The disruptions to our society due to the coronavirus pandemic include significant impacts to education. Universities and colleges around the world have had to adjust to the reality of remote learning, at least for the foreseeable future.
The nation’s largest four-year college system, California State University, announced in May that instruction will primarily be conducted online this fall, and many other institutions are following suit. It’s now estimated that 70% of students are currently engaged in some form of online education.
This shift to digital learning has introduced a steep learning curve that many institutions that were unprepared for. Schools are working quickly to not only build the curriculum and content necessary to support online courses, but to also build the distance learning infrastructure needed by faculty and students to ensure simple and seamless remote access to this content. The challenges are, how to do this at scale, and how to do it securely.
The need to provide distance learning, and to do it quickly, has introduced new risks for educational institutions while creating potential opportunities for cyber adversaries. Schools have long been a target for cybercriminals. According to the 2019 Verizon Data Breach Report, education continues to be plagued by human errors, social engineering and denial of service attacks.
The changes brought about by the pandemic only compound those existing challenges. Based on recent information released in the latest Global Threat Landscape Report from FortiGuard Labs covering the first half of 2020, education comes in third, only after telecommunications providers and managed security service providers (MSSPs), in the percentage of institutions detecting ransomware.
Making Distance Learning Secure
Cyber adversaries have refocused their criminal efforts to take advantage of the new remote work and education environment resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re targeting the vulnerable devices and home networks of remote users looking to use those systems to open a back door into the core network.
This is evidenced by the significant increase in attacks targeting such things as consumer-grade routers, personal IoT devices, and components such as DVRs connected to home networks detected during the first half of 2020. Threat researchers are also seeing a spike in older attacks designed to exploit vulnerabilities in the often unpatched devices on home networks.
In fact, 65% of detected threats were from 2018, and a quarter of all detected attacks targeted vulnerabilities from 2004.
Naturally, the ability to securely support a remote learning policy is an essential component of any continuity and disaster recovery plan. However, to ensure that networked resources of colleges and universities, as well as those of remote faculty and students, are protected, these new realities need to be taken into account.
As school districts and educational institutions across the United States were hastily pivoting to virtual learning environments to close out the current school year, top education officials reportedly were sounding an early warning that a potential lingering of the COVID-19 threat could extend remote learning into the coming fall and winter.
Amid wholesale school closures, and the possibility that those closures could continue into the 2020-2021 school year to curb further spread of the virus, education officials were prioritizing remote learning capabilities.
“I’m really focusing much of our resources on the expansion and accountability wrapped around online learning and distance learning,” Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon told Maryland lawmakers, according to the Baltimore Sun.
Making remote learning accessible, user-friendly, reliable and secure for students and teachers for however long brick-and-mortar schools remain closed, and doing so in a matter of weeks, is no easy task for a school district or institution and its IT department.
But as scores of districts around the country are demonstrating (and as we at Windstream Enterprise have been witnessing firsthand in our work with education clients), a robust, well-protected remote learning program can be rolled out and sustained, provided several key digital infrastructure pieces and capabilities are in place, including:
By Daniel McGee, director of technology and library services, Laurel School.
Thus far, 2020 has been a year where the field of educational technology has been permanently altered. This year’s Covid-19 pandemic has brought challenges and confusion to daily life, with educational institutions pivoting to a distance learning model nearly overnight.
The impact of this shift has been far reaching, affecting the cadence and delivery of daily instruction, creating a new impetus for teachers to learn and upskill quickly.
The result is a watershed moment for educational technology that will cause ripple effects in education for this and future generations.
For private, independent schools, the conversations, processes, and procedures have been different from those affecting public schools, though the needs of students remain the same. In my role as an independent school technology director, the lessons of the past few months have been a series of dichotomous notions with a time for careful planning, while also being a time of flying by the seat of your pants; and notably, a time where rules are created, but also while basic tenets of educational technology are proving to be helpful guides. I have learned some essential lessons that are helpful now, and I see them as being helpful in perpetuity.
