South Australia Department for Education
Oversight, management, and delivery of South Australia’s public education, training, health, and child development services
Public Sector (Education)
180,000+ students; 30,000+ employees
Wanted to improve the access to high-speed, reliable internet for public schools and preschools across South Australia but equally needed to protect those schools, teachers, and students from the potential risks such connectivity enabled.
The South Australian Department for Education provides a range of integrated education, training, health, and child development services to benefit children, young people, and families. The department works to improve children’s and young people’s education, safety, and developmental outcomes from birth right through their transition to adulthood.
With over 30,000 people working under its jurisdiction and serving more than 180,000 students across the state, the department needed an effective and secure network infrastructure to provide uniform internet access throughout all of its schools while protecting students from harmful online content and schools from cyberthreats.
In 2017, when Scott Bayliss first stepped into his role as Chief Information Officer for South Australia’s Department for Education, most of the state’s schools did not have ready access to reliable, high-speed internet.
Indeed, roughly 7% of public schools across the state had a reliable, high-speed internet connection. The other 93% were missing out. This meant that the majority of South Australia’s state schools were not making full use of internet-connected technology to improve teaching and learning outcomes for their students, according to Bayliss.
Change was needed, but the process of connecting South Australia’s school network to high-speed internet presented a new challenge: protecting schools, teachers, and students from the potential risks enabled by the new infrastructure, such as inappropriate content online, cyberbullying, and malicious cyberthreats.
“We wanted to connect our classrooms. But by doing that, we’ve got a heavy responsibility to keep them safe,” said Bayliss.
With this in mind, the department decided to connect its school system in a two-phase approach. The first phase involved rolling out high-speed fibre optic internet connections to more than 950 schools and preschools across the state. The second phase involved the deployment of a network-wide security layer that would help protect teachers and students from cyberthreats while enabling schools to monitor cyberbullying and other potentially harmful activity online.
With at least 99.6% of the state’s public schools and preschools receiving reliable, high-speed connectivity during the first phase of the department’s project, it was imperative that South Australia’s public schools also received access to a centralised security system that could protect them from the risks of connectivity without the additional requirement of technical skills to manage it at the individual school level during the second phase.
In order to meet the connectivity needs of schools, teachers, and students across the state, the department had the following requirements:
Following an open tender process, the department selected Palo Alto Networks, in partnership with Telstra Purple, Telstra’s technology services business, to implement and deploy a security system that would meet its needs and the needs of every school in its network across the state.
In collaboration with Palo Alto Networks, the department developed a strategic cyber solution, posture, and environment for all assets of the South Australian public education system, along with a roadmap to ensure the department achieved its cyber goals.
The suite of solutions adopted by the department to comprehensively protect its school network against external threats included Palo Alto Networks Next-Generation Firewall (NGFW) units, which were rolled out to the state’s schools, and integrated Cloud-Delivered Security Services such as URL Filtering, Threat Prevention, DNS Security, GlobalProtect VPN, and WildFire malware detection services. In addition, centralised firewall services were provided for small schools and kindergartens, alleviating the need for additional technical support staff at individual schools.
Palo Alto Networks Cortex XDR platform was also deployed to bolster the department’s security platform capabilities by providing a service with the visibility of a SOC for their internal security team.
At the same time, management and logging services were provided by Palo Alto Networks M-200 and M-600 multifunction appliance devices, along with multiyear support, while endpoint security and SecOps services were provided by Cortex XDR and Data Lake.
Moreover, the department integrated Saasyan Assure online student cybersecurity safety controls to add centralised student safety and well-being capabilities to its Palo Alto Networks Next-Generation Firewalls by providing reporting, alerting, and self-service web override capabilities to the department’s network security solutions.
Palo Alto Networks solutions have been voluntarily adopted by more than 870 schools and preschools across South Australia.
With Palo Alto Networks solutions integrated throughout almost all of the department’s state-wide public school network, many thousands of South Australia’s students and their teachers now have access to seamless connectivity with which to tap into digital resources that can help children learn and thrive in the safest way possible.
“The most pleasing thing is seeing the spark in kids’ eyes,” Bayliss says. “It’s absolutely remarkable, and it’s what we’re here for. If we get the technology right, the opportunity it provides children is remarkable ...Technology can play a role in enabling better outcomes for our children and our students. And we need to keep them safe. If we don’t keep them safe, they won’t use it and they won’t have the opportunity,” he adds.
With the centralised security capabilities offered by Palo Alto Networks solutions, the department now has visibility into almost the entire public school network across South Australia. This means that any incidents of cyberbullying or students accessing inappropriate content can be dealt with proactively and in a timely manner by teachers and other school staff.
With greater visibility and greater control of the internet habits of students, the department is able to underpin and support a more welcoming, less threatening environment in which students can learn and interact online. This, in turn, is leading to greater enthusiasm for learning among students.
“Our solution is giving us visibility and transparency into something that’s been occurring, I suspect, for a long period of time, and that can only be a good thing,” Bayliss says. “I think transparency and visibility should be seen as a positive, not a negative.”
Thanks to the Cortex XDR platform, the department has also gained the network and threat visibility of a fully staffed SOC without the need to recruit additional security skills, which are in short supply in South Australia. Instead, the department is leveraging Palo Alto Networks solution to extend its reach without needing to expand its headcount.
With the COVID-19 pandemic seeing children study from home on school-issued connected devices, the risks of exposure to harmful content, bullying behaviour, or cyberthreats has extended beyond the school gate, into students’ homes and beyond.
In collaboration with Palo Alto Networks, the department is extending cybersecurity controls, filtering, logging, and auditing of internet traffic to school-issued devices outside of the school grounds, to help keep students safe from harmful online activity or content while studying from home.
“Now that we’ve got connectivity largely solved in all of our sites, during COVID-19 we’ve had to roll out home internet solutions to kids that are in areas that either didn’t have internet or couldn’t afford internet,” Bayliss says. “We did that at pace, enabling kids to learn from home, and that’s still occurring. So, we want to keep those kids safe.”
From overseeing a public school network in which just 7% of institutions had access to high-speed, reliable internet, the department has introduced an infrastructure overhaul that has given at least 99.6% of schools and preschools throughout the state fast, safe, and seamless connectivity.
Instead of opening the door to greater online threats, this step-change in connectivity has delivered a powerful, safe, and secure learning environment for students across South Australia, thanks to the capabilities provided by Palo Alto Networks and Saasyan, in partnership with Telstra Purple.