Creating a Virtual Classroom and School

With an increasing level of Coronavirus / COVID-19 infections transmitting via “community spread”, many schools are planning for the likelihood of closings that could range from days to weeks. Distance learning and virtual classrooms can mitigate the impact. The challenge is getting the systems, resources, and training in place quickly, before they are needed. Here is brief guide to planning and execution.

Understand the Experience

Virtual learning is not the same educational experience as a live classroom.  When looking to educate students at home, do not expect teachers to live stream lessons and manage feedback and responses via chat or even video conference.  While this approach can work for meeting, it is unrealistic to expect that students will have the ability to participate or that teachers will be comfortable presenting and managing feedback.

For districts that have already created online learning systems for “alternate learning days”, most assignments take the form of assigned reading, videos, or activities paired with a means of demonstrating execution and understanding.  Online quizzes, writing assignments, photo submissions, etc. are all ways that students can demonstrate they have completed the work and understand the materials.

With so many schools using Google Classroom, it is important to remember that Google Classroom is a tool that coordinates materials and activities between teachers and students.  Parents generally do not have accounts or access.  Successful online learning platforms provide a portal for parents and students to find and locate their students’ teachers and the materials.

Ensure Your District is Ready

Before launching a virtual learning system, you want to make sure your district is ready.

  • Do you have the policies and procedures in place to launch online/remote learning?
    • Several states have specific requirements.
    • You may need your School Board or governing body to vote in policies to comply with state laws and regulations
  • Do students have an appropriate device they can work on?  If you do not have a 1:1 program and are relying on students to use home computers, you should survey your population to ensure that not only is there an appropriate device at home, but the student has sufficient access.
    • Parents may be working from home and need the computer
    • Some families will have multiple children vying for computer time
    • Consider having devices available for loan
  • Do families and students have appropriate Internet access?
    • Depending on your socioeconomic mix (and geographical location), many families’ primary Internet access may be via cell phone or low-speed connection.
    • Consider providing cellular hot-spot devices to families without adequate Internet service (you may be able to add these to existing E-Rate funded programs for cellular data services). Remember that many families will have multiple students and/or parents working from home.
    • Guide teachers on lesson methods. Video may not be a great option if most students will have difficulty streaming
  • Is Google Classroom, or an equivalent tool, in place for all classrooms? Are teachers and students familiar and comfortable using the platform?
    • Now is the time to verify that every classroom or class is setup and that students and faculty can assess and use the tool.  It is hard to provide access codes and help students “get in” remotely; spend some class time verifying everyone will be able to work.
  • Are teachers comfortable using the online tools?
    • Most districts using G Suite for Education, as an example, have varying levels of adoption.  Some teachers are more comfortable using features such as live chat, interactive comments, and online assessments and automatic grading.  Faculty that are not using these features need to learn and practice before these tools become a necessity.
    • Many teachers use online learning tools outside of Google Classroom and G Suite / Google Docs.  Faculty should share tools they are using for quizes, study guides, flashcards, etc. so that teachers have a library of tools.  Identify teachers that can help others learn and use these tools to create a support network.
  • Do you have a portal that guides parents and students?
    • A simple portal, organized by school, grade, and/or subject matter with a page for each teacher/class provides parents and students with an easy way to navigate and access the materials for each teacher or class.
    • Beyond links to the Google Classroom pages, teacher/class pages can include links to other resources, such as:
      • Online reading assignments
      • Videos
      • Other learning apps
      • Kahn Academy lessons
    • You can create a simple portal system in Google Sites or, more easily via Google Drive using tools like OverDRIVE.
  • Set clear expectations
    • Teachers and staff should understand that remote/alternate learning days are full school days
    • Teachers should be working a full day equivalent to being in school, even if the hours and timing are different.

Plan Lessons Carefully

Preparing lessons for online and remote learning differs from prep for a live classroom.

  • Districts should set guidelines for how long each lesson should run.  Typically, this is done by grade range with younger students having shorter assignments.
    • Remember that teachers are not there to engage and keep students focused.
    • Asking a 3rd grader to work independently for 40 minutes may not be a realistic expectation.
    • Break work into smaller segments.
  • Create guidelines for total time on “school work” for each day, knowing that work for each class or subject will add up.
  • Take advantage of multiple learning modalities.
    • Deploy a mix of reading, videos, forms, writing, etc. to keep students engaged and to allow for individual learning styles and strengths
  • Design lessons children can do on their own
    • Do not assume that parents, if present, will have the time or ability to facilitate the process or help with the work.

