I was recently in a conversation with a large group of people who provide IT Support. Many do not work in education, which is why I like the group. One of the members was recently asked in an interview to rank the following support requests in terms of importance.
1) A teacher has standardized testing starting in 30 minutes however she is unable to access the testing site.
2) The principal (aka your immediate supervisor) can’t open a spreadsheet that she needs to have ready for a presentation later that same day.
3) A teacher is unable to start a lecture because her PowerPoint won’t open. Students are waiting in the classroom.
This scenario truly exemplifies the difference between EdTech and CorpTech. In EdTech the order of importance should be, 1-3-2. In CorpTech it could easily be 1-2-3, or, even 2-1-3. Anyone who has worked with a demanding boss in a Hire-At-Will employment environment would understand why.
In a school, unless the school is on the bad side of accreditation standards, the answer would be 3-2-1.
Here is why.
Teaching and Learning
Most people look at the options and see time and urgency. And although the right answer can be derived from time and urgency, that metric will not always apply. A universal metric is to always focus on Teaching and Learning (TL).
This means that all processes at the school, IT included, need to be on mission and that mission is to support Teaching and Learning. In order to do that, students and teachers come first, and everything else later.
The business of the school is education, education happens within the TL dynamic.
Most school administrators will not even interrupt classes unless there is a real emergency. School administrators will inconvenience themselves to reduce the impact on teachers and students.
In organizations with a head of school or superintendent, those offices may have their own separate support for the technology to further reduce any impact to TL.
I use the layout above for decision making and project planning. I also use Agile and Scrum when executing the actual pieces of projects. I need these tools to prevent reacting emotionally to problems.
In the scenario above this is how I would categorize each of the three support problems.
DO, Do it Now:1) A teacher has standardized testing starting in 30 minutes however she is unable to access the testing site.
The reasoning here is that standardized tests have controls that the school must follow. This is a tricky scenario because unless you have implemented IT procedures for standardized testing you would not realize that the pre-testing is completed well in advance. That means the school has already scheduled and guaranteed a test window. The test either has to occur or be canceled and rescheduled. I would write a guide on test implementation, and they vary greatly. For older children, there is a high risk if these test fail.
DECIDE:3) A teacher is unable to start a lecture because her PowerPoint won’t open. Students are waiting in the classroom.
As a school administrator, I would, of course, ask IT to go help the teacher immediately. In this case, you really need to know the schedule before deciding when to go. If classes are 70-80 minutes every other day, you would want someone in there immediately. If classes are 35-40 minutes daily, you would want to send someone at the end of the class.
The technology has made achieving the lesson goals impossible if the lesson is short. However, the lesson occurs so often that the impact on TL is low. In fact, taking more time in the end when the students are transitioning will allow someone to look at prevention instead of just adding a quick solution that only deals with the symptom.
Most schools have requirements that teachers should be able to run their lessons in the event of an IT failure. This should not happen every day, but it can happen, and teachers are required to work through the issue. If a teacher follows protocol going into the class 5-10 minutes after class has begun, could interrupt their backup plan.
This is why it is a DECIDE. It varies based-on campus and culture.
Delegate: 2) The principal (aka your immediate supervisor) can’t open a spreadsheet that she needs to have ready for a presentation later that same day.
Anyone can do this job as soon as the others are in progress. If there is one IT support person, they will do this last. It is not time-sensitive. Most principals would angry if a teacher or class of students were put in lower priority.
If there is a team, the leader could assign someone to this with a reasonable timeframe.
If you are in EdTech IT Support, make sure you are connected to the culture of your school. Understanding the policies and procedures outside of IT is key to understanding how to support Teaching and Learning.
When it comes to screen sharing few names are as renowned or respected as Barco. They have a history of building quality products and delivering solid results. So today, I have been playing around with the Barco WePresent. A streaming box that will allow you to connect your device to your projector/display. There are three models that you can chose from.
WiPG-1600W (the model I am reviewing)
As you can see from the picture above, the WePresent is a pretty compact design much like the Mersive Solstice and not much bigger than an Apple TV.
The WePresent 1600W has two USB A ports on the front. You could plug in a USB with media on it and play it right from there or you could plug a mouse into it to access some of the on screen features.
