I read Marc Wagner's post regarding mobile data protection with interest, since a gift 2 years ago to our school had provided most of our teachers with laptops. These laptops are, by and large, highly utilized and often contain a variety of very sensitive data. These data can include grades, special education documents, discipline documents, letters to parents, and even union-related or administrative materials. In Marc's article, he talked about using Internet technologies to access files stored securely on a school network or server. While this represents a best-case scenario, many schools, especially in the K-12 arena, may lack the resources in terms of systems administration and/or bandwidth to support VPNs or other remote access technologies.
That being said, there are a number of free or low-cost solutions that still allow teachers and staff to store and access files remotely, preventing access to sensitive data if their laptops are lost or stolen. I've blogged about the current crop of student information systems before. Most of these stink, but districts are adopting them left and right because they satisfy NCLB data reporting requirements. Poorly-designed and immature they might be, but they are accessible via the Internet. I was floored by the number of teachers in my school who didn't realize they could access a variety of information about their students, enter grades, etc., by logging into our SMS from any Internet-connected computer. Because even relatively small districts are adopting these systems, teachers and administrators can easily avoid storing grading, discipline, and contact information for students locally.
ESPED (www.esped.com) is one of several online sites that states and agencies may choose to use for tracking special education documentation for students. Much like our student management systems, these sites are accessible from anywhere. They have improved the ability of teachers working with special needs students to document individual educational plans (IEPs) and track goals and progress and, more importantly, provide a secure location for storage of obviously sensitive data.
Aside from specialized educational sites, Google and several other companies (including Microsoft) are actively developing applications for what is commonly referred to as Web 2.0. As we turn from viewing the Web as a source of information and begin using it for applications and online collaboration, many new ways to store and access information securely and remotely (i.e., not on your laptop's hard drive) are cropping up. Google in particular now offers spreadsheets and word processing to select Google account holders. While these applications are hardly as robust as the latest applications from Microsoft (or even OpenOffice), they provide all the capability that most users will ever need. They are secure and accessible from anywhere.