Communicate and Support

Students, and parents, will have questions and will need help.

  • Make sure students and parents have, or can easily find, teacher email addresses and, if appropriate phone numbers.
  • Teachers should set and publish blocks of time each day when they are available via live chat (and, if possible, video chat) to assist students with questions and assignments.
  • Teachers should monitor and respond to questions via email throughout the day within a reasonable amount of time.  For a student struggling to understand something, an hour to get a question answered feels like an eternity.
  • Teachers should publish times when they will NOT be available for live chat and will NOT be answering emails.  It is fair and necessary for teachers to set expectations and boundaries.
  • If student devices and bandwidth allow, schedule some live group video meetings to allow students and teachers to see each other, interact, and engage.

Be Equitable

Equity goes beyond making sure students have devices and adequate access. Students with special accommodations in the classroom or school setting will need comparable accommodations when working remotely. Providing an equitable learning experience for students with specific needs and support is a major challenge.  And while it may not be possible to recreate in-school supports, you can take steps to ensure sufficient supports or alternative programs are in place for most students.

Remember Your Specials

Physical education, art, and music are an important part of your students’ day, even if they are learning from home.

  • Assign physical activity for students and have them provide a photo/video or parent note to confirm completion.  One district we work with provided 15 minute fitness videos for students to do and counted shoveling snow as an activity. Students submitted a picture or parents submitted a confirmation form.
  • Ask students in general music classes to listen to music and answer a few short questions.
  • For students in choral or instrumental groups, assign practice pieces.  Periodically ask for videos or other evidence of their efforts.

Monitor Program Effectiveness

Regardless of the amount of preparation, resources, and training you put in place, you will have issues and challenges.

  • Actively solicit feedback from students, teachers, staff, and parents about your online learning system and processes.
  • Learn what is working and where improvements, guidance, or changes are necessary
  • Respond to feedback appropriately and quickly, even if the response is “We understand the issue, but do not have a solution yet.”

If parents, students, and teachers trust that their issues and concerns are being heard and will be addressed, the entire learning community will be more tolerant and forgiving as issues do arise.

Ask for Help

Do not forget to ask for help.  Reach out to districts in your area that already have online learning systems and policies in place.  Most are happy to share what they have and what they’ve learned.

Contact us.  No kidding,  We are here to help.  Training, support, networking, or resources.  Take advantage of our expertise and our network of resources.

Data Protection

Customer Notice Update: Email Advanced Threat Protection

Data ProtectionGiven the demand and need to improve your protection from the devastating impact of ransomware, crypto attacks, and other forms of cyber attacks we are extending the Advanced Threat Protection Priority Opt-in discount period through March, 2020. We understand that adding a service, even a critical service, impacts your budget and costs. Our Priority Opt-In discounts, and other measures (see below), intend to minimize the impact.

Email Advanced Threat Protection (ATP) and Multi-factor authentication (MFA) are necessary, baseline services for protecting your business

Beginning April 1, 2020, we require Advanced Threat Protection for all of our customers’ email service, unless you specifically opt out. Opting out is appropriate if you already have an advanced threat protection service in place.

If you opt out, the cost of our data recovery efforts will not be covered under our unlimited support plans (See our Support Services SLA). When we add ATP to your service, we will discuss with you when we can add MFA.

We will mitigate the cost.

We are sensitive to your budget.

  • ATP requires a technical setup and typically incurs a setup fee along with the monthly or annual subscription.
  • We are discounting both the setup and subscription fees for all customers. For customers requesting Priority Opt-In, we will waive the ATP related setup fees completely.
  • MFA implementation is covered by our support plans as an administrative change.  If you do not have on of our support plans, we will provide an affordable, discounted quote for the project.
  • For customers without an unlimited support plan and/or those that choose to Opt-Out, we will discount our hourly fees for recovery work.

For more information on specific discounts and pricing, and to let us know if you want to Opt-In, to have Priority Opt-In, or to Opt-Out, please visit this web page and complete the form.