On the back, you will find a VGA port (pretty rare these days) another USB A port, an HDMI out port a port for power (it’s there, just a little hard to see from the picture) and an Ethernet port. The Ethernet port not only let’s you plug right into your network for a stable Internet connection, but it will also power your WePresent if your switch has Power Over Ethernet capabilities. As I mentioned before this is very nice as it is much easier to pull an Ethernet cable where you want it as opposed to running an extension cord or adding a power outlet to a room.
You may notice the antenna on the device. Those can come off but they are there for a stronger signal.
They seem to range in price from around $500 – $650 per device. Much cheaper than Mersive Solstice but still more expensive than an Apple TV. Of course, the WePresent (like the Solstice) will let you connect with any device (Apple, Windows, Linux, iOS, Android). This is nice. As opposed to Apple TV’s on Apple ecosystem.
What can it do?
Well, not as much as the Mersive but much more than an Apple TV. The Mersive could let you connect a bunch of devices at once while this model (1600W) can only accommodate 4. The 2000 model can handle up to 32 (according to its spec sheet) but why in the world would you want to do that?
Here are some of the other options:
Playing media directly from a USB
Locking the device down so no one can connect to it
Seeing who is connecting
Muti screen (up to 4 on this model)
Settings (sort of)
It outputs 1080p full HD. There is no 4K option and while 1080p looks fine, up close on a 4k display it can look a little blurry. Not a deal breaker and most classrooms with projectors have 1080p or lower.
The settings isn’t really settings. On our model there are only two options. You can calibrate the device (this is for touch interaction) and the other one is to make a Plug & Show (PnS) token on a USB.
The PnS (not the best acronym) is a USB that will have the Barco software needed for a new computer/guest presenter. It will also link that computer with that partiular WePresent device. If a guest does show up and needs to present wirelessly, then this will come in handy and be much faster than downloading the app, installing the app and then testing the app. It will (should) all work right from that USB. You can make as many of these as you want as well which is nice.
This is the softare that you need on your device to connect to the WePresent. It’s very easy to use and makes it super simple for anyone to connect. Merely open the software, find the WePresent you want to connect to, input the code (always displayed on the screen) and you’re connected. My computer screen did not fill the image like it does using AirPlay as you can see below.
I found there was a little lag between my mouse on my computer and the display but what was nice is that it was a predictable lag. No matter when I connected or what I did, the lag stayed the same. It never sped up to try and keep up or jerk around the screen. It was smooth and looked good.
When more than one device was connected, the screen was set up into quadrants. This was not great. If there were just two devices, then half the screen was wasted. This is one thing the Mersive did much better than the WePresent.
The WePresent does have Apple AirPlay built into it, so if you have an an Apple computer or iOS device, you do not need the Barco MirrorOP app installed. What I found here is that when I did connect via airplay the lag was still there, but my computer screen filled the entire screen no black bars.
On a sad note, the Barco did not always show up in my AirPlay list on my MacBook Pro. I even restarted my computer but still no WePresent, but when I restarted the WePresent it suddenly showed up. This did not happen often but it did happen more than once.
However, connecting through the MirrorOP app never failed.
I’ll start off with the obvious. It is not as good as the Apple TV. It’s close but not as good. However, it is much better than the Mersive Solstice – by far. In the room we were testing it in, we had built in speakers in the ceiling and while the Mersive sometimes would play through them and other times play through my computer speakers (I never cold figure out why it would switch between the two), the Barco always played through the ceiling speakers. Making that one less thing for teachers to worry about.
Here is a short clip of the lag with the video.
What we found is that if there were a lot of quick shots (think of a Michael Bay movie) then the lag would increase. If the movement was pretty minimal, then the lag wasn’t too bad as you can see above.
Like the Mersive Solstice, it is possible to manage them all from a single dashboard. I am unsure of the cost. Barco calls their solution the XMS Cloud Management Platform and it will let you manage all of your WePresent devices and your ClickShare devices. According to their video (below) you will need to install a physical Barco XMS server on your network or a virtual XMS server.
I imagine this would be extremely helpful if you have these devices throughout multiple buildings or throughout a large building.
Would teachers like it?
