). This is a bit frustrating.

In addition, some websites are rightly filtered by the proxy for all the schools in Birmingham, but on occasion it would be useful to open them up. Facebook is a good example of this - not only do I manage a school Facebook page that I can update from school via email but cannot see in school unless I borrow a child's mobile phone, but I would also like to offer parent workshops about safe Facebook use. The people who manage the Birmingham proxy server (Link2ICT) are very responsive and offered to unlock Facebook and similar social media sites for a specific computer at a specific time - but this does require extra organisation and time - it would be handy if I could control this myself.

A further problem is a clash with external providers. Increasingly schools such as ours are forging stronger links with external software providers. 2Simple are an excellent example - they provide software that is just perfect for the primary child - uncomplicated, powerful and fun to use. However their support solution involves a tool called Logmein, where they can access a computer remotely from their offices whilst speaking to me on the phone. Now in the past I have been literally shouted at by a colleague from Link2ICT for daring to experiment with Logmein as it jeopardises the integrity of the whole Birmingham network, apparently. This is a bit of a conflict - do I turn to the software company for support, or do I only rely on the services of our local people?

And when schools are increasingly asked to be accountable and autonomous at a school level, not a local authority level, is there a balance to be struck between the systems that work at a local authority level (like Proxy servers) and between commercial software providers?

Managing my own proxy would be completely out of the question. Not only would I not have the time or the inclination to learn the skills, but I'm sure it's far cheaper to share a proxy between a range of school like we currently do.

However, just in this last week, I have noticed something in our Google Apps domain that does some of the jobs that the proxy server does.

This week I have been experimenting with our Google Apps management console to set up our Chromebooks in different ways for the different user groups. For example I can set up the teachers so that the school calendar and their email open at startup. Or I can setup the year 6 students so that they get straight to a Google spreadsheet we have been working on for our Switched on ICT scheme of work. Or I can setup the Year 3 students so they get straight to Purple Mash, that they have been trialling this term. I've noticed too that I can control the Chrome extensions and web apps from the chrome store - I can make Angry Birds appear as an icon in the corner of the desktop. Or I can ban it so it never appears.

What I am most excited about is the URL blacklist / whitelist section (pictured above). I can blacklist everything, and then whitelist all the websites I want the children to access. I can use this to have complete control over the Chromebooks and change their accessibility according to the needs of the students and the curriculum. The question I need to answer now is how much work is this - managing a blacklist / whitelist filter? Is it the kind of thing I can do for my school or do I need to share the responsibility with other schools? And if I can find those other schools to work with, do I still need a proxy server - does it offer some functionality other than a web filter that I am ignorant of?

Lots of questions, I know. Hopefully answers will come in future posts as I begin to look at how the Management console affects learning.

No comments:

Post a Comment