Category Archives: Helpful Tips

These posts are just helpful, not really a review or a how-to, just some helpful tips

Are Your Files Public? The Edlio Example

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By Tony DePrato | Follow Me on LinkedIn

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:

  1. Personal information to be public and openly searchable
  2. Budget information to be public and openly searchable (aside from summaries and annual reports)
  3. Versions of documents, that are not the final version, to be public and openly searchable
  4. 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:

one

two

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.

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Using a search based on the date, I was able to further sort documents from different schools:

five

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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: tony.deprato@gmail.com

 

 

The Absolute Best Accessory for Your Apple Laptop

usb1By Tony DePrato | Follow Me on LinkedIn

I am not one to recommend products. However, lately, I have come to realize that since Apple removed all the useful ports on their laptops, I am reliant on a single $2.00 piece of hardware: a USB C-Port Adapter. This little piece of plastic magic makes my workflow work.

This tool is a simple design at a modest price point, yet, it is often the solution that moves a project from idea to reality. I connect dozens of devices using this technology bridge in order to deliver curriculum, podcasts, 3D printed objects, etc.

The most remarkable quality this small island of magic possesses is that is constantly reminds me that we do not need solve problems via upgrades. We should be solving problems with technology and educational technology by tightening our workflows and being resourceful.

There seems to be a constant insistence that X is not fast enough, or Y is not dependable. I constantly hear people state that the equipment they have in 2019 cannot solve a 2001 problem. The issue is rarely the stuff, the issue is usually the workflow.

Try Something New with Something Old

Here is an exercise I would recommend everyone try on their campus. This can be done for fun, as club, or as some type of fun challenge.

Have departments, staff, students, and other community members submit some issues or problems that continue to linger in the classrooms (learning spaces). Appoint a small team to review the problems, and choose one.

Finally, put this problem out to those willing to compete for a solution with the following criteria:

  1. The total budget that can be used to solve the problem must be less than $10.00 (or equivalent)
  2. Solving the problem using used equipment, materials, recyclables, etc. earns teams extra points
  3. Using school owned equipment to plan and produce a solution is required; donations are not allowed

Professionally, I actually try to follow this process all the time. The items above are on a personal check-list. My goal is to model a solution using existing resources.

What if It Works?

Often real solutions arise that are functional, but below standard. That is not a bad thing. The school has empowered a community driven development cycle, and created a working prototype under the umbrella of healthy competition. There are no losers in this game, everyone learns, and everyone wins.

In fact, if a school can continue to improve the process, and raise the standard internally, the outcome would be a community built and maintained solution. Older students can keep the momentum going as long as school mentors and leaders provide regular oversight.

Small Solutions have Real Power

This small solution below, is actually very important to my workflow.

usb2

No one needs to build a Tesla to change the world for the better. It is important to develop a philosophy of empowering students and teachers to create small things that improve daily workflows, increase efficiency, and add comfort and entertainment to the campus.

Start small. Ask questions. Find a problem. Make a prototype. Change the world.

PSA: Google Drive and Pirated Movies

This is just a quick public service announcement and one not too new. We have seen a number of postings on a local listserv that says that students have been accessing pirated movies on Google Drive. All you need to do is search Google Drive + Popular Movie Title and that is about it. Check out the GIF below as I find Avengers: Endgame on Google Drive.There are a couple of items to be worried about.

  1. Putting pirated movies on Google Drive is illegal and Google (not the school/district) could shut the account down – permanently
  2. Putting movies that are protected by copyright on any server for a lot of people (or even just yourself) to view is simply illegal
  3. Students looking for this content could accidentally find malware, viruses or phishing scams so be careful.

You can probably find this activity pretty easily by monitoring your network and filter by who is using the most bandwidth, but I would think twice about announcing this to students as there may be some who are unaware of the practice.

When TurnItIn Fails

cermicsfinalBy: Tony DePrato | Follow me on LinkedIn

 

Plagiarism is serious issue for most high schools. It is rare to find a school without a detailed plagiarism policy. Most of these policies have a few tiers, because it is common for students to commit plagiarism more than once in their academic career.

Unfortunately, the tools educators rely on only cover a small portion of things students can plagiarize. In the last decade I have seen inauthentic:

 

  • Computer Science projects
  • Art projects
  • Websites
  • Math internal assessments (IB)
  • Research papers with a perfect Turn It In score
  • Foreign language course work
  • 3D printing
  • etc…

 

In many of these cases, the student and their parents argued that the work was not plagiarized. These people had full legal ownership of the end product, because they paid for the work, or paid for someone to help guide the work.

 

The work is often a result of tutoring, where the student did technically do the work, but was aided along the way. Sometimes this support did result in the tutor physically contributing to the final product.

 

These situations are complicated. They are well beyond someone simply copying an academic paper.

