From Wuhan to Weybridge and Woking

19 May 2020

A Twitter poll recently conducted by consumer champion Martin Lewis found that 60% of respondents were the same or better off financially as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Had Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos taken part, he would have been in that 60%, too. To rub it in, the American entrepreneur added a mere $24bn (£19bn) to his fortune as the demand for online shopping sent Amazon’s stock price to an all-time high, propping up the retail sector in the process.

At the other end of the spectrum, a number of sectors face challenges they’ve never seen before. Take the domino effect in education: schools closing, working parents having to balance doing their jobs with home-schooling, schools having to resort to emergency teaching, furloughing ‘non-essential’ staff. You get the picture.

While the closure of schools and when they should re-open are moot points at many a 10 Downing Street press briefing, one thing less talked about is just how schools, colleges, universities and any other academic institution you care to mention are progressing with what’s been the most debilitating ‘attack’ on our freedoms since World War II. Even from 1939-1945, most schools were moved to country hotels, homes and estates in that very British manner of keeping a stiff upper lip, keeping calm and carrying on. With that in mind, you could argue that the true litmus test of how prepared schools are for ‘war’ is now.

The good news is august tech firms have done their bit by offering up key services for free. TeamViewer, the secure remote connectivity vendor, is providing schools its Blizz solution at no cost. It allows teachers and professors to conduct interactive lessons in a virtual classroom environment with up to 50 participants, either via video or telephone.

However, it’s one thing having all this at your disposal, but you also need to be experienced and skilled in using it.

Sarah Evans (pictured above), head teacher at Weston Green School (WGS) in Thames Ditton, says a sound remote/distance learning strategy was already in place at her school, courtesy of parent company Bellevue Education.

“Due to the significant investment in computing hardware and a group wide strategy to utilise the Google toolkit, we were well prepared to extend this to remote learning at very short notice,” she says. “Being a member of a national group of schools, many meetings, discussions, shared training etc. had already been achieved through the use of Google Meet and Hangouts as well as consistent use of Google Drive to share documents.”

Evans adds that many staff and children were already familiar with this system and so “the extension to remote learning therefore focussed on upskilling all staff, sharing skills and techniques around live and recorded lessons” and getting the balance right for children in terms of their overall experience across the week.

“We are a school with children from three-11 and therefore the ways in which the Google toolkit has been utilised demanded a progressive and differentiated approach across the school,” she continues. “We have also taken time to add in apps which will support ease of use, such as Kami and Jamboard and trained staff to use these.”

Sir William Perkins’s School (SWPS) in nearby Chertsey was also prepared for distance learning, says senior deputy head Sherry Husselbury. However, it wasn’t without its teething problems.

“We had a system for uploading work via Firefly (a learning platform) which was in place to ensure that learning could continue on ‘snow days’ or other weather extremes,” she adds. “This would have been successful in the short term but actually proved to be catastrophic as the system ‘fell over’ on the first day of the school closures because of the high volume of traffic experienced globally. They dutifully worked up their capacity in a very short time (two days) but we had to abandon that process as our #1 system.”

Fortunately, just before the closure, the school’s IT network support manager recommended switching over to Microsoft Teams, which was enabled across SWPS. The school then quickly wrote some protocols and had assemblies to introduce it to students. “I am staggered at the rate colleagues were able to upskill in this previously unused area and in no time, it was in wide use across the curriculum,” adds Husselbury. “Other tools such as OneNote, Explain Everything and other apps have been used with great success too.”

Foresight seems to have been a wonderful thing, with some schools benefitting from having put certain technologies in place much earlier than others. Karl Rivers, director of IT at Royal Grammar School (RGS) in Guildford, says his school put in plans in place for remote learning a few years ago.

“In 2016 RGS began providing all teachers with Microsoft Surface as their primary computer and removed desktop computers from all classrooms,” he says. “At the same time, we moved all our data to services within the Microsoft 365 cloud. The result was that the RGS already had the technology in place to work remotely, and this provided us a smooth transition into distance learning with which has been extremely successful under such difficult circumstances.”

Rivers says Microsoft Teams has been key at his school, describing it as “not only the bedrock of RGS’ distance teaching and learning provision”, but it also provides a platform for all school communication and technical support. “Teams has provided us a single application through which all staff and students can communicate, carry out lessons, and connect the whole school community,” he adds. “From an IT perspective, teachers and students can instantly communicate with the IT team and access remote support.”

Hugh Thomas, computing team lead at Cleves School in Weybridge, says staff and pupils are “well-versed” with the use of the Google Classroom platform and so “it made sense for us to use it as a teaching method. However, it’s been a very different story with video technology. “We stayed away from video conferencing between staff and students as this opened up too many issues regarding safeguarding for both parties,” adds Thomas. “It does also lead to issues for some pupil premium students who may not have access to the technology required.” Cleves uses Securly software, designed for school platforms for its filtering of appropriate material.

The approach to video communication is mirrored at SWPS as staff members were advised against Zoom and Houseparty – both now firmly established in the lockdown lexicon - due to the inability to monitor the provision in-house, not to mention the much-publicised security concerns associated with the platforms, according to network IT manager Luke Halestrap.

“Teams allows the school to run exports of conversations centrally should any concerns be raised, along with being able to block communication with external sources,” he adds.