We realize that this is a significant change for most of our customers.  We also understand the importance of these protections.  Please contact us with questions or concerns

Thank you for being part of our community,
Allen Falcon
CEO & Pragmatic Evangelist

Managing Chrome the Education Upgrade Price Increase

On January 22, 2020, Google is informing all Chrome Education Upgrade (aka Chrome Management Service) users that that perpetual per-device license price is increasing from $30 to $38 dollars, effective March 9, 2020.

While Google is not unreasonable in raising prices to ensure continued innovation and feature expansion, the timing of the increase is problematic for many schools.  With fiscal years starting July 1, schools and districts have drafted or completed their budgets for the upcoming year.  The timing of the increase impacts purchases planned for the end of this fiscal/school year as well.

Cumulus Global will help you manage the price increase.

You can order your Chrome Education Upgrade / Management licenses now, before the price increase.  Based on your quantity, we are offering discounts up to 10% or more off the current $30 price.  If you are unable to purchase the licenses now, you can also request a binding quote and receive similar discounts off the $38 price through August 31, 2020.

Please complete the form, below, and request your quote.


Request your quote …

5 Ways We Can Lower Your Chrome Device Costs

As part of our ChromeCycle Program, we help you manage the total cost of ownership of your Chrome devices. Here are five (5) ways we can lower the purchase cost for your next round of Chrome devices.

  1. Preregister Your Purchase: We can often secure preferred pricing when we preregister your intended purchase with your preferred Chrome device manufacturer. Letting your manufacturer know now how many units you plan to buy later helps them plan production and distribution. Some of those savings come back to you.
     
  2. Competitive Bidding: If you do not have a preferred Chrome device manufacturer, we can bid your intended purchased out across manufacturers and distributors to obtain the best purchase price possible.
  3. Trade-In: Trading in devices at the end of their life cycle can lower the cost of refreshing your devices by as much as 20%. We can estimate trade-in value now, to help with your budgets for purchases later in the year.
     
  4. Buy-Back: Even if you are not buying your refresh fleet from us, we can buy back devices you are retiring. The international market for used devices and parts can save you money.
  5. Financing Services: We work with multiple finance partners to offer both finance and fair market value leasing options. We can put your purchase financing out to bid to help get the best rate and terms possible.

Click here to learn more about our ChromeCycle services, or contact us for a no-obligation Cloud Advisor consultation.


 

Google+ Changes: What you need to know

In December 2018, Google announced that the consumer version of Google+ is shutting down in April 2019.  As the usage lines between the consumer and business versions of Google+ have often been blurry, we want to clear up some of the confusion following the notices you may be getting from Google.

What is happening?
  • The consumer version of Google+ is going away.
    • If employees have setup Google+ accounts or communities not using their G Suite account, this content will be deleted.
    • If you have a Google+ circles or communities with “consumer” members, these users will be removed along with their content
  • You will no longer be able to create public communities outside of your G Suite domain.
  • The business version of Google+ is changing. You will no longer have pages, events, or the “tagline” profile field within the Google+ service.
  • If you cancel your G Suite service, all content in Google+ will be removed
What should you do?

The first step is to ask your users if they are using Google+ and, if so, how they are using the service.  If Google+ is not in use, no action is required.  If Google+ is in use, your next steps are determined by how you are using the service.

Google is updating the download tools for Google+ in March to include author, body, and photos for every post.  Once this is available, plan to download and save content you want to keep …

  • Posts from Google+ communities outside your G Suite Domain owned or managed by your users
  • Google+ Pages and Events of any type
  • Your Google+ tagline (download your profile)

In addition, you will want to:

  • Upgrade the Google+ Android app between Feb 22nd and March 7th.  After March 7, 2019, the current versions of the app will be unsupported.
  • Remove any Google+ gadgets from any classic Google Sites you may have
  • Have users opt out of the Google Play Services Public Beta Program to avoid issues with other Google apps, such as Email and Hangouts

As always, feel free to contact us with any questions.

 

Uncertainty

For 2019: Focus on Outcomes

UncertaintyAs we close out 2018, we reflect on a year that has been a bit of a wild ride.  For our customers, we clearly are leaving a period of sustained growth into more uncertain economic times. At the macro level, the economy shows competing signs of growth and contraction. Our political climate is less certain and predictable.

