Schools are turning to a private company to stop students bypassing internet filters and control their online activity.
Tech-savvy students’ “endemic” use of virtual private networks (VPNs) to access restricted websites and applications left school IT managers perpetually “behind the eight ball”.
Some said the Ministry of Education’s $440 million N4L managed network, used by 95 per cent of public schools, was not responsive enough to rely on.
Schools were increasingly facing difficulties in ensuring their duty of care, keeping students away from harmful content and keeping them on-task during class time, as ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD) policies became commonplace.
About 260 New Zealand schools were using a system developed by Christchurch-based company Linewize, which allowed teachers and network administrators to enact or relax internet filters for individual students, classes, devices, or at different times of the day.
CEO and co-founder Scott Noakes said the teachers could view students’ online activity in real time. Separate parent portals let parents review their childrens’ browsing history at home – a frightening prospect for many high school students.
Linewize’s analysis of a large Auckland school indicated up to 15 per cent of students were using VPNs like Hotspot Shield or Ultrasurf. Developed by blue chip companies like Google and Apple, new VPNs were created weekly and masqueraded as normal internet traffic, making them difficult to detect.
Riccarton High School student Carl*, 15, used VPN Hexatech to access Instagram and Snapchat on the school wi-fi.
“I don’t know many people who don’t do it,” he said.
“I talked to one teacher about it but they just didn’t care at all. I think if we specifically said to them we were using a VPN they would do something, but most of them just let it slide.”
Noakes said businesses could unilaterally block social media sites but schools needed more flexibility to promote modern ways of learning and teach students about digital citizenship.
“In a school you’re trying to have a high trust model . . . we find VPN usage is highest in schools that are very draconian about what they block.
“A BYOD device can have anything on it and they can have a VPN enabled that essentially makes a mockery of everything you have done to ensure cyber safety in your school.”
Linewize’s system used data from its 130,000 users to identify the behaviour of VPNs, as opposed to specific software, and shut down new versions within an hour.
Schools that used Linewize’s system, at a cost of $200 to $1000 per month, said blocking or unblocking sites on the Government’s N4L network often took at least 24 hours.
The ministry’s head of education infrastructure, Kim Shannon, said N4L’s filtering tools were optional and it worked with schools so “the right balance is applied to prevent users from bypassing the system”. She was not aware of any schools concerned about students’ VPN use.
Burnside High School assistant IT manager Dale Sutton said he “would be dead in the water” without Linewize’s system.
It let him limit internet access for chronic offenders and distance cyberbullying victims from hurtful comments on Facebook. The school had encountered “a lot of problems” with VPN Ultrasurf and N4L was “not fast enough”, he said.
“The gear that they use isn’t up to handling 2400 students so we had to jump through a few hoops to get the N4L filtering system turned off.”
Timaru Boys’ High School IT manager Peter Burke said schools were always “behind the eight ball” of VPN development and practical filtering.
“I get emails all day long of kids trying to get around it [the filters]. Things like pornography we jump on straight away, and extreme violence is blocked but we’re always getting [blocking] hits for hunting and fishing sites.”
However, he said VPNs had their uses, especially for international students wanting to break through their countries’ firewalls to watch overseas television in the boarding houses.
“It boils down to school policies and disciplinary actions.”