The importance of cybersecurity cannot be emphasised enough, especially when minors are concerned and Evans says when at school, and this holds different connotations when remote learning, so amendments to policy as well as guidance for families and staff have all been issued to ensure children are protected as far as possible.

Foresight seems to have been a wonderful thing, with some schools benefitting from having put certain technologies in place much earlier than others

Foresight seems to have been a wonderful thing, with some schools benefitting from having put certain technologies in place much earlier than others

“Our safeguarding concerns were around reliance on firewalls in family homes rather than school, ensuring parents are in the room when teachers have a 1:1 live session with them,” she adds. “Set ups protocols for both staff and parents.”

For Rivers and RGS, the key focus has been on student safeguarding, with a view to “making sure that we provide students a safe online learning experience” which replicates the hardworking but friendly atmosphere they get on site.

“For example, the school can manage who has access to features like chat and video meetings, regardless of their location or the device they are using,” says Rivers. “We can also set a range of policies to ensure that the type of content shared within the school system meets acceptable standards and that where it doesn’t, we can react to it appropriately.”

Universities up and down the country are facing similar challenges as students grapple with   alternative methods of learning and the security issues synonymous with it.

Kevin Curran, senior member of the IEEE and professor of Cybersecurity at Ulster University says the “rapid move towards remote working” raises the risk of increased data breaches for institutions such as universities. “Indeed, they are very similar to other commercial enterprises,” he says. “Universities will have built policies and procedures over many years which protect staff, students and the organisation’s infrastructure. However, unless a significant percentage of staff and students had previous access to proper remote access technologies, there is a real risk of them making bad choices.”

Curran says one of the biggest risks is an increase in ransomware attacks, which, he says “are a serious problem” right now. “Employees may be using non-standard email or messaging systems which fail to properly filter out the emails that carry the threat,” he adds. “University staff could also be tempted to use public Wi-Fi without a virtual private network (VPN).”

VPNs secure data between remote workers and core systems and Curran says, “in an ideal world, organisations would have a ‘zero trust’ network system deployed”. Notwithstanding that, he says this can be difficult to implement in response to Covid-19, “as it should ideally be rolled out in a phased manner”, which entails pilot projects and tweaks in a safe environment before deployment. “However, if an institution has not yet embraced the concepts of privileged access and least privilege, or still uses shared accounts for access, then zero trust is probably not going to work,” adds Curran.

When it comes to staff mobile devices, Curran points out that mobile device management (MDM) is essential to mitigate risks and some software now enables devices to connect to a cloud-based solution which bolsters the existing support.

“Users can log in to these software’s with many different types of accounts, including those which allow multiple users who share a single device to have full control over the Windows Store, VPN, device-wipe capabilities and configuration of enterprise data protection policies,” says Curran. “It also separates personal and corporate data, which can be a useful feature in heavy bring-your-own-device (BYOD) environments and you can choose between data mining (DM), traditional Active Directory (AD) or group policy models.”

While University of Surrey has been conducting lectures, seminars and “face-to-face” appointments using video platform Zoom, technology was already a key part of its modus operandi way before Covid-19 made its way from Wuhan, China to the leafy home county.

“It certainly feels like a self-taught online degree rather than the whole university experience,” says Dionysia Savvas, one of its law undergraduates. “We already have our lectures recorded so we can watch them from home using our university portal. Many materials continue to be provided online such as lecture slides or seminar worksheets. Our reading is also given online through the year anyway.”

Students submit work via its portal, which is accessed by module conveners – and lecturers at the university have given students the option to set up video calls for feedback on work. However, Savvas says that has proved difficult for many students who lack the necessary resources. “The university has offered for some students to borrow laptops and other equipment if need be,” she adds.

Despite the clear disruption to her first year of university life, Savvas says the online lectures are useful because students can communicate with the lecturer and ask open questions to other online participants. “There are some technical difficulties which have delayed certain lectures but other than that it has been simple to use,” she says.

Now, it’s time for that inevitable question: will schools, colleges and universities embrace distance learning going forward even when there is no obvious need?

Thomas says whilst “schools are probably now in a better place than they were regarding having researched methods of engaging with students at home”, he’s not convinced that this will replace the personal input that the student receives in a classroom setting whether from a teacher, teaching assistant or peer.

“Many parents I’m sure will have been surprised by the level of support students need (even high achieving) to attain quality outcomes,” he says. 

“In unusual and special circumstances - the use of technology with distance learning can clearly have a positive impact on students who for whatever reason can’t be in school however this doesn’t supersede the role of the teacher in a classroom. Especially for primary school/vulnerable students, numerous safeguarding issues must be considered in the use of technology.”

What about in higher education? “Personally, I think that the online lectures are useful, but they are not as engaging as actually being present in a physical lecture,” adds Savvas. “I find that learning from home is not always efficient. I like to keep my learning and living spaces separate to maximise concentration and minimise distractions.”

When it comes to the pros of distant/remote learning, Savvas says it’s often easier for students who would ordinarily have to travel to the campus. However, “the cons are simply that the physical presence of being in a lecture or seminar is deducted - it is possible to replicate this atmosphere, but I find it difficult”.

Distance isn’t going to replace the classroom or lecture hall as a preferred method of teaching and learning – certainly not in our lifetime – but it’s reassuring to know it’s there when parents and children need it.