How Do We Respond to Botnets?

In our office, we’ve been spending some time discussing a recent Wired article titled “Attack of the Bots.

The article is more than disturbing to us, in that it reveals some possibly serious fault lines in the structure of the Internet. Basically, a botnet (a fleet of infected PCs) can receive remote instructions to perform a variety of nasty things, from denial of service attacks to spam email propagation. Those who control the botnets can strong-arm online sites into oblivion. Even first tier service providers can be taken down.

To us, it sounds like the Internet has moved from the “Wild West” to “Chicago Mobsters.” At the same time, at OES, we are trying to respond to a surprising increase of SPAM trying to penetrate our email system. For most of last year, our anti-spam device was rejecting approximately 50% of all incoming email. In the past two weeks, it’s been rejecting 75 to 80% of all incoming email, and it’s beginning to allow more through as it captures more legitimate email in it’s quarantine area.

This CNN article, “9 out of 10 e-mails now Spam,” suggests that the cause may also be botnets or similar systems controlled by criminals. If the growth of the SPAM attack continues, I wonder if we’re going to have greater problems.

Last year when I was working on VBulletin systems, I was wondering if it might replace a lot of one-t0-one email by created a shared discussion space for all teachers, students and parents. Access to the site would be pretty strict, so hopefully we wouldn’t have spam problems. It may be time to dust off that idea as a possible fall-back if things get worse.

In terms of the entire Internet, does this mean that other services may be threatened? It’s depressing that the free exchange of information would become captive to strong arm control tactics. Hmmm.

From the Trenches

Here’s a quick update on several of our projects this year:

Meru Wireless Network: So far, a success for handling a lot of iBooks in two buildings (150 plus). They load balance well, and reduce traffic. Main continuing glitch: no Bonjour for local networking/iChat work. Meru only allows us to open around 8 ports (beyond 80 and other common ports) for sending and receiving specialized traffic, and we haven’t found a way to enable Bonjour yet.

PaperCut Software: So far, it’s raising awareness and reducing our printing, but it’s not fool-proof. To really enable it to work on home-owned laptops, we need to require authentication (user name and password) for every print job. This does slow things down a bit, but for school-owned faculty machines and labs, the pass-through can be automatic on the Windows systems. There’s a “manual code for each printer” work-around for OS X, but it’s tedious.

150 iBooks in the Middle School:
so far, so good, but we have had six broken screens so far this year, compared to two broken screens last year (when we had 75 iBooks). All six cases were accidents or carelessness, but we can’t have that many on a monthly basis. We replace the screens ourselves with $250 replacements, and from this point on we plan to share the costs 50/50 with the families when the screens are broken. 100% if it happens more than once. $125 isn’t too big of a cost to pay, considering that it may cost $600 if done by a shop.

Edline System in US: Good content organization system, but maybe 50% of faculty use it for only minimal participation (syllabus, a few calendar items, grading policy, one picture). We have 100% of faculty and students online, and maybe 70% of the US families with at least one parent login. We hope that they improve both the discussion feature and the file hand-in features for next year.

Third-Party Wax in our Color Xerox Printers: So far, no problems, and it costs almost 50% less than the OEM sticks.

Custom FileMaker Database for SIS System: This system is performing better than ever before for labels, comment writing, transcripts and other daily functions around campus. And it syncs nightly with our business office Senior Systems database for parent/family information.

Loaner Laptops in US: So far, the best uses have been by individual students checking them out for an hour, day, week or semester. This is a program we may double in size next year.

Ed-Tech Blog: Well, I’m still writing to it, right? By the way, it’s snowing outside…

Laptops: A Transition from Middle to Upper School

Laptop in UseHere are some paragraphs from a newsletter for parents I recently completed. The main article is about the transition for laptop-using students from Middle School (all school-provided) to Upper School (both school- and home-provided laptops):

In the Middle School, a uniform school-provided laptop is a perfect fit because the grade level academic programs are standardized and we are working hard to get all students to the same levels of competency and academic use. To achieve these goals, we have standardized tools that are easily monitored and re-imaged, and they are “locked down” in that students can’t install software or significantly alter the systems. When the eighth graders leave the program, our goal is that they are comfortable and proficient with the use of Microsoft Office and Internet research, as well as organizing their materials and using online communications for academic work. This is the foundation the program creates.

