Our guest today is Rebecca Fowkes, the Marketing and Communications lead from our partner emPSN, a not-for-profit organization working within the East Midlands, predominantly with schools and providing internet connectivity and IT services. We also have with us Craig Butler, the UK account manager for Netsweeper.

They talk to us today about the partnership we’ve shared over the past 15 years, the challenges we’ve faced together during the pandemic, and what the future holds.

Rebecca: emPSN started out as part of the regional broadband consortium back in the early two thousands. And part of that initiative was to deliver broadband infrastructure out into communities.

Craig: We love working with emPSN because they bring a lot of energy to the customers and bring and highlight the strong points around what we can offer around filtering and monitoring, especially in these pandemic times as well. We’ve very much been leaning on emPSN to get the word out about how our services can be used.

Umair: What really stands out for me about emPSN is that it’s a broadband service that is solving challenges for schools and protecting children online and offline. Could you speak about how emPSN has evolved over the years and what the direction is for emPSN and how that fits into Netsweeper.

Rebecca: So, I think for emPSN, the goal has always been secure connections for the public good. It’s always been about doing what is right for the schools and what’s right for the communities. And as I said, we really haven’t strayed from that, that has been consistent throughout.

So, although broadband connectivity and the options available (that’s changed over the years, of course it has as has the web filtering options), but what we’ve done as an organization is continue to adapt to meet those changes, to constantly evaluate what we’re offering schools, what we’re offering the communities that we’re working with, and really provide them the best value, but the most appropriate option for what they need.

This is about getting and delivering the right product, the right solution for what they need, and it isn’t one size fits all. So, part of it is about engaging with programs being run by the central government. It’s about creating a more level playing field for the schools and communities that we work with for the type of network and broadband infrastructure that they can access. I see Netsweeper as a big part of that because Netsweeper creates that safe environment. It’s about offering filtering options that aren’t just a tick box, it’s about another company that is truly trying to do the right thing for schools, truly trying to protect young people and educators as well.

Umair: What I really like about emPSN is that over the years it has partnered with the IWF just like Netsweeper.

Rebecca: So emPSN has a lot of national partnerships. We work with the national education network. We’re also a part of national cybersecurity center. We partner with the national grid for learning. You know, for us working with those organizations means that we can get the latest e-safety information and the latest e-safety tools to the schools. And as a not-for-profit, we’re doing that free of charge. We’re doing it because we know it’s in the best interest of the schools. And it’s what’s going to keep those networks safe and secure.

Umair: Now, in response to the pandemic obviously it’s been over a year and a half and schools in the UK have shifted to remote learning. Craig, can you speak about how that’s affected schools and how Netsweeper was able to come in and help or emPSN schools in general?

Craig: Back in last March, emPSN reached out to us around the need for remote filtering. It’s not the first project we’ve undertaken with them. There’s obviously been massive changes within education and how filtering works.

We worked quite closely with them to take what they do from a network level filter to a client-based approach that could be rolled out remotely to devices and allow them to implement the filtering policies in the e-safety protection that emPSN offers to its customers across all the major OSs. emPSN’s customers were able to obviously access safe internet connections that emPSN has been providing for 20 years and know that their end users, both staff and students, were safely connected to the internet blocking any elicit content, but also from a reporting standpoint as well, being able to monitor and report on the traffic that their end users went on.

These projects grow and I’m sure when we first started this out, Becky, we thought this was only going to be a few months, but the product is developed and then we’ve pushed it out across many different operating systems over that period.

And as things have changed as well, we’ve had to adapt the product to suit the requirements. So, it falls in line with what we’ve always done with emPSN. We’re lucky, as I said before, to have emPSN as a partner.

The Netsweeper platform, as you see today, is a part of a combination of work between the other grids that we work with and emPSN to grow the product into what it is today. A lot of the feature requests and a lot of the things that our emPSN customers ask for are in the product today based on the kind of the requirements that emPSN sees with their schools and what they’re asking for.

From a remote filtering point of view, it’s been a successful time, I would say in terms of being able to deploy that. We love getting in the trenches and working on these projects with organizations like emPSN to enable their end users to carry on teaching because the schools didn’t close, obviously things were still happening, so we needed to support emPSN.

Rebecca: Thinking in terms of response to the pandemic. The biggest thing that we’ve had to do as an organization, but then also working with Netsweeper to do this as well, is to constantly listen to the schools and what the schools need. Adapt what we offer in terms of products, in terms of service, in terms of support to what the schools need. And to be honest, over the last year, gosh, we had no idea what was going to happen.

A year later and the goalposts have changed probably 50 times in that time, but the important thing is that we constantly listen and adapt and address the issues or the challenges that are coming up and find solutions for the schools that are going to work for them. And what’s so great about working with Netsweeper is that you’re straight on it, you know?

Rebecca: That’s what we expect from a service provider that’s on our network. I think we’re quite challenging in that respect. That’s I think how we get the best work done, really, is constantly challenge each other. And that challenge is coming directly from the schools. We’re just relaying that information. We’re three lockdowns in so far. And I think the blended learning changes that we’ve worked with Netsweeper on the remote filtering are here to stay. I think the pandemic has changed learning irreversibly. I don’t think anybody knows what it’s going to look like in the future yet, but everyone’s learned a lot in the last year.