Lesson One: Select Familiar Tools and Technology
The first lesson is focused on the importance of educational technology leaders to select distance learning tools and topics that are familiar to teachers and students. Having a minimum of familiar, established systems for students, teachers, and families to access lowers the barriers to success and allows students to focus on learning what they need to know, not acclimating themselves to a host of new tools. During a pandemic is not an optimal time to introduce new tools if it can be avoided.
If a school has a learning management system (LMS) in place and is actively using it, it is a hard case to introduce a new system. The LMS is the stand-in for the physical classroom; just as physically moving a home or school is a disorienting process that requires acclimation, the virtual classroom environment fostered through the LMS should remain as consistent as possible.
Video meetings have become a staple of the distance learning experience. For schools using a suite of online productivity tools such as Google’s G Suite or Microsoft’s Office 365, using Meet or Teams lowers the barriers of entry for teachers and students to begin using such tools due to the integrated nature of these video services within the larger platform.
Consistency is key in using any online tool, first in the selection of a single, unified tool for the school to use, and second in its use and deployment. Experts in online learning advise the use of a common template for teachers to craft LMS course pages, and students should have a consistent means to access their virtual classrooms via the chosen video conferencing platform.
By Joe Schulz, vice president of emerging technology, Orasi.
Like most of us in today’s new reality of a distributed workforce, enterprise-level training classes are forced to move to virtual, online formats.
If you’re transitioning corporate education training classes from onsite/in-person to online, provide hands-on virtual software application training, or need dedicated software environments for enterprise students to complete practice labs, you already understand the challenges of preparing courses to be delivered virtually.
Studies show that retention increases by as much as 75% when training includes hands-on practice. That’s much more difficult to manage in a virtual world where students attend through web conferencing applications like Zoom, Webex, Skype, and Teams.
However, all is not lost, and in some cases may even be better. Virtualizing training dramatically reduces the effort and cost required to deploy and maintain these environments.
With a virtual training focus, no hardware is purchased and maintained, no travel time or expense is needed, and no facilities need to be rented or built out. Class scheduling can be based solely on participant availability without regard for other classes, and instructors and students use their own familiar, personal workspaces.
To help you make the leap into today’s world of virtual training, consider the following best practices across each stage of the training process to ensure your classes are both relevant and effective.
Hackers take advantage of the worst-case scenario.
Pandemics, terrorism, and natural disasters bring disruption and distractions, perfect opportunities for people to infiltrate lowered security while our attention is directed elsewhere. Here are five data security bases to cover during your pandemic response.
While it’s true our home wireless networks are under more stress than ever before, don’t sacrifice security for convenience. These network breaches are some of the easiest for hackers to pull off.
No public Wi-Fi: The biggest risk to networks comes from unsecured Wi-Fi connections in public places, like restaurants. Ideally, choose password protected Wi-Fi from a home network. This option may be out of reach for some—even free internet offers for students are falling short in some cases, requiring families’ unpaid bills to be settled before the option is extended to the student. Other secure options may include a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot.
Internet of things: Disconnect devices that don’t require Wi-Fi to function (appliances, etc). Even if Wi-Fi helps them function more conveniently, consider disconnecting them temporarily to minimize the opportunities to infiltrate your network.
Multi-factor authentication: More organizations are moving toward MFA in all cases, but particularly for remote work, ensure the devices connecting to the network belong to actual people within your organization.
McGraw Hill kicks off its nationwide call for nominations for the second annual ALEKS All-Star Educator Awards. The 2020 ALEKS All-Star Educator Awards will honor two K-12 teachers and two higher education instructors who have applied the ALEKS program to achieve exceptional results and improve their students’ progress.
For more than 20 years, McGraw Hill ALEKS has helped educators in math and chemistry to quickly and accurately zero in on exactly which topics students understand and which topics they need help with, empowering teachers to deliver the most effective instruction possible. Built on the theory of “knowledge spaces” from cognitive science, ALEKS (Assessment and LEarning in Knowledge Spaces) uses artificial intelligence to create personalized and dynamic learning paths for K-20 students based on their unique needs.