That depends on two factors. Are your teachers using MacBooks and do they want to stream videos? If your teachers are using Windows devices or if they have the choice to bring in whatever device they want to us, then yes. They will like this. It will give them the ability to walk into any space and connect wirelessly and do what the need to do. If your staff is all on MacBooks, then I think the response will be mixed. I have a feeling that the WePresent would be more reliable than the Apple TV but the fact that it disappeared a couple of times from the AirPlay list would annoy me.
If teachers want to stream a lot of video then it is hard to recommend this device. The lag, while much better than the Mersive, still is not what I consider acceptable.
Will it replace our Apple TV’s
No, but we are seriously considering getting two or three to put in our shared spaces so guests can easily connect. The ease of use, reliability and the fact that any device can connect to it makes the WePresent appealing and considering the 1600W is over 50% cheaper than the cheapest Mersive Solstice makes it even more so.
I still need to test out the Airtame 2 (review coming in February) which retails for $399 USD to get a better idea.
I asked Cubit for a sample kit, and they sent it along. My robot frame and build were simple because I wanted to focus on programming.
The Cubit was loaded with sensor options, and the programming interface was Bluetooth.
For the record, I was using a Macbook, and I was very happy to get back into a programming environment that empowered real coding on an Apple. As of late, most of the robotics packages I have used on an Apple have removed the text-based coding options.
The flexibility was nice, and the educational scaffolding was clear.
You can start with the colorful blocks, and easily get things working.
Then, you can get into the code, and make things work the way you want.
Cubit uses Lua language. I found it to be an excellent primer for going in a variety of programming directions. I have always found that using robotics and electronics as a prerequisite for IB or AP computer science is a better primer than simply having an introductory course based solely in a language. Let’s be honest, robots are fun, and they can really help build the programming competency base.
If you are new to robotics and have no idea where to get started, Cubit is an excellent solution. Cubit provides a built-in curriculum with projects ranging from elementary to high school. The programming environment guides users through the initial steps.
Robotic’s education needs to move away from the obsession with remote control. I believe this obsession emerged from the ubiquity of mobile devices, and the realization that automation is usually a low scoring and frustrating endeavor. When students can use a remote control, they can get more points and do more in less time.
The process, stress, and failure should be the goal when using robotics for K-12 education. If a student can understand the complexities of automation before they leave high school, then they are better prepared for the AI-driven future and their place within it.
It is small, affordable, and easy to build, but Cubit is a step towards authentic learning and forward-thinking.
I have written before about cloud security and file security. I was doing a simple pentesting job for a school recently and found a service they were using called: Edlio.
I cannot say if Edlio has a security issue, or if what I found was simply based-on clients not following procedures, or if all these schools marked their documents as public.
However, I can say it is generally bad practice for:
Personal information to be public and openly searchable
Budget information to be public and openly searchable (aside from summaries and annual reports)
Versions of documents, that are not the final version, to be public and openly searchable
Calendars and other data about large group events to be enabled without security
Schools using Edlio, or other services, need to audit their public content. Here is what is accessible on Edlio with a compound search:
I then noticed that the documents seem to be organized by date, and mixed. Meaning, different schools appear to be storing documents in a “common” directory, and then their files are further organized.
Using a search based on the date, I was able to further sort documents from different schools:
Again, there is no evidence this is an issue with the Edlio service. These documents could be available due to schools simply not managing their permission options, or because the schools believed these documents needed to be public.
The takeaway here is that school senior leadership should be aware this information is public, how it can be searched, and there should be some minor threat assessment done to determine if these documents (and posting policies) are creating more risk than reward.
If you want more information on how to do this type of testing and analysis, please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
I have been following a few online threads where schools are considering contracting penetration testers. For those who may not know, penetration testing (pentesting) is a security assessment, an analysis, and progression of simulated attacks on an application (web, mobile, or API) or network to check its security posture. The objective is to penetrate the application or networksecurity defenses by looking for vulnerabilities. These are usuallyweaknesses or flaws that an attacker could exploit to impact confidentiality, integrity, or availability. This goal is the same whether performing application pentesting or network pentesting. ~ https://cobalt.io/pentest
As a consultant, I am not opposed to K12 schools using consultants. However, I have seen some red flags out there from pentesting consultants. I want to highlight those issues, and also provide a method for K12 schools to get started on this process in an easy and low-cost manner.
Finding a Good Pentester
School: We are looking for someone to help test our security.
Pentester: Great. I can do that ( credentials and background presented).
