Harford schools to install firewall appliances in effort to break digital logjam

Bring Your Own Technology has become so popular within Harford County Public Schools that students' devices are causing congestion in the school system's network, school officials report.

"We're seeing such a proliferation of BYOT [Bring Your Own Technology] devices that it actually is becoming a bottleneck, if you would," said Andrew Moore, director of technology during a school board meeting on Aug. 14.

Middle and high school students are allowed to bring personal devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops to school and incorporate them into their classwork.

Despite the success of that program — which began on a test basis two years ago to address what HCPS officials acknowledged were shortcomings in technology — the school system is also moving to buy enough laptop computers so every student can be assigned one.

Contracts were approved this summer to buy thousands of computers for student use and funding is being sought from the county to buy more, as HCPS leaders say classroom computers must be available for stadardized tests to comply with state mandates that each student take the tests online.

The Board of Education approved a $132,382 contract with Skyline Technology Solutions, of Glen Burnie, to purchase the firewall appliances and have them installed and integrated into the school system's network. The contract was approved as part of the board's Aug. 14 consent agenda.

Moore said that the firewalls are needed to separate BYOT traffic from the rest of the HCPS network and thus relieve the congestion.

"We're firewalling them off from us — still keeping them safe, but it just frees up the [congestion] within the network itself," Moore said.

The firewall appliances are products of Palo Alto Networks, billed on the company's website as "next-generation firewalls."

Board member Rachel Gauthier asked about the need for the firewalls: Do "we need stronger security to enable the kids who are bringing in their own tech [devices] to meet within the safety boundaries that we feel are important?"

Moore responded by saying, "This additional firewall does provide another level of security. It is not enhancing the existing security measures that we have in place."

BYOT was established in early 2015 with a pilot program at Edgewood High School because the school system had trouble getting funds to upgrade classroom technology.

The BYOT program was devised as part of the school system's digitalHARFORD program launched during the 2014-2015 school year. The digitalHARFORD program was established to help students and teachers make the transition to a fully digital learning environment. During that program, teachers reported many students said they were more comfortable using their own devices to do schoolwork.

The BYOT initiative has since expanded to other high schools and middle schools. It is not currently available for elementary students, according to HCPS spokesperson Jillian Lader.

"We cannot say exactly how many students utilize BYOT throughout an entire school year," Lader wrote in a recent email.

She noted school officials "can see how many unique devices are connected to the BYOT network on any given day."

For example, on May 15, 2017, there were 11,238 unique devices, such as smartphones and tablets, connected to the BYOT network, she said.

There are about 37,500 Harford County Public Schools students spread over 54 elementary, middle and high schools.

In June, the County Council approved a school system request to put an additional $2.1 million into the HCPS budget to purchase technology devices before the end of FY2017. The school board then quickly approved the purchase of 4,000 Dell laptop computers for fifth- and eighth-grade students to use at the start of school on Sept. 5.

Moore said the laptop purchases represented the first year of a four-year plan to equip all HCPS students with their own devices.

He admitted under board members' questioning, however, that the program was funding dependent and hence "fluid."

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