To date, ALEKS has helped more than 20 million students at thousands of K-12 schools, colleges and universities throughout the world.
McGraw Hill is accepting nominations for the ALEKS All-Star Educator Awards from August 3 through November 16, 2020 at mheonline.com/aleks-allstars.
Nominees can be any educators who have demonstrated the following:
Used ALEKS to reshape the way they interact with students in order to drive more effective teaching and learning.
Measurably improved outcomes for students using a combination of ALEKS and other teaching techniques.
Helped increase STEM success rates for all students.
Gone above and beyond to help unlock the full potential of learners at their schools, using ALEKS.
Implemented an innovative and unique teaching style using ALEKS.
The winning educators will each receive a $1,000 donation from McGraw Hill to an education-focused non-profit or charity of their choice, as well as a $250 gift card and a collection of McGraw Hill Professional books. Winners will be announced in early January 2021.
“We’re inspired every day by the creative and innovative ways educators integrate ALEKS into their curricula to truly unlock the potential of their students and ensure a personalized approach to their education,” said Simon Allen, McGraw Hill CEO. “This awards program is just one way we can honor those who work so hard to ensure each student has the opportunity and tools to succeed.”
McGraw Hill and TutorMe, a subsidiary of Zovio, an online education platform offering on-demand tutoring, will expand their work together in 2020 to offer college students using the McGraw Hill Connect digital learning platform a free 60-minute tutoring session with TutorMe.
As online and blended learning continues to be the new normal for many students, the collaboration between McGraw Hill and TutorMe seeks to ensure that students receive the support they need and remain engaged as their learning environment shifts throughout the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Through the partnership, students will receive a one-hour, one-on-one tutoring session free of charge. TutorMe live tutors are available 24/7 and highly trained in the relevant subject matter to help foster deep student understanding and fluency.
Tutoring sessions will be available to users of the McGraw Hill Connect digital courseware in an effort to elevate college students’ online learning experience. Connect digital courseware adapts in real-time to a student’s activity and adjusts to the individual’s performance and confidence levels. As students identify areas where they are struggling, they will be able to access a TutorMe tutor to help them address comprehension and coursework challenges. McGraw Hill registered more than 4.3 million college student activations of Connect in its 2020 fiscal year.
The TutorMe support is the newest capability being made available to students through McGraw Hill digital course materials, which are designed to improve learning outcomes for students, while ensuring affordability and high value. TutorMe and McGraw Hill offered a pilot program in the fall of 2019 in four course areas and are now expanding the program offer to all Connect courses.
“We believe in providing all students with the tools and support they need to succeed, no matter where they start,” said Michael Ryan, President of Higher Education at McGraw Hill. “And this is especially important with online learning programs continuing to expand due to COVID-19. By making TutorMe tutoring available to all students who use Connect, more students will have access to help when they need it.”
“TutorMe and McGraw Hill share a foundational commitment to the academic success of students,” said Myles Hunter, CEO and co-founder of TutorMe. “We are excited that following an initial trial program, McGraw Hill has decided to offer TutorMe to all its Connect students. Their decision speaks volumes to their commitment to putting their students’ learning first.
What does “security” mean in the context of a school? Until recently, the first things that came to mind were probably physical security technologies like surveillance cameras, metal detectors, access control stations, and even just good old fashioned locks.
But the recent COVID-19 crisis has changed that: because of the nationwide shift toward remote learning that the pandemic has prompted, schools have been forced to reevaluate their cybersecurity policies and requirements as they work to keep their data safe amid increased reliance on videoconferencing, learning management portals, and other online educational tools.
Distance Learning Tools in the Spotlight
One of the first security concerns to gain public attention was the vulnerability of the web’s most popular videoconferencing tools. Zoom, in particular, gained notoriety for the problem of “Zoom Bombing,” where random individuals would be able to drop into meetings run by others without being invited.
