school IT securityThere was a time when a teacher using an overhead projector was considered high-tech, but now smartboards, student tablets, smartphones, laptops, and campus-wide networks have turned schools into hubs of connectivity that are often too much for an in-house staff to handle. 

Add to the mix the need for virtual and physical security defenses, and it should come as no surprise why school systems from sprawling urban areas to rural single-building districts are turning to MSPs more and more for their IT needs.

Evolving needs on a tight budget

Parker Pearson is vice president of marketing and business development for Advanced Logic Industries, an MSP in Blacksburg, Virginia. Pearson shared with Smarter MSP some of the challenges for MSPs servicing schools.

Data security is a big issue, and Pearson says that goes both ways. Keeping student data secure and keeping students from wandering into nefarious activities within and outside the school’s network are a constant concern.

Plus, the churn of students who come in and out of school is also challenging from an IT standpoint. Consider that the average high school graduates 25 percent of its population each spring and welcomes a whole new crop of students in the fall while the others advance a grade. That presents a constantly changing pool of data points to track and protect.

That’s a massive amount of administration to properly assign students and faculty to the correct applications and then transition their data as they move every nine months,” Pearson says.

Pearson says that adding to the challenges are the regulatory requirements for data retention and management and the fact that IT is now indispensable for schools each day.

“Zero unplanned downtime, disaster readiness, all of these are factors schools have to accommodate on very tight budget,” Pearson says.

Schools are increasingly finding that teaming up with an MSP saves them money and headaches. Advanced Logistics has worked with many school systems in the Mid-Atlantic region to help manage their IT needs and  cyber security.

Pearson says that even when a school system does have an in-house IT staff it can still make sense to farm out at least some of the tasks to an MSP.

What often makes the most sense for clients is to offload certain IT functions to us as their MSP,” Pearson says. “This enables them to focus on the specialized needs of their environment, while leveraging an MSP to handle tasks and functions that may be too expensive and difficult to recruit and  staff, or areas where we have the tools and skills to perform functions more efficiently at less cost. They also can get fractional access to very high levels of technical expertise that they would not otherwise be able to justify having on staff.”

Appeal of smaller school districts

Eliot Levinson is a pioneer in helping schools streamline their IT operations. He founded the BLE Group in 1996, a consulting firm with the mission of “transforming delivery of teaching and learning from the book to the cloud” via development and implementation of education technology and digital materials. After two decades of helping schools connect and advocating for an MSP role, Levinson, age 76 and now retired, sold BLE to Public Consulting Group in 2016. Levinson shared his experiences with Smarter MSP.

“An MSP guarantees all the connectivity will work all of the time,” Levinson says, adding that it is often cheaper for a school to have an on-call MSP managing the systems instead of a paid in-house staff.  

While Levinson’s BLE Group focused primarily on smaller underserved districts, large school systems like Orlando, Indianapolis, and Nashville have jumped on the MSP train in recent years.

As far as small districts go, Levinson says there is a real opportunity for vendors and MSPs.

“Vendors don’t spend time marketing to them. They lack the quality of staff and standards for network administration or instructional technology,” Levinson says.

BLE’s focus was primarily on school districts that enroll under 7,000 students.

“They are 90 percent of the market; they didn’t have the staff or IT. We focused on infrastructure, tech support, and giving them a four-year plan,” Levinson says. He adds that many small districts lack vendor relationships, knowledge of products, and implementation of them, and that is where an MSP comes in.

End-user threats

Of course one of the wild cards in dealing with a school district, a variable that doesn’t have to be dealt with when managing the systems of, say, the local accounting firm: kids. In today’s world, test answers are just a click away on devices that are more and more difficult to detect. An MSP has the tools to deal with tech-savvy of students.

“Policy-driven access to the internet enables schools to only allow students to access certain internet resources, even by timeframe. Or, they can just block them from having internet access from either their own mobile device or a school asset,” Pearson says.

MSP technicians can get caught in the dragnet of tight school IT security, though, which is another challenge unique to schools.

“Testing is incredibly secure in schools. No one can go inside or outside that room during testing,” says Jeff Simon, government account manager at Pacific Automation, an office solutions company in Portland, Oregon. Simon tells the story one of their technicians doing some IT work in a testing room, and they were literally stuck there for six hours. They couldn’t look at their phone as the students around in the room quietly took their test.

Still, basic human error can render numerous defenses useless despite all the security software.

“Students getting into a system and changing test scores or finding out quiz answers happens all the time, and it drives a district nuts. Everyone has to deal with the problem, and here’s how easy it can happen: A kid uses a teacher’s password and gets into the network. It’s done,” Levinson says.

Photo: George Rudy/Shutterstock.com


Kevin Williams

Posted by Kevin Williams

Kevin Williams is a journalist based in Ohio. Williams has written for a variety of publications including the Washington Post, New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, National Geographic and others. He first wrote about the online world in its nascent stages for the now defunct “Online Access” Magazine in the mid-90s.

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