Can I bring my laptop?

An increasing number of high schoolers have their own laptops. Should you let them access your network?

I just read Marc Wagner's words of advice regarding computers for students headed off to college.  Although many college kids these days have a laptop, a surprising number of high school students also have their own portable computers.  Colleges and universities expect students to bring their own equipment and, by and large, have the facilities, policies, and infrastructure to securely support a variety of users.  In a K-12 setting, however, these resources (and/or the associated expertise) may not exist, and IT staff must evaluate the security risk posed by personal laptops on the network.

Last year, given the genuine lack of computer resources available in my district, we chose to encourage students to bring their own computers and provided them with unfettered access to the Internet and printing resources.  We did not require a login and left our wireless routers unsecured (I know, I know, but I'm just one guy...give me a break).  Students were unable to access file servers due to Windows security measures and only a handful of students took advantage of the open access, so overall, security considerations were negligible.

This year, however, I know from speaking with students over the summer (small town, they're everywhere) that many more have acquired laptops.  I also know that we did encounter a few specific problems last year that we have already addressed this year.  First, as soon as students found out that we had open WiFi, many brought in handheld gaming devices (e.g., the Sony PSP and Nintendo DS).  So many, in fact, that we ran out of IP addresses at one point.  Fortunately, these devices are easily identified and blocked from a network (they usually have a computer name like "Nintendo DS") and teachers became quite vigilant, watching for gamers in class.  I also secured our WiFi this summer so that students must know the passphrase to use the routers.

The other problem, not surprisingly, was the introduction of malware to our network.  We identified several computers last year that were generating very heavy traffic loads on an already overloaded network.  While most of these were internal, a few were student laptops.  All caused major, if short-lived networking issues.  As a result, students with Windows laptops will now be given a Windows login for easy tracking and manageability and must install and maintain Ad-Aware and Clamwin (both free bits of very good anti-malware software).  We'll keep an eye on Mac and Linux laptops as the body of malware targeted at these platforms grows, but for now they aren't presenting many problems.

This only addresses the technical side of the laptops-in-school issue, though.  Many colleges have already documented problems with a "wall of laptops" facing professors.  In high school, where laptops are still a bit more novel, they can prove to be a significant distraction in class.  While we, like most schools, have acceptable use policies for the Internet and school-owned computers, we don't currently have language in our student or staff handbooks related to personal computers.  That will be changing this year and should focus on encouraging teachers to set reasonable limits for the use of personal computers in class.

So obviously we still aren't going to ban personal portable computers at our schools.  Frankly, they are a valuable supplement to our resources and the ubuquity of laptops, even for high-schoolers, reflects the changing face of technology and computing worldwide.  However, they also represent a supplement to our workload here in Ed Tech and we must pro-actively address their use.

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