We Live in Uncertain Times

Economies and business climates vary by region. Taking a look at a non-scientific survey of businesses in central New England (Worcester Business Journal, Central Massachusetts Economic Forecast 2019, December 24, 2019), we get a pulse of where are are and where we may be going. We also see a new way forward for small and midsize organizations looking to weather whatever stormy or calm seas may be in our future.

  • Only 35% see the economy improving in 2019, while 65% see the economy stagnating or declining in the coming year.  This is a significant change from a year ago when 65% expected the economy to improve.
  • While the number of business leaders who believe the economy has improved over the past year is at 77%, the number of those uncertain of our current economic health more than doubled from 7% for 2018 to 15% for 2019.
  • On the positive side, the number of business leaders expecting to hire additional staff in 2019 jumped to 49% from 40% a year ago.
  • At the same time, 72% of those surveyed are “very concerned” about finding qualified talent to hire, a major increase from only 50% of hiring employers a year ago.

In short, we see the economy as having improved over the past year, but are uncertain what course it will chart in 2019.  Many of us plan on growing but are concerned about being able to find, hire, and retain the right people.

Charting a Course

Economic uncertainty can, and sometimes should, cause us to pause and re-evaluate our plans. We often see businesses reacting quickly and pulling the plug or delaying technology projects and changes. Often, these decisions make it more difficult for you to manage changes you want or need to make in order to adapt to a changing business climate. Here are some thoughts on evaluating technology decisions during changing or uncertain times.

  • Understand What is Possible
    2018 is the year in which Machine Learning, AI, and Bots came into the mainstream. These technologies can, when deployed properly, can improve operations, expand the productivity of your workforce, and mitigate operating costs.
  • Remember the Cloud
    Most small businesses have not yet fully adopted a cloud computing strategy. Cloud computing is a means to scale IT resources and costs to the size of your business without sacrificing features, capabilities, or security.
  • Focus on Outcomes
    Don’t worry about the technology, focus on the outcome. What do you want to achieve? What do you need to happen? How do you want things to be different after making a change? Understand and clearly define the endpoint, as this will drive how you define and manage the projects and changes that will get you from Point A to Point B. Let the outcome guide priorities and, subsequently, the technologies and changes needed to make a difference.
  • Balance the Quantitative and Qualitative
    Not all outcomes will have a specific dollar value.  When deciding on outcomes, consider the near-term and long-term value to your business. Employee engagement and satisfaction improves retention. Automating repetitive tasks improves productivity. Training and support improves morale and fosters innovation.
  • Consider All Opportunities
    “Cut to Survive” rarely works.  Look beyond quick hits and savings. Look for opportunities that: (1) reduce operating expenses; (2) improve team and individual productivity; (3) simplify your IT services; (4) differentiate your business in your markets; (5) help employees do their jobs better; (6) improve customer service and engagement; (7) empower team collaboration and innovation; and/or (8) help you better understand your business and the metrics that measure success.

Change, particularly in uncertain times, often come with increased risks. Deciding to invest or make changes is more difficult. Not doing anything, however, is a decision.  It is a decision to NOT actively manage how your business moves forward; it is a decision to let external forces determine your future. How you move forward may require more thought and analysis, but continue to move forward.


We are here to help!  Wondering how you can get more value from your current IT services, cloud solutions, or emerging technologies?  Contact us to schedule a complementary Cloud Advisor session. 


Drive-by Downloads

This post is part of our Cyber Threat Series.

The Challenge:

Drive-by downloads are exploit kits that download invisibly from infected websites. These websites may be malicious sites built for malware distribution or trusted sites infected by hackers. Many of these attacks take advantage of weaknesses in popular software and tools, including video players, Java, and Adobe Reader.

Downloads may install and run other malware or may themselves be malicious. Many drive-by downloads install cryptoware, or ransomware, that encrypts files and holds them for ransom.

What to Do:

User education and web protection are the best protection from drive-by downloads. Cyber-aware users understand the risks and can avoid malicious links and sites. Web protection can prevent unexpected downloads and malicious behavior from reaching your systems and users.

DNS protection and secure DNS services provide additional protection by preventing impersonation, hijacking, and domain level attacks.

 


Contact us to discuss your cyber threat protections. The Cloud Advisory session is complimentary and without obligation.


 

Phishing and Spear Phishing

This post is part of our Cyber Threat Series.