 

Identifying Inauthentic Work and Projects

 

As soon as I mention plagiarism, people are quick to react. In every conversation, people ask me, “How did you know it was not their work?” or “How did you prove they did not do it on their own?”.

 

I find the first problem with most project-based planning is a lack of pre-assessment. Students need a baseline assessment. Teachers should be assessing projects on some sort of trendline. The measurements being used need to monitor growth, and not simply check off rubric boxes.

 

If teachers set baseline assessments for every project, they can clearly find students who are developing seemingly accelerated skills in a very short time. If the teacher suspects a problem, they can require all the students to do an in-class timed assignment. These assignments need to encourage the students to practice their skills without risking their grades. Students who have been submitting inauthentic work will most likely show signs of stress, become angry, and/or ask to leave the room.

 

Rubrics Can Be a Roadmap for Cheating

 

Rubrics should guide students toward a standard, but they should be flexible enough that the end result is a product of a student’s imagination and creativity. In fact, if a student has a great idea, the rubric could be put to the side (a discussion for another time.)

 

I have seen an increase in teachers providing students with highly detailed rubrics, designed to meet detailed criteria. In those cases, it does seem as if the teacher would like all the student work to be nearly identical. Those highly detailed rubrics are essentially a blueprint for a tutor.

 

Rubrics that leave no room for personalization, are going to increase cheating. There is a sense that students need to be trusted, and educators must trust students to make good decisions. However, schools usually do not let students use phones during exams, or walk into copy rooms with cameras. Why? Because they are young and impulsive. They will sometimes make bad choices, and simply using good practice to remove temptation is not a violation of trust.

 

Projects are Assessments, Plan them Accordingly

 

Many schools have an assessment calendar or planner. These are used to ensure students do not have three or four tests (or exams) on a single day. Projects are often left off of these planning documents. I have made this mistake numerous times leading project-based courses.

 

Project due dates are often pushed and changed, and therefore the final due date may shift. Adding a due date to an assessment calendar requires other teachers to plan their assessments around those dates. Changing those dates can create havoc. Not being able to change those dates can impact students who need more time, or were denied time due to some unforeseen past issue.

 

When students feel the pressure of a final project they might make the choice to seek outside help. Having a tutor is not plagiarism, but often project-based disciplines lead to the tutor doing the work on behalf of the student.

 

Planning projects with three or four important due dates allows student work to be assessed in stages and reduces the risk of missing the final deadline. I personally feel that having multiple stages reduces stress, although my evidence is purely anecdotal.

 

Current technology and online services cannot identify cheating within project-based courses. Teachers need to know their students, and plan accordingly to reduce those impulsive and misguided choices teenagers often make.

Presenting a slideshow? Keep it brief

brevity

It is back to school which means there are a lot of PowerPoints, Keynotes, Google Slide shows that are going to be presented to students, parents and staff. I’ve got some tips for making yours better than the most.

Keep it short

The quote for good old Bill Shakespeare sums it up nicely. Present your points clearly, concisely and move on. Don’t give “humorous” anecdotes or stories that have nothing to do with your presentation. Also, don’t think you need to tell your audience everything that is going on. Find the major talking points and focus on those.

The Rule of Six

This is more of a guideline than a rule. It basically says no more than 6 words per title or bullet point and no more than 6 bullet points per slide. I use this because if I find myself going past the 6 words in a bullet point then this guideline forces me to rethink what I’ve written. If I can’t fit it on the bullet point in less than 6 words then it needs another bullet point. If I can’t explain it in 6 bullet points than I need another slide.

No sentences

There are exceptions here (quotes, mission statements, etc.), but I avoid sentences on a presentation like a Midwestern Pothole. I want to keep it to a word or just a few words. I almost never hit the 6 word limit. I want to explain the topic to them. If I am saying everything that is on the slide, then why am I up there wasting these people’s time? My audiences are all educated and can read and think for themselves.

Almost no animations/transitions

I used to love these damn things. I found it fun to apply new animations and transitions to slideshows just to see what can be done. The bottom line is that this slows down your presentation and they are usually unnecessary. It may only be a combined time of 5-10 extra seconds, but that might be enough time for audience to slump back in their chairs and start to tune you out.

If you use these animations all the time whatever the animations where there to emphasize is lost because everything has an animation. Avoid them.

Don’t read your slides

Again, maybe you are emphasizing a point like the school’s mission statement or a quote from a person, but typically don’t read your damn slides! The people watching your presentation are educated and can read themselves, they don’t need you to read it to them.

Also, you shouldn’t have that info in a paragraph or collection of sentences in the first place. If you do have a long string of words up, you don’t need to read it. Maybe wait in silence for a few seconds while the audience has a chance to read it and then further expound upon that topic or move on.

Templates and Color

When making a presentation you often have quite a few templates you can chose from and most of them look great on your computer screen. The problem comes when it shines through an aging projector who may not be as bright or the colors may not be as accurate.

