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3 strategies to enable secure and productive learning online

March 18, 2020

5-10%

Of Fremont County students do not have internet access at home
Of Fremont County students do not have internet access at home

Chris Brown, Director of Technology at Fremont County School District #1 in Lander, Wyoming, has been working with his team to prepare for a district-wide shut down. ‘

As a small district in a rural state, Fremont #1 faces some unique challenges—fewer wireless providers, limited connectivity—but much of the advice that Chris has to offer is relevant for districts of all sizes across the country as they prepare to support an extended period of mass remote instruction.

Below, Chris provides shares three strategies with detailed guidance to accommodate teacher and student needs for online learning while keeping the network safe.

1. Reconsider specific policies for devices and accessibility

A smartphone can be a powerful learning platform that can access your LMS and other applications if no other device or internet connection is available. Remind parents to check if they have usage limitations on their data plans.

If you are a one-to-one district or school that doesn’t normally send devices home, be sure that accessories such as chargers, headphones with mics, and external iPad keyboards go home with students.  Let parents know ahead of time what will be coming home with their student.

Note that while most districts should have a solid inventory of what devices are at each school, this information may reside only at the school itself. Consider tracking your inventory when releasing devices to students who normally wouldn’t take them home.

If your district has hotspot devices for student use, plan for their distribution and consider restricting non-educational website access on them to “stretch” your data plans.  This is particularly important in regions of the country where broadband access is constrained by lack of vendors or infrastructure, and the district is paying for a set amount of data each cycle.

Consider your device management policies and make changes if needed. For instance, you will want to allow students to connect to other wireless networks besides your school’s and remove any limitations on camera access for video conferencing. Also, be sure to remove any policies that prohibit students from accessing applications that are typically restricted but have now become necessary for delivering instruction.

Verify that your content filtering solution will allow all students to access necessary sites and content from home. Fremont #1’s filtering solution allows for staff and students to make on-the-fly requests for a site to be unblocked; monitor these requests and quickly resolve them to keep student learning moving forward.

Elementary students are likely to need additional support in connecting with school apps from home, so write clear instructions for their parents. These should include basics, such as how to sign in, how to navigate to each application, and other helpful information.

Consider printing login information (username and password) for each student, as younger students may not remember their credentials when outside of the school environment. If you use an alternate login system, such as Clever, provide QR codes for those using District devices at home, or log-in credentials for accessing your authentication portal. 

2. Address privacy and security concerns

Cybersecurity and privacy protections should always be in place, no matter where the student is situated for learning. District-owned and managed devices hold a distinct advantage when it comes to security and privacy. For example, you can limit sign-ins on managed Chromebooks to only grant access to those with accounts within the district’s G Suite domain, even when used at home.

At Fremont #1, we also choose to prevent student access to non-district email providers, so all communications sent and received on a district-owned device will go through the school’s domain where they can be archived and retrieved if necessary.

For students who are using home computers shared by other family members, clarify in your instructions that students should sign out of their applications when finished. This is important, especially when multiple students live in the same household, as it’s easy for family members to accidentally send email from the wrong account or make edits to assignments that are not their own. 

3. Keep equity and accessibility in mind

Equity is an important, but challenging, consideration when it comes to online learning. In our district, students and parents self-report that 90-95% of homes have internet access. That is a good number, but we need to make sure that the 5-10% doesn’t get left behind with online instruction. “Going to the library” may have previously been an option, but likely not right now.

Possible workarounds for this limitation include may include working offline in G Suite and reconnecting when connectivity is available, saving online class videos in your LMS for access anytime, using USB flash drives to transfer content, or even reverting to paper-based content. If you do need to resort to flash drives or paper, someone will need to coordinate resources (for instance, access to copiers in a closed school).

Guidelines released in 2009 state that if a school makes online learning available for all students during a closure, it will need to attempt to provide services for students with disabilities.

If individual students are not capable of accessing online learning or cannot receive homebound services, the student’s IEP team or Section 504 team must determine whether the student requires compensatory education to make up for skills lost while school was closed. Certain Special Education services would be either very difficult or impossible to provide online.

Many of Fremont #1s applications have built-in accessibility tools (for instance, G Suite’s voice-to-text) and we are sending out reminders to teachers about these tools.  However, some accessibility tools and solutions are designed more for a classroom environment and may not be as useful (or necessary) in a home setting.

There is no doubt that the coming weeks will be an unprecedented, challenging time for us all. But there are deliberate steps that every IT team can take to enable teachers and students to stay connected in a manner that is safe and secure.

Meet the team at Fremont County School District #1: Lander, WY

  • Technology Director
  • 25 years of experience as a technology director in mid-size Wyoming school districts (2,000 students or less).
  • Technology Assistant
  • 5 years with the Tech department
  • Instructional Facilitator
  • 20+ years teaching and facilitating experience working with students and staff at all grade levels and content areas

Additional COVID-19 resources

With rapidly evolving recommendations for preventing the spread of COVID-19, heads of boarding schools are quickly making decisions going beyond those of the traditional K-12 institution. Read the expert insight for five action steps to keep in mind as boarding schools across the globe modify infrastructure and policies to help reduce the risk of infection.

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