In the Upper School, we continue to build upon this foundation. The curriculum of the Upper School becomes increasingly elective as students move through the program, and we expect students to engage in shaping their own educational experiences and take responsibility for their choices. A student’s own initiative and interests play dominant roles in their development of academic independence.

In this environment, the use of technology becomes increasingly diverse and student centered. Students may continue to use computers primarily for productivity and basic uses of Microsoft Office, or they may explore new tools and new ways of creating products, communicating or conducting research. School-owned and “locked down” laptops can limit students who want to go further in Science, Art, Music, Math and other subjects, because students need to make their own choices and investigate their own tools. We see this as the natural progression for students who have reached the standardized goals of the Middle School.

The entire newsletter is available as a PDF download.

A Winter Sail

A Winter SailWe were lucky yesterday in that the rain stopped long enough for a sail on the Columbia.

It was relatively cool when we started (around 45 degrees) and the winds were very light, but we needed to be on the water. We put on the big genoa and did light wind sailing for around three hours. Our top sailing speed was only 2.9 knots, but the entire experience was refreshing.

Back at the slip, of course, the winds picked up as clouds covered the sun, but a stronger chill was in the air and it was time to head home.

Bandwidth Reclamation Project Update

Here’s an update on our plan to close access to video streaming sites during the school day.

YouTubeBasically, our overall bandwidth use (of two T1 lines) during the day has dropped by 40-50%. This reduction was achieved by closing access to just five or six sites during school hours (Youtube, Yahoo Video, MSN Video, for example) as well as the iTunes Music Store. Other sites for streaming radio and content have been left open.

There were some complaints by students the first two days, but now we’re receiving praise from a larger number of students who have noticed the significant improvement in performance. The “happiest” person we’ve met so far is the Yearbook adviser. Jostens moved to an on-line yearbook creation toolset, and it was taking her students 5-10 minutes to upload the high resolution color images. Now it takes 30-60 seconds.

We noticed in Websense that there is an entire category of “bandwidth wasters” that can be blocked, and this includes all streaming video and audio sites. I’d rather not go this far, given what we’ve achieved by limiting access to just 5-6 sites. We have a “pass through” set up for faculty who what to use the sites for academic purposes.

Cover Surprise

Connected Newsletter CoverI was surprised to discover that my article in this month’s Connected Newsletter had made the cover.

“New Approaches to Student Laptop Programs” was an article that I just had time to finish before school started, and it’s nice to see it out. I’ve had one nice email about it, and I hope others can take a moment to send a note.

I’ve been working on a article for OES parents about the student laptop “transition” from Middle to Upper School at OES, and I hope to post some parts of that document here.

A New Kind of School

Here’s an open thought. What if I could design a school that had the following:

— a home-room design, with a class size of no more than 15-16 students.

— home room teachers who are generalists and facilitators, and who are adept at rapidly “going deep” on multiple topics.

— few or no specialists

— very few administrators

— 20-30% of each school day devoted to expert learner activities, based on student selection and initiative

— integration of online learning opportunities when appropriate

— commitment of parents to arrange and follow-through on after-school sports activities for X percentage of the year.

Now, please don’t think I have anything against specialists (I’m one, for example) or sports or administrators (I’m one). It’s just the idea of reducing class size, topic areas and overall costs that intrigues me, as well as taking advantage of new sources of information and learning, and recognizing and rewarding all students as expert learners.

Sometimes I wonder if the generalist approach for education is always a good idea– six to seven topics a day, in fifty minute periods, with competency expected in every one. In my own children, I see kids who want to go deep. My nine year-old son is reading and collecting facts and strings of information from every fishing book he can find. My seven year-old daughter gave me a short academic lecture last night about the impact of disappearing minnows and other small fish from the ocean food chain, and now she’s studying books about the “insides” of cats instead of just pretty pictures of them.

