NSW education: Just six laptops lost

Fears that laptops issued to students under the Digital Education Revolution would be "sold at the pub" have proved unfounded, with the NSW Department of Education and Training (DET) claiming it has suffered six losses to date.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

Fears that laptops issued to students under the Digital Education Revolution would be "sold at the pub" have proved unfounded, with the NSW Department of Education and Training (DET) claiming it has suffered six losses to date.

Last October, Michael Coutts-Trotter, DET's director general said the department's first question was: "How do you prevent them from being sold down at the pub?"

The answer, according to Coutts-Trotter: "You equip them in a way so they are only of use within a DET environment or are only of use for DET students or authorised users, such as staff."

Asked today at an Adobe media briefing how many devices had succumbed to such a fate (or had been lost), DET chief information officer Stephen Wilson said there had been just six.

DET has deployed 19,000 Lenovo laptops so far, according to project lead, Diane Marshall, and she expects 65,000 to be done by the year's end. Within four years the total number of devices expected to be deployed to reach all of NSW's year nine to 12 students in the public system was around 240,000.

The students will also get to keep the laptops at the end of year 12, said Marshall, including the software bundle, which runs on Windows 7 Enterprise edition and includes Adobe's Creative Suite 4.

Parents of students must sign a user agreement, which compels the student to charge the device at home. This was to reduce the total cost of ownership, which DET's chief information officer, Stephen Wilson, has pegged at around $2100 or under half the $4500 typically required over a device's lifetime.

DET's web filter, which Wilson has labelled "unbreakable", was still a source of conflict in the education system. Last year, several teachers complained that YouTube was inaccessible on DET infrastructure. Wilson today said DET had recently unblocked the video sharing site for teachers only; however, there was still conflict between teachers when it came to appropriate content.

"We now still get requests from teachers to block a video on YouTube," Wilson explained. "Yesterday that happened to us. A certain teacher thought it was inappropriate for that video to be on YouTube... If we block that video, we'll get just as many calls from teachers. By giving access to YouTube we're basically saying our teachers are adults; they make their decision and whatever is on YouTube is on YouTube. The vast majority want to use YouTube because of the vast amount of educational resources there."

Wilson today reiterated his stance that the filter was not a whitelist, which would block anything not on a pre-approved list, but a categorisation engine. "It isn't a whitelist, it's a categorisation engine. It's the largest database in the world. It has some tens of millions of site categories. We run that through a central proxy in the school, and we have aged based categories, so that, for example, a year nine student cannot see what a year 12 student can see," he said.

Wilson said the top 100 sites that were blocked for being uncategorised were sent to McAfee subsidiary, Smart Filter, for categorisation. More than 94 per cent of sites were accessible, according to Wilson, though students were not able to access social networking sites and YouTube.

"A large proportion of that 5 to 6 per cent of sites that are blocked are those sites, because students, even though they know they are blocked, they still try," Wilson said.

While DET faced problems with students using anonymysers to bypass school filters, Wilson said those gaps had been closed and that the filter components installed on the laptops could not be bypassed. "It's at a lower level than the browser. It attaches itself at the network interface card, so it's not hackable," he said.

Search terms were also monitored. If, for example, students searching for art, type in the word "nude", they were likely to be blocked. Should they type in "Rembrandt", they would not, according to a teacher present at the briefing. DET has hired over 420 entry-level support staff to commission the laptops, which were shipped from Lenovo manufacturing centre in China. The rate of deployment sits at 1000 per day.

Wilson heaped praised on numerous Windows 7 features, including App Locker, which prevents executable files from being installed.

Predicting an up-tick in the number of lost or damaged claims once new generations of the laptops emerge, DET's policy was only to replace them with the version initially given to the student.

Wilson said DET's downloads requirements were about 40TB per month, which he expected to increase to 100TB by the end of the year. Its main service provider was Soul TPG (SP Telemedia).

The cost of acquiring the laptops had actually fallen in recent months, according to Wilson, noting that its contract had pegged procurement to the US dollar. "The exchange rate has been working in our favour," he told ZDNet.com.au after the briefing.

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