The Challenge:

Cyber criminals prefer Phishing attacks. Phishing and Spear Phishing remain the primary vector for Malware attacks. Hackers evenly distribute attacks between two variants: Malicious Email Attachment (39.9%)  and Malicious Link (37.4%).

Leveraging human nature, phishing attacks look and feel like legitimate emails. Recipient often miss the cues that the email is fraudulent. We respond by clicking links to malicious websites, opening pictures or videos with hidden downloads, or opening infected attachments.

Advanced phishing attacks correlate public information from social media and pirated information from compromised systems to further personalize the attacks. These advanced attacks do a better job of hiding the malicious intent. As such, even savvy users fall prey.

What to Do:

The best protection is multi-level and multi-vector:

  • Teach your users about the risks and how they can help prevent attacks. User awareness leads to smart decisions on when to trust and when it’s safe to click.
  • Protect your devices with “Next Gen” endpoint protection. This includes your desktops, laptops, and mobile devices. Phishing attacks are usually platform independent and, therefore, trigger from most any email client or application.
  • Protect your email with an independent advanced threat protection (ATP) service. ATP covers inbound and outbound traffic.  ATP uses pre-analysis and testing of links and attachments for mismatched domains, copycat content, and malicious behavior. This “sandboxing” lets the ATP service block attacks from reaching your inbox.
  • Add a DNS and Web Protection solution to your environment.  Web protection blocks infected or fraudulent web sites, including blocking malware on infected sites we trust. DNS protection prevents hackers from corrupting and using your domain identities.
  • Deploy backup/recovery and continuity services that protect your on-premise and cloud data. Should an attack make it through your protections, you should be able to keep your business running while you clean up the damage.

Contact us to discuss your cyber threat protections. The Cloud Advisory session is complimentary and without obligation.


 

Brute Force Attack

This post is part of our Cyber Threat Series.

The Challenge:

Hackers use Brute Force Attacks to target a single service exposed to the Internet, including Remote Desktop, Outlook Web Access, and email services. Brute Force Attacks gain access by trying every viable access method or password.

Hackers use these attacks to access your data or to install other malware within your systems. Patient hackers space out attempts; they are difficult to notice or detect. When hackers rush, the impact can be similar to a DDOS attack.

Hackers can launch Brute Force Attacks externally or from malware-infected systems on your network. Internal attacks often target specific systems and vulnerabilities, such as SQL Server and SQL Injection vulnerabilities.

What to Do:

Require robust passwords; they are your first protection from Brute Force Attacks. Put controls in place to enforce best-practice password structure and expiring passwords can thwart an attack.

Deploy Multi-Factor Authentication. MFA creates and additional level of protection since a compromised password is not sufficient for access.

To protect against internal attacks, ensure systems run current operating system versions. Keep all systems current with patches and updates.

Deploy “Next Gen” protections to keep Brute Force Attack malware from making it onto your servers and clients:

  • Advanced threat protection (ATP) for email
  • Endpoint and mobile device protection
  • DNS security and protection
  • Web protection and filtering

 


Contact us to discuss your cyber threat protections. The Cloud Advisory session is complimentary and without obligation.


 

Distributed Denial of Service Attacks

This post is part of our Cyber Threat Series.

The Challenge:

Cyber criminals can cripple your business without every breaching your security. By using systems and botnets, they blast garbage Internet traffic at your public IP address(es).  The Denial of Service Attack is distributed (hence the name) across many sources, making it more difficult to block.

DDOS attacks stop your Internet traffic. They block communications and access to applications and services. In some cases, DDOS attackers demand ransom payments to halt the attack.

What to Do:

Move your computing to cloud services. Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and other public cloud providers build their networks to prevent DOS attacks.  They have multiple entry points and routes to their services and manage multiple layers of DDOS protections.

Upgrade to “Next Gen” routers with improved DDOS protections. These routers can identify attacks and help reroute your Internet traffic around the attack.

Add an alternate Internet connection.  Having a second connection can allow your network traffic to circumvent the attack or can provide a failover connection when needed.

Maintain strong endpoint protection to prevent botnet malware from being installed on internal systems.

Subscribe to hosted DDOS services that can route traffic around, and prevent, DDOS attacks.

 


Contact us to discuss your cyber threat protections. The Cloud Advisory session is complimentary and without obligation.