With much of the population working from home and relying on remote web conferencing tools, Zoom saw a massive spike in daily users, 10 million in December 2019 to 200 million in March 2020—a dramatic increase that put the previously small problem of Zoom Bombing into the public eye.
Zoom has, fortunately, implemented additional security controls specifically designed to combat Zoom Bombing, but these controls are optional and must be selected by the user. This underscores the need for effective training.
It isn’t fair to pick on Zoom, of course—in fact, Zoom’s problems highlight one of the biggest struggles facing both schools and businesses specializing in remote learning tools. Such a massive spike in remote users over a short period of time means that IT departments lacked the time to evaluate the security controls for remote learning products, and the makers of those products may not have had time to refine those controls for such heavy use.
Learning management systems (LMS) are a great example of this. Used to store grades and enable students to remotely turn in homework, LMS have long been a convenient tool for schools; however, they have generally had the benefit of operating within the safety of the school’s network. And although a bored student might occasionally attempt to hack their grades, LMS platforms have generally not been in the crosshairs for cyberattackers.
With only 115 people working as part of the central IT and technology support teams, the University of Memphis requires careful management to provide the highest level of support to its substantial customer base.
Sue Hull-Toye leads the public-facing operations of the division. Until recently, her teams relied upon several disconnected systems to perform ticket tracking, case review, user support, and data collection. The result was a clunky process that provided little benefit to students or employees.
The situation required change.
Taking on the multitude of disparate technologies
Before changing solutions, the university employed multiple disparate, and somewhat ineffective, technologies cobbled together to power the service desk.
By attempting to integrate multiple, unrelated tools, IT actually outsmarted itself and created barriers of complexity. “We invested heavily in technology and further modified what we had,” says Hull-Toye. “We built a Swiss watch when a sundial would have been adequate,” said Robert Johnson, associate CIO, “and doing so created as much of an internal burden as it was supposed to solve.”
Moreover, the university’s service desk team worked much harder than necessary, especially on tasks that should have been simple – all because of the solutions employed to manage them. “We spent too much money and time ‘solving’ some problems while inadvertently creating more problems than we solved,” explains Hull-Toye.
Johnson said that the most demanding challenges received the least attention because of the work required to manage these tasks, tickets, and assets across multiple systems.
Data reporting suffered tremendously.
When the university’s CIO asked IT directors to review current information about ticket management, service requests, and response rates, they discovered correlated, traceable data was hard to come by.
Vishal Raina, CEO and founder of California-based YoungWonks, shares his thoughts on tips for delivering the best virtual learning experience during COVID-19:
1. Arrange for a good internet connection: Given that the class is now taking place online, it is imperative to make sure that your internet connection is not patchy. It would be a good idea to perhaps even have a backup of sorts (through an Internet hotspot dongle) in case your home WiFi isn’t doing a good enough job.
2. Ensure total online privacy and safety: Every online teacher needs to recognise the utmost need to ensure this, especially given recent instances of Zoombombing (Zoombombing refers to unwanted intrusions into video conference calls which in turn cause disruption).
a) For starters, the instructor should not allow students / attendees to use fake names while logging in, particularly in online classrooms where students prefer not to switch on their video. This, along with keeping tabs on the final list of attendees expected to join the class, will help weed out any walk-ins/ unregistered participants.
b) Many video conferencing platforms have an online waiting room; so it may be a good idea to have students wait in such an online room, before their attendance is vetted and they are allowed to join the actual online class.
c) Several online meeting platforms allow meetings or classes to be conducted without the need for a password. This should be avoided and instead, instructors should create passwords for signing into the admin account which allows them to start the online class. They should take care to use a strong, unique password, preferably one not used anywhere else; especially since these meetings are attended by kids and student privacy is a sensitive matter that deserves serious attention.