School: What do you need?
Pentester: I need a list of (x,y,z). I need an office to work from. I need to interview…
What is wrong here?
Here is how this should go
School: We are looking for someone to help test our security.
Pentester: Great. I can do that ( credentials and background presented).
School: What do you need?
Pentester: I need a contract protecting me if I break into one or more of your services. I need a contact person to send my findings to. I need a timeline.
A pentester’s job is to find the weaknesses and to find a way to access your organization. If you provide access, not only is the job easier, but they could simply report an issue that is unlikely to occur. I witnessed a similar scenario where a firm was asking for the keys to break into the car.
There may be a point where you want a pentester to become a student and see what a student can do with the access provided. There may be a point where you want them to test spaces used by the public during events. If you provide and manage laptops, a good pentester will need one of the school’s laptops.
These are reasonable requests. Asking the school to literally give them a roadmap and set of targets is not reasonable.
Doing Your Own Testing
I have a list of standards schools should work towards to be secure. Some these do not always connect well to third party services, public-facing websites, etc.
Over the last few months, I have developed a checklist for pentesting K12 school websites and resources.
Subscription and Services Discovery
Can your subscriptions and services be easily discovered?
Files Exposed to the Public
Are there files publicly available that supposed to be private?
Calendars Exposed to the Public
Is calendar data that should be private, private?
Staff and/or Student Email Harvesting
Can your staff and/or student PII be used to create a database for phishing and spamming?
Portals and SIS
Are your portals and SIS properly secured and difficult to brute force attack?
Websites and Social Media
Are websites and social media properly secured; is the media being used legally and correctly?
Have cloud services been properly secured?
Is anyone sharing your content and do they have permission?
FTP, SSH, and Telnet
Are any of these protocols a threat to your school via publically accessible information?
Is your email domain blacklisted?
Email Header Check
Is there any data in your header that could be anonymous or lead to blacklisting?
Email Catch-All for Non Existent Emails
Is your email set up to catch any email that does not exist and alert someone?
Is your email system running services that would allow an attacker to use your email for a criminal act; send an email on someone’s behalf?
4xx and 5xx Error Check
Do the 4xx and 5xx pages on your public-facing services configured properly and supportive of trusted users?
Are any HTML Forms vulnerable to low-level URL based attacks? (Will also review CAPTCHA.)
I score these on a scale of 1-5 and document the issues/results. The next level is researching the solutions to correct the problems. Keep in mind, many solutions are in policies and procedures. This means issues need to be articulated for school leaders, teachers, students, and parents.
In other words, avoid jargon and lingo.
Doing as much due diligence as possible before contracting someone will not only save time and money, but it will also help to further educate the community.
If you do not know what is actually dangerous, then everything could be sold as dangerous.
These recommended tests are not very difficult, but if you want to outsource this, email me at: email@example.com . I thoroughly enjoy doing this kind of work and have automated many of these processes with scripts and services.
This video reviews a method to extract staff email and names from the popular Finalsite CMS used by K12 schools.
Disclaimer: This video is not documenting any known bugs or issues with Finalsite. This video is demonstrating how Personal Information can be harvested using options end-users select. Solutions to this problem are available by adjusting the options in any existing Finalsite implementation. Specific tools and process will not be fully revealed in the video. Anyone wishing to learn more must arrange for a private demonstration.
I’m on a quest and here is the next forray into that quest. I present to you the Mersive Solstice. On paper this thing looks great! It really does. It can allow many people to connect to a single screen at one time, you can even bridge multiple Solstices together so people in other room can see and hear what is happening. It supports 4K output and has Apple AirPlay built in so it is just as easy for Apple devices to connect to the Solstice as an Apple TV. Not to mention that it has a dashboard that you can remotely manage and configure multiple Solstices at one time, troubleshoot, etc. So, do I like it? Not really but we will get there soon enough.
FYI- If you are interested in the Mersive Solstice, you can contact them through their website to arrange for a demo unit like we did 🙂
Let’s start right here. The Solstice costs $1199 or $1399. The difference between the price is one includes a dashboard to remotely manage your Solstices and the other does not. Either way, it is very expensive. Just to be clear that is the cost for one device.
