CHAMPAIGN – Technology experts assessing the condition of Champaign schools' computer system made one shocking discovery: 14 pornographic videos tucked away on an innocent employee's hard drive.
In fact, employees checking the extensive system discovered large amounts of inappropriate content stored in it, enough trash to fill up several hard drives, said David Malone, new interim director of educational technology.
Malone said the porn problem was one symptom of the state of district technology: not secure, not adequate and years behind the times.
His technicians traced the trash back to its sources and discovered producers of porn were "parking" their material in the too easily accessible hard drive that's the foundation of computer systems in district schools and offices.
"They go into your system to see how much hard drive space you have," he said.
"They're looking for a parking space so they don't fill up their own space. It has nothing to do with anything students or faculty or staff members did."
Malone came to Champaign schools last September as a consultant, right after a powerful worm disabled the district's computers for a month. He moved from Texas to Champaign in December to serve as interim director.
"When you're a consultant, you can say, 'That's an ugly baby,'" Malone said. "You join the staff, and now it's your ugly baby."
He and his employees just completed work on the single room they share with equipment at the Mellon Building. They painted, picked up equipment so they could walk through the room and Malone purchased new chairs for everyone.
"Some of the chairs dated from the 1940s, and they were held together with duct tape," Malone said.
But they haven't been able to do anything yet with the chiller they all call "Godzilla," equipment that dates from the 1970s.
"One employee said, 'During the five years I've been employed here, the compressor has gone out at least five times, and that's being very conservative,'" Malone said. "Many times, the temperatures in the room are in the 80s. Extreme variations in temperature for the equipment in this room could potentially cause the entire district to lose access to the Internet and to student information and pur- chasing software."
Malone wants to improve physical security for the schools' computers, most of which are easily accessible, and wants to move to the former Marquette School, which now houses the Family Information Center and has plenty of vacant space.
He said the district's technology problems have accumulated for years, in some cases leading to counterproductive, expensive difficulties. In one case, the district put off purchasing hardware and software that cost about $35,000 to separate the wide area network from the Internet access.
"After the worm last August, they spent $35,000 on consultants to clean up the system after the district was without it for a month," Malone said.
Malone's goal is to submit a list of recommendations and priorities with price tags to the board this spring, likely in April.
Another goal is to step up training in the district at all levels, putting training and orientation programs online to help Champaign teachers learn skills and potentially earn credits.
"What I've found here is people working hard in a system that's not designed for success," he said. "There are pockets of knowledge, but they're not plugged in. "
Ken Kleber, a Centennial High School social studies teacher who sometimes teaches computer technology to teachers, said improvements to the system since he started five years ago have been dramatic but sporadic.
"It's like we went from punch cards to NASA computers," Kleber said. "Now the bits and pieces are there, but the way they're assembled is one of our biggest challenges. The improvements have been dramatic, but they're not where they should be, given the resources the district has."
He said one of the biggest improvements was the switch to a Windows-based system with leased computers replaced on a three-year cycle. One of the biggest problems, Kleber said, has been the installation of a new filtering system this school year.
"I was just looking at state budget sites a few minutes ago, and I couldn't get on," he said. "It's slowing educational progress. It's great to have a new filtering system, but it should have been tested first. One of our problems is, we're trying to rebuild the plane while it's flying."
Paul Smith, a 20-year district veteran, teaches Centennial High School students the ins and outs of the Cisco system, the most advanced computing classes the district offers.
Smith said there are "big gaps" in technology around the district. "The high schools have pretty good uptime on the network, but there's still much to be done in terms of getting everything together and giving all users the ability they need to communicate," Smith said. "We haven't seriously looked at developing new technology and related curriculum that would be good for students and helpful to the district.
"I find it ironic that my school is two miles from the place where the modern Internet browser was invented, and we've never had a district Web site. This is where it all happened, and we might as well be in Timbuktu."
He said several students in his classes could do high-quality Web design with a semester's training. District information is posted on a server hosted by the University of Illinois, which soon plans to discontinue the service.
"We need to move into our own e-mail service and other Web-related services," Smith said. "The district should have a homework service, so it's easy for teachers to enter information students, parents and volunteers can access all over the district."
Don Grafmyer, who is in charge of more than 300 computers at Centennial, said e-mail is now the only electronic link between parents and teachers, but the district is installing an exchange server to expand those communications.
In Urbana, schools are also installing new e-mail, Web page and student information systems. Jeff Heck of the district's technology department said he has been looking systematically at security issues, including other inappropriate parked material that showed up in the past, and eliminating them.
