By Desi Stoops, vice president for state government and transport sales, Windstream Enterprise.
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:
A unified communications-as-a-service (UCaaS) solution designed for the education environment. We’re hearing every day that the biggest benefit of a UCaaS solution is the ability of teachers and administrators to remain accessible without having to share their personal cell number. This can be achieved through a UCaaS solution that enables users to make and receive calls on the school number, via a smartphone app or web interface.
In addition, districts need a comprehensive UCaaS platform that gives them the ability to access multiple communications channels, including audio, video and web conferencing (for virtual classrooms — more on that in a moment), as well as phone features such as calls, chat, video conferencing and SMS text messaging. The UCaaS platform should also enable them to place and receive calls and participate in conference calls, as well as check voicemails, chat with other internal users and see the presence of users from anywhere.
Virtual classroom capability. There’s no substitute for live, face-to-face engagement between teachers and their students — even when they’re not in the same room together. A quality virtual classroom environment can foster that kind of engagement by equipping teachers and students with a range of user-friendly features and tools. At the very least, the platform should enable private conferencing on a closed network, so every instructor can get their own secure virtual classroom and staff can conduct classes simultaneously, with video, audio and web conference capabilities that can be enabled via a phone, computer or mobile device.
The virtual classroom should include features that mirror the physical classroom setting: hand-raising, non-verbal emoji feedback, white-boarding, screen-sharing, real-time annotation and attention-tracking.
Look for a solution that facilitates small group breakouts within the virtual classroom session (and the ability of the teacher to check in on individual groups before seamlessly reconvening the full class) and offers teachers the ability to make real-time comprehension checks by creating and launching multiple-choice polling questions.
It’s also important that the platform enable mobile access via iOS and Android for students without Internet at home.
Robust, multi-layered security. The many reports of virtual classroom apps being “hijacked” by online intruders highlights the importance of security in the context of remote learning. The first step in preventing hackers from gaining access is to be sure the security features and settings within the app are being utilized appropriately.
This is largely a matter of training teachers and staff (more on that in moment). Also, with increased network traffic come new vulnerabilities — to DDoS attacks, etc. Look for a UCaaS solution with enterprise-grade, multi-level security, including ability to encrypt meetings and provide additional security controls for administrators.
Basic tech training to support teachers and staff. Having a best-in-class UCaaS solution, security and virtual classroom capabilities means little unless teachers and staff are well-versed in the basic operation, features and functionalities of these tools.
Indeed, training and ongoing support can be as important to the success of a remote learning program as the technology itself. The most successful deployment of a UCaaS solution in an educational environment is well-supported by the service provider through real-time training, troubleshooting and online resources, as well as dedicated account management.
Engaging a full-service provider can help facilitate seamless integration of all components of a hosted virtual learning environment, and reduce the burden on IT staff managing several single-function solutions. Additionally, dedicated account support ensures districts maximize ROI and the ultimate success of the students and teachers using it.
As districts transition from crisis mode to longer-range planning for virtual learning environments, it’s important to choose a secure solution that offers the flexibility, functionality and support that districts require in their mission to maintain the familiar cadence of learning for their students, in any setting.