Umair: In the UK, there’s multi-academy trusts and different school board systems, which are different from the US and Canada. What was the most foreign challenge you had to solve when it came to web filtering from either of those systems and how quickly were emPSN and Netsweeper able to solve that challenge?

Craig: The main challenge is rapid deployment. Sadly, we didn’t have time to think about a longer-term strategy. It’s obviously about getting boots on the ground and getting something up and working for the schools to be able to use. So, time is obviously the first issue.

There isn’t a uniform operating system used widely in England, Wales, in Scotland It’s very much a mixture of all different devices. So, you need something that’s going to cover all the operating systems and with our client filter, we’re in a lucky position where we have the windows Chrome, Mac iOS, iOS, and Android operating systems available for the client filter. So again, another challenge that we’ve been able to overcome is having it across all the major operating systems from day one of the pandemic.

Again, from an infrastructure point of view, the solutions need to be very flexible. So, having a system that theoretically backhauls all the traffic through the emPSN network for a school, again, some of these schools are quite rural and don’t necessarily have high upload speeds. So, we had to have a solution that fit students’ access, whether it be on a fiber connection or just a standard ADSL line. And luckily enough for us, we had emPSN by our side, talking us through the challenges that the schools were facing because as you’ll find in the UK, it’s certainly not one size fits all, and what might be appropriate for one school, certainly isn’t appropriate for all of them. It’s that flexibility that we needed, and emPSN was able to guide us in the right direction in terms of what their customers needed.

Rebecca: You’re completely right, Craig, in terms of one size doesn’t fit all. As I’ve said before, you know, we’ve got smaller rural schools (less than 50 pupils) out in the Peak Districts or Derbyshire or Lincolnshire. Equally, we’ve got inner city schools, inner city MATs that are thousands of pupils strong with fiber access on their doorstep or directly to their premises. You’re working with schools that have completely different infrastructure in terms of their technology within their schools.

In terms of the pandemic, I would agree that rolling out quickly and adapting the filtering that schools had to device level filtering was probably the biggest challenge over the last year.

Outside of the pandemic, when we’re talking about MATs, I think the biggest challenge is multi-site access. So that is where filtering needs to be controlled and managed across several sites that might not even be in the same region. They might be primary, secondary, or special units as well. But being able to control that centrally long-term I think is going to be important.

Craig: From our point of view, obviously remote filtering is here to stay. Like you said, it’s connecting all the dots together. We don’t necessarily always have people with technical expertise in terms of these deployments. If you look at the DfE and rolling out the devices, again, we had to jump on that. I think with what you’re saying, it’s about joining those dots, varying different sizes of deployments that we obviously had to look at as well.

Rebecca: Yeah. I think, again, it’s just back to both organizations, either emPSN and Netsweeper constantly looking to listen, adapt, and meet the needs of the schools, irrespective of where, they are irrespective of their size and irrespective of whether there’s a pandemic or not. I think that’s testament to our long working relationship, you know, over 15 years, that’s how we keep it successful, and we keep it going.

Umair: What is emPSN continuing to do to meet the needs of schools during the pandemic and for the future?

Rebecca: One thing we’re engaging with, with the national grid for learning with the Digital Divide campaign, Bridge the Divide. It’s an initiative run by the government and they’re delivering laptops to those most in need in schools and the National Group for learning is procuring those laptops and our schools are going to be able to have access to order those as well.

So, if there are still schools that need access to laptops and equipment, there’ll be able to get that. I really see that as something that is going to remain a focal point in education for the next couple of years. And certainly, now that it’s been tried and tested, and I think over the next couple of years, it’s going to really focus on the strategy behind that. We’ve all talked about how we had to adapt very quickly and there wasn’t the long-term planning a year ago, but a year in we’re seeing how technology really can change the way schools operate and the way that young people learn. So, I think there’s going to be a lot of thinking about how to embed that into schools and technology long term.

Craig: If we’re going to take one kind of highlight of the pandemic, it’s pushed technology along. From a teaching aspect, maybe five, six years. So, I think we can all get behind that great campaign.

Rebecca: So, I know that long-term, we’ve also been working with Netsweeper on some improvements to our network as well.

Craig: The product needs to adapt with the requirements that schools have. Obviously, filtering is an ever-changing landscape as well as the worldwide web. In making some changes to the emPSN setup that we have, we’ve bought in some cool features for emPSN schools to take advantage of. I think the single biggest one is the move for zero touch BYOD. So, the ability to be able to filter BYOD traffic without need for complicated, explicit proxy details.

Now, for anyone that has ever dealt with filtering in the past, they’ll know that it’s always complicated when bring in unmanaged devices onto the network. This is still a challenge for emPSN’s customers and for all those devices that have been sent home and are going to be coming back on the network. This’ll be a perfect situation where they’ll be able to take advantage of that.

We’re also pushing out some easier function tools for emPSN customers to manage their policies as well. So, we have a simple group manager now that allows you to quickly make changes to policies and make them on the fly without the need to go through a support desk. Those functionalities can be handed to teachers as well, to be able to make changes if they’re blocked from content.

The product that we deliver through emPSN is constantly adapting, and all emPSN customers get to take advantage of Netsweeper’s real-time categorization on all content, as well as the 47 different languages that we filter against as well. Some of these are coming to emPSN customers and some of them have already been factored into the product and you can use these from today.

Links from this Episode


Rebecca Fowkes on LinkedIn

Digital Divide Campaign