Chromebooks White Paper

31st August 2016 Suzanne Knight White Paper No comments

Educating with Chromebooks

shutterstock_282680441-600x400.jpgGoogle Chromebooks™ are fast becoming the global educational device of choice. In the US, Chromebooks now represent over 50% of new market sales for education, ahead of Apple- or Windows-based devices.*

The up-front cost of a Google device has been a key factor in establishing their foothold in school districts, with some machines retailing at less than $200 per unit. Typically, Chromebooks are cheaper to repair if damaged in the hands of over-eager children. In fact, the price point is so low that it can be easier just to replace a broken unit, saving service time.

In addition to the lower initial outlay, the reductions in the cost of setup are huge when compared to traditional Windows-based machines or iPads. Setting up a Windows-based system involves deploying applications and imaging every laptop, which is time consuming for Systems Administrators. With iPads, apps also have to be loaded onto the device and need to match the needs of the user, and are often specific to their school grade. Once loaded, the need to keep these systems up to date can provide a constant workload across networks of thousands of devices.

Chromebooks are ideal for sharing as user data as apps are all stored in the cloud. This allows a user to pick up any Chromebook, sign in to their account, and access their own work and settings. The fact that a Chromebook isn’t tied to a particular user means that schools can operate a pool of devices rather than issue one to every student. If a student breaks or loses their device they are able to just pick up another immediately, without losing time or work.

Lately Google development has placed specific emphasis on educational tools. Google’s recently released Classroom app is highly focused for education, allowing teachers to communicate with students, organize and grade assignments, and give real-time feedback via specialized folder creation. School Districts required to implement online Common Core State Standard (CCSS) tests by 2015 stipulated that all devices need keyboards. This has also fueled the drive away from iPads.

The Need to Protect Kids Online

With the convenience of Google portable devices comes a new set of challenges for keeping students safe online. Unlike a desktop device, students using laptops are able to browse and use the internet without direct supervisio both at school and in the home. Browsing safety is a key concern for parents; according to a January study from the PEW research center, 61% of parents had looked at their teenagers web browsing history at least once, to check which websites they had visited. In spite of the desire to keep their teens protected on the internet, only 39% of parents used parental controls for blocking, filtering or monitoring traffic.

Traditional filtering methods, or even checking a child’s history online, only tells part of a story of what they have viewed. Traditional filtering works by examining the URL of a web request, and comparing it against ‘lists’ of sites which have been categorized, and subsequently deemed “good” or “bad”. What this means is URL-based filtering can only ever be as good as yesterday’s information, which is far from ideal when on average over 571 new websites are created per minute.

The Problem with URL History

The problem with looking at a search engine history to protect kids is it may not reveal the full story. A large amount of web browsing is no longer done via web browsers, but via third party applications such as Facebook. Tools such as anonymous proxies allow circumvention of traditional URL-based filtering, while also providing a way to browse without leaving any history. Anonymous proxies provide a VPN which masks the URL of the site being viewed. As well as potentially letting through dangerous content, the limited nature of blocking based on a URL alone can lead to overblocking, which can frustrate learning if a legitimate site is blocked.

What is needed to help kids work safely on a growing internet is the ability to filter based on analysis of the actual content on the page. Content-aware analysis is able to analyze search terms, domains and text of a website to decide in real-time if it will display content. By looking at the actual content, filtering doesn’t go ‘out of date’ like URL lists do. It can even pick up bad content on an otherwise allowed site, such as explicit comments on a YouTube™ video. This allows users of school devices to be protected in the school as well as at home when on a school owned device.

Bringing Content-Aware Filtering to Chromebooks with Simplicity

Managing devices across a school or district using Google credentials presents a different style of system architecture.Typical methods of authentication against Microsoft’s Active Directory® become unnecessarily complex for System Administrators who are happy to filter against trusted Google credentials. If a school is “Google only”, Active Directory isn’t even present. What is needed is a simple way to filter using the Google architecture and existing groups.

Google as a Directory Service allows Chromebook users to be filtered against their Google user accounts, without the need to set up an Active Directory domain to replicate Google Apps Directory Sync (or GADS). Removing the need for an Active Directory allows “Google only” schools to take advantage of Smoothwall’s advanced content-aware filtering via single sign-on with Google. Smoothwall groups can be mapped to Google groups, allowing rules such as content filtering policies from the Smoothwall to be applied based on groups.

Chromebooks should be enrolled with Google on their management console in order to prevent users being able to browse in Chrome with their personal credentials. User settings and policies for apps can also be configured there, and unwanted apps and extensions should be blocked from being installed on the Chromebook.

The Connect for Chromebooks feature can be set up in 3 simple steps:

  • Distribute the Smoothwall HTTPS certificate to all Chromebooks
  • Distribute the Connect for Chromebook extension to your users
  • Set up filtering and access policies on the Smoothwall

It is even possible to set up the Smoothwall to filter Chromebooks when they are outside of the school network, setting parent’s minds at ease when students are studying at home on a school device.

Non-enrolled Chromebooks (such as students bringing in their own devices) appear on the Smoothwall as “unauthenticated IP’s”. This group is still subject to filtering, and so the user is unable to bypass policies.

For more information about Smoothwall’s Chromebook integration or other questions please contact our sales office at 1-800-959-3760. 

Picture of Suzanne Knight

Suzanne Knight