Download a la Mode: Netbooks Go Viral
Copyright 2009 Miguel Guhlin

Those new Dell Minis--one of the several netbooks around--are sweet to have. A colleague recently shared, "I just bought one of those, and took it to a meeting. The technology director asked me, 'Is that a district laptop?'" She paused in her story. "That was the beginning of a longer conversation about connecting non-district equipment to the district network. I didn't know about spyware and all that other crud." The question is one I've considered often, and that comes up on education listservs from time to time. This article shares some free solutions that work on Windows Operating system that can be installed at no charge on Windows computers (netbooks, desktops or laptops).

The questions this article seeks to answer for you are:

  1. How do I protect my personal computer--netbook or otherwise--from spyware or adware?
  2. How can I protect my netbook from viruses?
  3. I’ve heard that Internet Explorer has problems. What browser might I use instead?

INVASION OF THE NETBOOKS
Over the last year, we have seen a proliferation of netbooks. In fact, at work, I have evaluated the Dell Mini, the Asus Eee, as well as laid hands on an Acer Aspire One. Just this evening, a chief technology officer for a West Texas school district asked, "Which netbook would you recommend for use?" This is an important question since netbooks are coming to be seen as more portable, less expensive and more versatile than tablet PCs, Palm handhelds and more. In fact, netbooks are being seen as the solution for 1 to 1 initiatives, both for students and teachers. Some fascinating discussions have centered around the disappearance of Palm handheld computers. Rumors abound and many districts are starting to ask, What would happen if the Palms used for Wireless Generation based assessments could no longer be purchased or replaced? Will netbooks be the answer, enabling school districts to provide a low cost computing device? Another hot question is, Will Pearson's TestNAV client run on a netbook? At the TCEA 2009 State Conference, it was a question one computer-maker was trying to answer, citing their new product line for a netbook with a slightly larger screen.

Two resources to catch up on netbooks appear below:

Deciding what to do with the Dell Minis is going to be one of the top questions school districts have to ask. While many netbooks come with GNU/Linux which forestalls the spread of spyware/malware/viruses, the preference in places where MS Windows IS the only thing people know is high.

NETBOOKS: VIRUS/SPYWARE LAUNCH PADS
In handling several Dell Minis, the main complaint I heard from the technology folks was, "I can't allow this out there because there is no way to manage it on the network." The complaint is valid in a world where viruses and malware spread from unprotected Windows systems to others over the network. A PC World article (http://tinyurl.com/dz65f3) points that out, "This is a threat that IT managers are just beginning to recognize," says Brian Wolfe, a security analyst at Lazarus Technologies Inc., an IT consulting service in Itasca, Ill.

The PC World article also shares:

Minimized hardware resources force ultraportables -- and their users -- to cope with weakened system software....Ultraportables' reduced resources also limit their ability to run add-on security software, such as data encryption and anti-malware tools. . ."As a result, the machines are often sent out into the world with little or no protection."
The best option, of course, is professional development on the use of a netbook for staff and students (these are so inexpensive that I have no doubt that Parent-Teacher Organizations will want to buy them for students to use in and out of school; I've already had one request for this!). Some quick ideas:
  1. Pass out USB Flash drives with anti-malware/anti-viral free tools that can be installed. Passing out USB Flash drives with the school logo and contact information, maybe a web site address to find more tools and tips online, can be a positive way to interact with your audience. Some districts are getting custom USB drives from providers like PexagonTech.com (http://pexagontech.com) or Ram-It.com (http://tinyurl.com/cmkzum).
  2. Or, if you rather not use USB solutions, start setting your students up with digital lockers using solutions like Xythos.com, Gaggle.net, or Acma.com.
  3. Schedule a "Bring Your Netbook to School" Night and encourage safe computing.