3. Pick a plain background for the online class: Like in a physical classroom, it would do well to have minimal distractions so that students can focus on the subject at hand. In a virtual classroom, the instructor can do so by picking a plain / white background to sit or stand against and teach. In fact, several meeting platforms offer in-built virtual backgrounds.
4. Enable drawing on screen on a case-by-case basis: A good way of enforcing discipline in an online class is to not enable the drawing feature for all students in your class. Before the class begins, it would be good to disable this and allow students to draw on screen after they seek permission from you to do so. This will ensure that kids get to draw only when needed. Allowing all students to draw, instead of letting them do so on a case-by-case basis – can lead to unwarranted nuisance and waste of crucial class time.
5. Hosting rights: The host of an online meeting (read: classroom in this case) typically has many overruling rights and hence it is important to make sure that these rights are not misused or passed on easily. To begin with, it is recommended to disable the “join before host” feature, which means no one will be able to join the online class in the absence of the teacher. This will ensure better student supervision. Similarly, it is also advised to avoid sharing host rights with students. Often the settings in video conference apps are such that the meeting host changes automatically in the event of the original host having a weak Internet connection. It would be wise to change such a default setting so that the hosting rights do not pass on to a student in the online class.
6. Clamping down on unnecessary chatting between students: Much like in a physical classroom, it is important to contain the distractions and one way of doing this is making sure that the chat settings are in order. This means that the chats in the online classroom should be sent to everyone and individual/ private chats between students is disabled. Muting all students by default is also a standard move in an online classroom. Of course, the teacher would have to keep telling students to unmute themselves before talking and mute themselves after talking.
7. Encourage use of the raise hand feature: In digital classrooms, teachers must explain and encourage the use of raise hand features provided by the online meeting platforms. Often too many students have a query or a point to be made at the same time and the raise hand feature comes in handy in such situations. It basically keeps track of the order in which hands were raised and allows students to speak up accordingly.
8. Use breakout rooms whenever needed: In digital classrooms where you wish to break up your students into smaller groups, using a virtual breakout room is a good idea. This will allow students to split into smaller sets where they can work on their project / assignment even as the teacher gets to move between groups and keep track of each group’s progress. However, such virtual breakout rooms are ideal for older, self-driven kids that do not need constant monitoring.
9. Take time out to explain how an online class works: This may sound trivial, except it is far from it. Even in today’s day and age, many students may find it tough to log into an online class; this is particularly true for younger students. To avoid the ensuing confusion and waste of time, it is better for teachers to follow a standard protocol where they start out by devoting a few minutes to explaining how a digital classroom works, what are the different features being offered by the video conference platform, how the mute and unmute buttons work, and so on. At least in the initial sessions, it would be a good idea to do so.
10. Streamlining the publication of online handouts, assignments: With students no longer turning in their assignments on paper, schools need to figure out a convenient way in which students can submit their online handouts and assignments. Platforms such as Google Classroom, EdOptim are ideal as these are feature-packed school management softwares that facilitate the above in a smooth manner.
11. Sending out meeting links on time: Teachers should take care to email meeting links well before the class is scheduled to begin. Often parents and students just end up waiting for the meeting link and join the class a lot later so it certainly helps if one is organised about sending these links. Often, parents may request that teachers do not change the meeting link as it is convenient for everyone to just go to the same one each time. But it is important for teachers to evaluate the pros and cons of doing so. While retaining the same link is no doubt convenient and can be time-saving (it does away with the need to send out a new one for each session), doing so also increases the chances of non-participants joining the session. In case of meetings with unique links, it is important for teachers to send them across well in advance and not at the last minute.
12. Opt for meeting platforms where distance learning is integrated into the student portal itself: A meeting that can be logged into by accessing the link from a student portal is typically more secure than one where one awaits the link to be shared via a different channel. Also, accessing the link from a password-protected portal also means there is no need for a link to be generated by the teacher hosting each session. This in turn helps avoid outsiders and a scenario where parents and students end up waiting for the said meeting link.