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“Online teaching and videoconferencing: how can teachers choose the most appropriate tools?”, by Steven Kolber.

Teachers are all scrambling onto remote learning (or distance learning, or continuous learning, or crisis learning, or the nomenclature of your area) to support and stay connected with their students during this isolating time. The unexpected nature of the events around COVID-19 and the different levels and speeds of responsiveness means that many teachers faced incredibly short timelines to act quickly and transition from standard, face-to-face teaching to a flexible and online form.

In most cases initially, teachers were asked to continue teaching, despite social distancing increasingly becoming an expectation. As the governments of the world slowly sprung into action, shuttering schools and allowing teachers to work, or prepare to work, remotely from their homes the mass movement to online teaching began. Anxious and fearful teachers had a new challenge to focus and fixate on, an almost overnight transition to a form of teaching formerly only attempted or mastered by a small minority of specialist teachers.
 
A good approach to online remote learning requires some combination of these elements:
 
 
 
 
  1. A good sturdy learning management system, a place for instructions and documents to be shared
  2. Technical ability and tools to produce video for asynchronous use
  3. A platform or means to carry out a video conference with a class or tutorial group
 
This piece will focus solely on the platforms that allow teachers to conference with their students via video, as this is, almost certainly the newest element for most K-12 schools.
 
There is of course the broader question of the appropriateness of remote learning for a whole range of populations, including but not limited to, pre-school and primary school aged children, students with a disability, students with limited technology access or access to the internet, as well as all other groups of vulnerable students who will be especially impacted by this virus and its social disruption. These groups are not being overlooked here, and the privilege inherent in this type of advice is not lost on me. Regardless of this fact, this type of information may be useful to teachers in OECD countries who lack technological awareness or are perhaps even taking part in their first online meetings. The unmentioned element of this piece is of course offline and established forms of teaching remotely or without direct human interaction. Education via radio, television, textbook, worksheets and hands-on project work are highly important, but beyond the scope of this piece.
 
With this in mind, the following provides some general guidance around some of the core elements for consideration for online learning, and in particular video conferencing for synchronous learning and meetings. Elements that are often overlooked and a consideration of those elements that have significant import: privacy; cost; data security and teacher-friendly features. These elements are presented graphically, in the hopes that these ideas can be shared widely and made available to those teachers, leaders or administrators who may find them useful.
 
It is also noted that some teachers will already have tools provided and promoted either by their own institutions, their departments or broader government bodies. Still yet, some education systems will indeed be far more advanced around privacy, data security and so forth and many of the options provided here may already be inaccessible, inconvenient or actively blocked in your jurisdiction. 
 
The Key factors: Cost, encryption, data collection
 
The elements of cost are highly important to educators, whose very strident unwillingness to pay for any online products personally has been an inherent feature that has given Big-Ed-Tech pause. With almost all big tech companies offering their products for free for a limited time, it is important to consider the costs associated when this grace period is removed. 
 
Currently data collection is an accepted part of the exchange with a digital contract, albeit one cut with limited knowledge by technology users and consumers. Though this implicit agreement is being increasingly challenged, and rightly so. The state of play currently leaves the question open as to, what data is collected, and how well is it protected on its journey.
 
The functionality of these platforms is not something that will be directly commented on here, as features are constantly updated, patched and responded to. Some consideration could be given to the speed with which these changes are made by each company, however. Instead a checklist of features for consideration by teachers as useful is provided, to offer broad guidance in lieu of specifics around these ideas.
 
The below infographic provides four categories of comparative safety, consideration included: each company, or group’s privacy score; the level of data being collected from students; risks of being ‘zoombombed’; the number of privacy breaches and concerns reported; and the availability of features to protect students homes lives from their teachers and peers. The below categories were inspired by the PrivacySpy rubric that provides simplified summaries of large companies data security and privacy, but adapted for educational purposes with my experience and expertise in the classroom and teaching via online means.
 
  • The category of ‘Use’ is best practice for education.  
  • The ‘other safe options’ category are viable alternatives, but have issues with access, useability or cost. 
  • The ‘avoid’ category either aggressively and opaquely collect data, have noted technical flaws and/or have been party to clear and concerning data breaches.
  • The final ‘no way’ category is targeted at adults, excludes users under the age of 13 and actively collects data to be passed on to third parties
 
For a more detailed comparison of multiple video conferencing tools, click here
 
 
Privacy and data security
 
A question that has great global import is the way data insecurity and loss of privacy challenges the active practice of democracy and citizen freedom. These elements almost certainly have not been at the forefront of educator’s minds during this time but taking a moment to consider them at this juncture, is crucially important. As the Ed-Tech peddlers are currently out in force, circling like carrion birds, offering temporarily free products as lures for the unsuspecting and unaware teaching profession. Considering these ideas now, will allow for a much easier potential post-COVID-19 world, where the education system writ large may wake up and realise they’ve been involved with Big-Tech in ways that may have directly compromised their ethics. Realising that they may have failed at shielding these young people from many of the concerning forces active during this time. Acting as they are, as ambulance chasers hoping to cash in on the newly emerging ‘crisis market’, with morality as a distant tertiary concern. 
The below infographic outlines firstly the cost, the level of encryption used and the level of data collection. End-to-End Encryption (E2E for short) is the gold standard, that in short means that your data cannot be understood at any point between your device and the users you are communicating with, including by the company providing the service you are using. Data collection refers to the amount and type of data that these companies collect, but also how it is used. 
The category ‘None’ means that the service does not actively collect any data.
The category ‘Limited’ means that some data is being collected for the service to function and improve its functioning.
Finally, the category ‘Concerning’ denotes active collection of data and this information being shared with, often unnamed or unspecified, third parties, or used to inform advertisers and actions beyond the products core function requirements. 
These concepts are of course more nuanced and complex than these categories. It behoves us as professionals to consider the privacy of both student and teacher data and the fact that students have little or no option to ‘opt out’ of a teachers, school or department’s chosen tool. The hope is that this piece encourages you to continue investigating these ideas and considering your approach to digital technology, as we strive for a democratic and open use of technology that doesn’t disadvantage ourselves or our students into the future. 
 
 
As noted above, the features that are most useful for teachers are not common in most for-market videoconferencing software, which largely operate on the assumption that all participants can be trusted. This checklist may prove useful for educators to either locate an appropriate tool or request these features be added to the application that they have selected.
 
 
Overall, where possible, the above suggested tools are preferred, Microsoft Teams or Jitsi. Of these two options Jitsi is the quickest to plug-and-play option whilst Microsoft Teams videoconferencing is one feature within a broader organisational tool. Continue to be wary of Zoom which in its current state is problematic, though it must be noted they are signalling that they are working quickly to correct some of these flaws. 
 
The next things to consider - with teachers in mind and the broader goal of having a consistent approach to digital teaching and learning in the 21st century, both during and following the current crisis - are the comparative strengths and weaknesses of: 
  • Learning Management Systems 
  • Office suite software tools
  • Video production software and devices
 
I hope that the information contained within this piece is of use to educators and that it might garner some thought around the necessity of video conferencing. Also that, following the rush to online teaching, we set a higher standard for ethical and democratic labour for teachers online. This inevitably will mean demanding Big Tech companies respond to demands for specific education features and advocating for laws and purchasing processes by education departments that ensure teacher and student data and safety are paramount in the discussion. Education is a strong and large group of end-users that need not bend or acquiesce to large multinational companies that do not always act in the best interest of citizens, students or teachers. 
 
For a more detailed comparison of multiple video conferencing tools, and suggested further reading from the author of this blog, click here