"We trust our security enough so we're giving parents access to student information," Heck said. "They'll be able to look at what their kids are doing, register for classes online, look at grade books, sick days, tardy days, student accounts, everything a parent wants to see."
"Our security's not perfect," Heck said. "We can't afford it. Our servers are behind locked doors for the most part, and we have extra safeguards in place where we need them, like at the high school. For the most part, things work well. There are a lot of places where we can improve, but that takes money. The perfect system takes a lot of money."
Computer system's deficiencies
David Malone's summary of deficiencies in Champaign schools' computer system covers four pages of a 55-page report. Among them:
– The district's wide area network, connecting computers in many buildings, and its Internet connections aren't separated – a situation that allowed last fall's worm to do so much damage.
– Climate control at the Mellon Building's Data Management Center, which houses $250,000 worth of core equipment, doesn't work well; space is tight, and the location is far from ideal.
– There's no laboratory to test software and hardware before it's installed. And there's no space for employee or teacher training.
– Power resources at many district schools are inadequate, and very few of them have inventoried computer equipment so the district knows what's where and how many students share how many computers.
– Many district servers need to be upgraded.
– E-mail services should be Web-based, and the district should look at outsourcing that function.
– Security is "critical need number one, and centralization of the system is number two."
Students earn as they learn Net technology
CHAMPAIGN – Paul Smith teaches his Cisco students the nuts and bolts – and routers and switches – of Internet operations.
And they're using that information to make money, working for Champaign schools and other local employers, and to plan their futures in the growing field of technology.
"We're inventorying the whole school, and if we see problems like wires on the floor, we try to figure out ways to fix them," said Jerome Terrio, a senior who just started working for the district as a technician with classmate Seth Hansen.
"Our computer situation here used to be a lot worse," Seth said. "There are new computers in the whole building. When we were freshmen, we had computers with dark screens that used to take five minutes to load."
Both boys plan to use the information they've learned and their on-job experience to pass a network administration examination this summer before they go to college this fall.
Smith, a Centennial High School teacher for 20 years, introduced the Cisco program five years ago at the high school. He averages 40 students for the two-year curriculum.
"The course is primarily about how the Internet works and how you send information from one computer to another in the same room, a different building or around the world," Smith said. "It teaches them about the routers and switches behind the scenes. It's the most sophisticated computing unit Champaign schools offer."
First semester instruction introduces students to the system; the second semester, they learn about configuring routers. In the second year, they work on networking, routing and switching.
"The Cisco Academy is a worldwide organization; all the curriculum is online, and kids take tests online," Smith said. "They're very challenging. When they're done with the tests, I call them up (on a computer) and check them. It's a combination of direct instruction and Web-based education. We go over the exam and talk about what's wrong and why something's correct."
He said there's heavy emphasis on lab work.
"They work with devices, and they also learn practical things like making networking wires, the criteria for determining bandwidth and the connections between local networks," Smith said.
The Cisco system classes prepare students to take a certification examination that verifies their knowledge for potential employers. Smith said the exam costs $125, but students who perform at a certain level in his classes get a discount.
"Many of my students come out prepared to take the exam, but not all," he said. "When it started, the certificate was a major entry into the field, but now you need additional certificates. However, it gives you a tremendous leg up going into the field."
He said many of his students go to the University of Illinois to major in computer science, and others feed directly into the Parkland College network management program.
Champaign's interim director of educational technology, David Malone, said he would like to expand opportunities for technicians employed by the district by enrolling those who qualify in Smith's Cisco classes so they can prepare for certificate exams.
And he and Smith worked out the plans to employ students with advanced skills, like Seth and Jerome, to help get district equipment inventoried and to troubleshoot.
"The district has upgraded networking numerous times, and some shortcuts have been taken. These students are helping to clean up wiring, and they're also getting hands-on training. There are more than 3,000 computers in the schools, and that's quite a maintenance load."
Smith's students say they're learning skills in the classroom and at work that they can use when they continue their education after high school.
"I wanted to study computers, but I wanted more than just typing," Jerome said. "This is something I can pursue."
"We get credit at Parkland College, too," Seth said.
"I'm planning to go into gaming, and networking is the heart of that industry," said Aaron Worley, who plans to study computer engineering at Blackburn College next fall.
Smith said he's sold on the Cisco system because it keeps his students up with the industry.
"In five years, the curriculum has been revised four times," he said. "In this field, everything's constantly evolving, and you have to keep up with what's new."
You can reach Anne Cook at (217) 351-5217 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.