I think “all vertical” learning would be a bad idea, but stomping it out seems worse.

Independence of Achievement

Let us imagine a Middle School that really achieves the goals of all students gaining competencies in basic Office and Internet skills, as well as introducing them to multimedia processing and programming. The basics are covered, and the “vertical” opportunities are touched upon.

This is an interesting achievement in itself, since this list of proficiencies is at or even greater that of those of many new teachers.

With this foundation, what are the goals of the Upper School? To build on this foundation is to use the competencies where useful, but the vertical opportunities exist and they are ready. Is it possible that the new objective is to enable students to use technology in ways beyond the capabilities of their teachers?

Even in my Film and Video class, I normally have at least some students move beyond my own competency level with Final Cut Express. In fact, I see even higher percentages of students are capable of this.

I know these are basic questions. In fact, K-12 education itself could be seen as a “march” to greater independence. Why not with technology as well? But how does this look to US teachers, and what are their roles in enabling students to “own” their own tools and processes and products?

Video Breaks Out

Last year it was MySpace.com and Facebook.com. This year, it is YouTube.com and Google Videos.

Funny thing: our dual T1s are hammered, nearly all day and sometimes most of the night. We have a packet shaper, we have Websense, but we also have over 700 unique IPs each day sharing the T1s via our proxy server. That’s an increase of around 150 computers per day compared to this time last year. We have more Middle School school-provided laptops, and we have more Upper School home-provided laptops.

So, this may be a twenty percent increase in computers, but our bandwidth is suffering at more than that rate. In fact, it seems that downloads are half as fast as they should be, and maybe one third the speed of a typical DSL connection.

So what’s the culprit? At first, we thought the issue might be too many active Widgets on the Middle School iBooks, and we started to enforce the 2 Widget rule. We know that they can eat up processor cycles pretty fast, and some hit the Internet almost constantly for more data (like PointCast once did).

Last Friday, however, the US students and faculty were gone, and suddenly our bandwidth utilization was less than a half of a typical day. Hmmm– what’s happenning on the US computers that wasn’t as common last year: streaming video?

We’re going to try a test today or tomorrow. We’re going to move the main streaming video sites into a Websense category so that they are blocked during the school day like entertainment or games sites. For teachers, we can disable this block, but we’re going to try it with everyone first. The sites will be accessible about at 3:30 p.m.

Our goal is to get our bandwidth utilization back to reasonable levels, and I’ll post here if we find a correlation.

I’m actually a fan of Youtube.com, even thought I really can’t figure out the copyright infringement issues that seem so common there. The technology is impressive, and it’s interesting to see a real user-created channel of videos on demand for viral marketing and expression. One example.

Secrets Are Revealed

Yesterday morning, I stopped outside a math classroom. Inside, the teacher was reading parts of a newspaper article to the students about how multi-tasking could “fool them” into thinking they were increasing productivity, but actually reducing their retention and productivity. The students sounded surprised, and asked some good questions.

“What about listening to music while we do homework?” one student asked.

“That’s different– music is more like a background thing, and can be good.”

I hovered in the doorway, and later the math teacher said hello and mentioned she saw me listening in. I noted that I’d been reading a lot of articles on the new multi-tasking studies and was preparing a presentation for MS students.

“Yeah, it’s funny,” the teacher noted. “With my two sons, we didn’t have to talk about chat at all because it wasn’t around. Now with my daughter, we have to talk about how chat can be distracting, the difference between chatting with friends and using Calc Chat, and…”

“What’s Calc Chat?” I interrupted.

Embarrassed, the teacher mentioned that it was an IM group set up for Calc students to chat about calculus as they did their homework. “It’s not as good as being face to face in a study group,” the teacher said. “But it’s better than no study group.”

We both smiled because it was obvious that a small secret had been revealed. As a parent, she was really aware about how her daughter could use chat for good and bad uses, and obviously she helped develop an academic use of it.

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