As personal netbooks proliferate, you need to be ready to act appropriately, not ban. It would be disappointing to outlaw these technologies, as many technology directors in Texas report doing. Here are some of their responses in regards to whether to allow personal laptops on campus:

  • "We don’t allow it."
  • "Not allowed for any reason – no faculty or student may bring personal equipment and attach to our network."
  • "We don’t allow the use of personal laptops on our district."
  • "We don't allow the use of personal laptops in our district as well. Students can not bring their own laptops b/c we have certain policies that are pulled through the network that students may not have on their personal laptops."
  • "Our District does not allow personal laptops currently for obvious security reasons. However, we are investigating NAC appliances to enforce basic security policy (virus protection, patches, etc). At that time, we will allow personal laptops or devices, and we will allow students access to their email, web-based software and network drives through the portal. We will not allow access to any software which requires a client install."
  • "That question is coming up more and more each year from parents and students. The time is coming when "we don't allow it" may not suffice. If colleges can do it why can't we? And I know the answer to that, it's money and staff, we don't have them."
  • "We're just a little 1-A district, with about 600 students. I generally do not allow "outside" laptops to connect, but we do have provisions for exceptions, which are spelled out in our Acceptable Use Policy:
  • Personally owned computers, including laptops, may not be connected to the District network. An exception to this may be granted under special circumstances, after the personally owned computer has been inspected by the Technology Coordinator, and only under direct supervision of a teacher.

  • We do not allow students to use a personal laptop on campus. For two main reasons:
    1. By law we are required to filter any Internet content. All district owned laptops the students use have a remote filter that works regardless of where they are using the laptop, at school, at home, on a trip.
    2. Our wireless network requires an access code in order for a computer to connect. This is done to every district owned laptop before it is issued to students. The laptop would need network access and we do not give that to personally owned laptops, because we have no control of everyone that uses that computer. We do not give the access code to students for fear they will pass it out to others.

Fortunately, these responses do not represent the only approaches to personal laptops and/or netbooks in school settings. Here is one response that presents a possible way forward:

"We allow personal laptops here," shares one technology director, " because we have a guest wireless network set up for their use. They cannot connect to our shared drives or to their home directories on their own laptops other than through the internet access we provide on our web page. We have found this particularly useful at the high school where I am because we frequently have outside presenters who need to connect to the internet for their presentations. School laptops connect to a different wireless network from guests, and they must log in with their school provided info in order to get to their network drives."

And, others point out the value of netbooks. "I am sure that netbooks are as important to the future of education," shares Mike Gras (White Oak ISD), "as paper and pencil have been in the past. A district that prohibits them is not serving the needs of the students or the teachers that are ready to move ahead in a digital world. There are indeed many security issues inherent in having open wireless access. I suggest we begin to face them. As our k-12 students are increasingly give opportunities to study at home I would hate to have any student say “I can get a better education with my connection at home than I can in school.”

PROTECTING THE NETBOOK
"Please help...I have a computer that is infected. The browser (IE 7) keeps going to homepagepark.com as the home page," wrote one desperate techonology user. "I'm sure there is a free spyware removal tool I can use, but after searching I found that some of the ones that come up are actually rogue spyware programs themselves - like Antispyware 2008." Fortunately, the tools available for installation on personal netbooks have gotten better.

Here is a list of my favorite tools that I share at least once a month with colleagues wondering, "What is out there for free that I can share with students, parents, and staff to load on their personal computers, including netbooks?"

First, I would recommend you boot up off a CD-ROM or bootable Flash Drive, and, second, run these programs off your USB Flash Drive.

  1. AntiSpyware Tools:
  2. AntiVirus Tools:While there are many antivirus tools, there is only one that is worth installing on thousands of computers.
    • AVG AntiVirus Free - This free version is for personal home use, but you can also install the free version for a 30-day trial. Get it online at http://free.avg.com/

The damage cased left by viruses and spyware to your Windows Registry can be catastrophic. To fix those problems, you need to take advantage of two tools that will help you 1) Uninstall undesirable programs completely and 2) Clean up your Windows registry.

  1. Revo Uninstaller - Some times, you need a program that will completely uninstall a program, including cleaning up your Windows registry. This program accomplishes that and ensures complete removal of a program. Get the portable version online at http://www.revouninstaller.com/
  2. CCleaner - This invaluable tool actually cleans up your computer's registry, and run periodically, keeps your computer running in tip-top shape. Get the portable version online at http://www.ccleaner.com/download/builds

CONCLUSION
As more netbooks and laptops--purchased with personal funds--find their way into schools, having solutions available and ready to go is a necessity. Will netbooks go viral in your teaching, learning and leading environment?

About the Author

As director of instructional technology for a large urban district in Texas, past president of the state-wide Technology Education Coordinators group in one of the largest U.S. technology educator organizations (TCEA), Miguel Guhlin continues to model the use of emerging technologies in schools. You can read his published writing or engage him in conversation via his blog, Around the Corner, at http://mguhlin.net