Remote learning must be engaging but also be safe

 |   Fred Sheu

remote learning

Written by Fred Sheu, National Technology Office, Microsoft Hong Kong

With no clear end in sight for the suspension of Hong Kong schools and universities, the focus on remote learning becomes more acute. The priority so far for teachers, parents and children have been around getting the technology to work, ensuring all parties are engaged and finding new ways to interact, collaborate and learn. But have we considered if this is all safe?

Being able to see teachers, friends and classmates has been a revelation for many children. But who else can see us when we are logged into our daily online video sessions? When we share our screens, our homework and also our homes via online platforms, who else has this been shared to?

At Microsoft, there’s an immense buzz from helping schools and universities in their remote learning journey through our platforms like Teams, which just celebrated its 3rd anniversary with a series of new features. But there is a stark lesson that needs be learned early in this journey. Privacy, security and compliance are critical areas that are often overlooked when remote learning is adopted. Particularly during times like the current COVID-19 outbreak which has seen teachers and administrators scrambling to install tools and software to get online as soon as possible.

Protecting privacy and student safety

We think of schools as a safe haven for our children. That should also apply when our children enter the virtual classroom too. So ensuring remote learning occurs in a safe environment must be the first priority.

When requiring students to turn on their cameras and audio, teachers should remind the students to be mindful of their environment when they are dialing in. We should be aware of the background behind the students, the clothes they are wearing, and most of all be aware of what they are doing during class as everyone can see it live on camera. A simple but useful feature within Teams for both teachers and students is to blur the background. This ensures children and parents don’t feel intruded on and they are not revealing too much of their home and themselves.

One fascinating feature in Teams is Class Insights which allows teachers to assess class effectiveness through data analytics on student engagement and performance. Teams captures insights about student activity, namely average grade, on-time assignments, average time for feedback, and conversation activity. Teachers can access a dashboard to reveal individual as well as overall class activity. The default policy is that students are not granted access to the data from Class Insights, but access can be granted on request . Teachers must also inform and get consent from students and parents about the gathering and use of this data. They must clearly state that the purpose is to gain visibility into students’ learning progress and to maximize the efficiency of remote learning.

With all this information available how do we make sure this stays between teacher and student? When school is moved into the virtual world, the teachers and students are exposed to the wild outside world of online threats and attacks.

A secured platform that keeps hackers at bay

When choosing which collaborative tool and platform to use for remote education, or for any purposes for that matter, the most important criteria to consider is security. Ease of use and engaging features must never compromise security.

Teams is built on the Office 365 hyper-scale, enterprise-grade cloud, delivering the advanced security and compliance capabilities our customers expect. It enforces team-wide and organization-wide two-factor authentication, single sign-on through Active Directory, and encryption of data in transit and at rest. Advanced Threat Protection (ATP) is available for Microsoft Teams, along with SharePoint and OneDrive for Business, applications that integrate with Teams for content management. ATP allows users to determine if the content in these applications is malicious in nature and block this content from user access.

For IT administrators at schools, we offer Office 365 Secure Score that analyzes Office 365 organization’s security based on their regular activities and security settings. The idea is to help schools to be aware of opportunities to protect their environment that do not negatively affect productivity for users.

Compliance and data retention

Another key area that is often overlooked is compliance. Teams has a wide range of information to help schools with compliance areas, including Information Barriers (IB), retention policies and Data Loss Protection (DLP). IB are policies that an administrator can configure to prevent individuals or groups from communicating with each other. One scenario for schools to use is enabling full control of who specifically can dial in and access each virtual class.

A school in Hong Kong had recently accidentally allowed an outsider to dial into a virtual class and uploaded obscene images to the online classroom. The school suspected that the meeting link was leaked and caused the incident. Teachers can make use of the Teams IB feature in situations like this, to avoid unwanted sharing of information with outsiders. On Teams, IB policies are activated when members are added to a team, a new chat is requested, a user is invited to join a meeting, a screen is shared between two or more users, to name a few.

Teachers might also want to share documents and homework among students during virtual classes. By default, Teams chat, channel, and files data are retained forever. Teams allows administrators to decide proactively whether to retain the data, delete it, or retain it for a specific period of time and then delete it. We have also extended data loss prevention (DLP) capabilities to include Microsoft Teams chat and channel messages. If a school has DLP, they can now define policies that prevent people from sharing sensitive information in a Microsoft Teams channel or chat session.

Ultimately the people using the tools have to be trained and be aware of the potential risks. In fact, one of the most common feedback points from parents about online learning is that teachers are not familiar enough with features of the platform they are using. We encourage teachers to communicate with colleagues and administrators who are using Teams extensively. This way they can simultaneously begin learning how to organize and optimize their teams for students. Here are some useful tips for educators when using Teams including some how-to guidance, recommended tips & tricks etc.

We are glad that we are able to help teachers, students and parents during these challenging times, and we will keep working on bringing more useful features to Teams to help make remote learning as engaging, efficient and secure as possible. Stay safe everyone!

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