Setting it up
While the Apple TV is ridiculously easy to set up the Solstice ain’t too bad either. As you can see from the picture below, you have an HD or 4K output option, an ethernet point and audio out a power adapter plug and two USB 3 ports. On the other side is an HDMI port and a USB C port.
What’s really nice here is that the ethernet port supports POE (Power Over Ethernet). This means if you have a switch that is POE or POE+ then the switch will provide enough electricity to run the device itself. Something the Apple TV cannot do. So you get your Internet connection and the electricity needed to power the device all in one port. Very snazzy and convenient.
It’s also pretty small and light, so connecting it and placing it on our mounting near a projector is a real possibility. This means you can install this in house and save a bit of money. Here is a picture next to a current generation Apple TV.
Once you plug it in you need to connect a keyboard and mouse to the Solstice. This will let you access the settings for the device. If you have the dashboard feature you could merely plug it in and configure it from the dashboard, but this is a demo unit so we did all the configuration on the device itself.
It really was pretty simple. You could connect it through the WiFi if you wished (though an ethernet connection is far more stable and recommended), you can name it, give some security features if you like, configure the name and more. It was very easy to find and get going.
Connecting to it
First off – anything can connect to this thing (well maybe not Linux). Android, Mac OS, Windows – no problem. If you have an Apple Device you can connect through AirPlay (like the Apple TV). You can also use the Solstice app which is a free download. The app gives you many more options which we will get to.
Either way you connect, it will ask you for a 4 digit code which is prominently displayed on the screen. Once connected you have some choices. You can Share your Desktop, Share just an App or Share a Media file.
Here we run into some issues but there is also some good stuff as well.
The Apple TV you can share or extend your screen and that was all. The option of sharing just an app or a media file is pretty great. You don’t have to worry about notifications popping through onto your Mac screen (iMessage notifications) or accidentally showing your email or gradebook on the screen. Nice.
You can also have multiple people share their screen at the same time and the Solstice handles that pretty well. The screens resize to who all the other screens and as a teacher you have the ability to hide all the other screens and bring one forward and then quickly switch to another screen. The Apple TV cannot do this – in fact it takes a little bit of time switching devices. As a teacher, I think we can all appreciate what downtime between presentations is like and minimizing this makes it really handy.
What is also neat about this is that it shows a live view of each screen, so you can see what is happening in real time. Now, if you were thinking of throwing 20–30 screens on the Solstice to monitor what is happening in your class – that is not what this is designed to do and I would be surprised to see if this even works. If it does, I bet it doesn’t work all that well. Go find a monitoring tool – there are plenty out there.
There are other features too, but we didn’t really explore them too much. The reason why is that video streaming is not good. It just isn’t. It doesn’t matter if you are streaming through AirPlay or using the Solstice app on your computer. Streaming wirelessly is not good. We saw it go from laggy, dropping frames to down right unbearable where the difference between the image and the sound was at least 1 second. Check out the video below. It is a short clip (11 seconds) of a TED talk. The lag is very noticeable and in our testing we had seen it even worse.
What was even more surprising is that we connected our computers directly to the Mersive Solstice via an HDMI cable and there was still lag. I am not sure why this happened. Just to be sure, we unplugged the Mersive and then connected our computer directly to the screen we were testing the Solstice out of and it worked fine.
Add the Solstice in between the computer and the screen and there was a subtle lag. We tested this with local video on our computer and YouTube.
Another downside we found to the Solstice was that it was not as straight forward as we would like. There was one time when we had it set up to extend our desktop and didn’t realize it. We spent a good five-seven minutes trying to figure out where the setting was. We knew what we were looking for, but couldn’t remember or quickly find where it was. A regular classroom teacher with a room full of students doesn’t have that time to dedicated to troubleshooting problems like this.
The Mersive Solstice can do a lot – there is no question, but in offering so many options it needs to offer those options in a far easier and more intuitive manner. I am not sure what this would look like or how they could pull this off, but the current model does not accomplish this. I can see teachers getting lost and frustrated with the settings and not wanting to venture too far away from simple mirroring or streaming so as not to put a lesson at risk. If that’s the case there are far cheaper options out there.
I know what you’re thinking dear reader and you are right. Workshops and PD preparing the staff for the change would be necessary but there would always be those who still forget. Also, we are a Mac school – getting our teachers to not use AirPlay on the MacBooks would be near impossible and if they only use that – then they would be missing out on some other great features.
If this whole package cost say $300–400 dollars per device I could work with this but at more than $1000 it is hard to accept these compromises. At this price point it not only has to work but has to work better than an Apple TV. While it can do more than an Apple TV it cannot stream or mirror as well as an Apple TV which is what our teachers (and many other educators0 want.
Why it is not for us
The Solstice is not a terrible device. If you are in a mixed environment (BYOD or Windows/Mac mix) then this could work. For us, I cannot justify switching from an Apple TV (less than $200) to something that is more than five times that cost. We are almost all Macs and this does not work nearly as well as an Apple TV. While walking to each individual Apple TV to make changes is a pain, it is not a deal breaker for us.
Also, we are a single building. If you have multiple buildings or maybe even multiple campuses, a device that allows the Tech department to see them all, manage their updates, power cycle them, make changes to settings, etc. all from a single dashboard, then this is definitely more appealing than an Apple TV despite its lacking performance when it comes to streaming.
The Mersive Solstice has great potential. It can do a lot but it’s too complicated for many teachers to use in their day-to-day, the streaming video performance is bad and the cost should make everyone pause before writing the check. Right now, this is a product to watch but I honestly cannot consider it a strong contender to replace our Apple TV’s.
How many times have you seen it? You walk into an office or classroom, and a Post-it is proudly announcing a user’s password. Why? Because schools are trusting environments. Maybe the password is not for the computer, maybe it is for the teacher/staff WiFi. A WiFi network that has no other security aside from the password: TeacherWifi1.
Developing a solid OPSEC plan is not that difficult. A bit of common sense and creative thinking goes a long way. Let’s walk through some simple practices that will help improve a school’s operational security, and the school’s ability to react to problems.
Follow Normal Child Safety Practices All the Time and in all Departments
The basic child safety concepts are: keep students away from unverified adults and make sure adults are not alone with children (and if they are alone they are visible).
The standards seem to be prevalent in all child safety courses and certifications. Following these two standards, and applying them to a technology plan would yield the following rules:
Students are never allowed on the same network as teachers/staff/guests
Students share information through the cloud or monitored middle process (such as a Synology share that requires user login)
Students should not be allowed to peer share with teachers (e.g. no more AirDrop)
The guest network is limited and separated from everyone else
No access to the network etc. unless all users provide an ID or their devices are identified as approved devices
Office and Classroom Access Should Be Managed by Policy
The worst hacking scenarios I have personally experienced, and that resulted in child and family trauma, began with data being printed and left in unattended offices/classrooms.
Simple and reasonable practice can deter most people from crossing the privacy line. Here are some suggestions:
Laptops should be secured in a bag or other area when unattended; on the desk, lid open is bad practice
Documenting passwords should be discouraged
Desktops and other devices should be logged out when unattended; or secured with a password screensaver
Teams should split their lunches and breaks to ensure that the office/classroom always has someone present
Office/classroom hours should be posted so that everyone knows when the space is open for meetings or visitors
Desktop phones should have a security code to make calls off-campus
Students, parents, and others should have a demarcated area for meeting and working with staff and teachers; certain areas should remain off-limits
Printing from offices needs to terminate in a secure space; it should be difficult for an unauthorized person to make physical contact with an office printer
Walk Around and See What You Can Do
School administrators often conduct classroom walkthroughs and observations. This process is similar.
The leadership team needs to be scheduled to break-in to areas on-campus. They should test closets, offices, doors, etc. Printers should be checked for abandoned documents, and those documents should be sampled. Did someone print and leave any confidential information? Any tests or assessments? When guests are in the building, how freely can they move beyond common areas before they are politely challenged?
The team should document what they find, and question why the access was possible. A formal review of all vulnerabilities is going to inform the necessary actions that need to be taken.
If there is a plan to work with an external contractor, having all this research is essential. Focusing on unrealistic threats and problems will not strengthen security or cybersecurity. A misaligned plan will waste resources, provide a false sense of security, and overall weaken any future response to a real threat.
That's what we are here for. We want to help teachers and educators integrate technology in the classroom in sensible and relevant ways. Just drop us a line by commenting on any of our posts and we will get back to you as soon as we can.
And don't get stressed out...crack open a cold one on us :o)