I ran into this last week. I had an organizational chart that showed current projects that had not been started, started and completed. The projector did not convey those colors accurately so all the projects looked the same color. It was a bit of a fail.

If you have a really colorful template or specific colors used on text be cautious! I am making more and more of my presentations with a plain white background and black text. Even if the color goes out due to a bad VGA cord, my presentation will still be perfectly viewable.

Fonts

Chose fonts based on your audience. Kindergartners may like Comic Sans, but presenting to their parents is not really appropriate. It simply doesn’t look professional. Also stick with the same font throughout your presentation.

Rehearse

The last bit of advice I have is to rehearse! Practice it early and often. Even if it is just you in your office, bedroom, car – practice. You may feel silly at first but when you present it your audience will appreciate it. Through rehearsing you gain more and more understanding of what it is you want to say and how you want to say it. You also find that your slideshow does not reflect all the points you want to talk about and you often end up revising it. This will also give you more confidence when presenting because you know the presentation so well.

This practice also makes you extremely adaptable for unforeseen events. Last week, a presenter found herself with less time for one reason or another. She did not have time to go through her entire presentation so she had to figure out, on the fly, what she was going to skip and what she was going to highlight. Rehearsing may have made those choices a little easier for her and made her presentation go a little smoother. Again, not her fault finding herself in that situation but rehearsing could have smoothed out the tough spots.

PSA – Flash is dying

Folks, this is not new news. In fact it was fist reported back in 2017, but you will start hearing more about soon. Adobe Flash Player is finally dying. All major browsers will be phasing it out and it will most likely stop working all together sometime in 2020.

So what does this mean? Well if you (or another teacher) uses a site that requires Flash player that site will work for a little while. You may have to give it permission to use Flash player over and over again and by the end of 2020 it simply will not work.

There are a lot of BBC educational sites that were built using Flash. Here is a popular one that I have seen in a few schools.

BBC archived all these sites a while ago. This leads me to believe that they are not going to rebuild it for modern day standards meaning it will eventually cease to work 😦

So you have time. Start looking for other resources, reach out to your PLN, search the web, talk to your colleagues and find that replacement piece for your unit.

https://www.blog.google/products/chrome/saying-goodbye-flash-chrome/

Picking an Interactive Whiteboard (IWB)

This is a pretty meaty topic so hang on. An interactive whiteboard (IWB), or interactive flat panel, is basically a large TV that ranges 55“ – 88” (139cm – 224cm) that has touch capabilities. They usually come loaded with an Android OS or Windows 10 (some can even swap between the two) and most are priced very similarly to each other. That last fact is what makes it a bit difficult to chose, because there are A LOT of companies who are in this space. I’ve looked at mu fair share of these and I’m not here to talk about specific brands but to examine the characteristics and features that we looked for.

For us we are looking to purchase one interactive whiteboard for our library. Our teachers do not want these to replace their traditional whiteboards and markers (in fact, when we were demoing different units this was a fear from some teachers).

Here we go!

Hardware

I heard this from more than one vendor. The actual screen and hardware that powers it is nearly the same across all brands. There are only 2–3 companies that make these screens and then they sell them to other companies who put their specific hardware, casing, speakers, cart on it. This is why most of them are priced so closely to one another. So if a vendor says, well our 4K display is much, much better than that 4K display just look past that fact and focus more on how it works and what it can do. However, I will say that all the 4K displays looked stunning – regardless of brand.

Whiteboarding and Annotation

This turned out to be one of the most important features for our teachers. All the interactive whiteboards (IWB) can … well, whiteboard. They all had their own proprietary app that basically brought up a white screen that you could draw or write on with your finger or a pen. They all had fairly accurate and pretty responsive and lines, objects and words all showed up where you expected them to show up as you drew them. This was pretty universal and a good sign that touch has come a long way in the last ten years.

Getting the workspace off the whiteboard and onto a computer or cloud service was a big question. It is great that you can illustrate, model or brainstorm on this beautiful screen but how can you then save that and then share it with your students? One we looked at had us save it to a folder on the device itself, then you would have to open up Google Drive (Edmodo, Google Classroom, Office 365 – whatever service you would like) and then add it and share it from that service. Not bad but not easy.

Another IWB we looked at actually logged you into your cloud service of choice and you could save it to a folder automatically. This was much better and less cumbersome.

Also, teachers wanted to be able to annotate on web pages. All the boards offered this in one way or another. One board let you activate the annotation tools and you could then annotate right on the webpage without leaving the browser. You could then save that annotation or discard it right from a floating toolbar. Once that was done the toolbar disappeared and you could continue browsing.

Another IWB actually took a screenshot, loaded the screenshot into the whiteboarding app and you could annotate from there. Clunky.

All of our options had the ability to also do screen recording but again, some where better than others and sometimes finding that recording was not as intuitive as it should be. All in all, from a teacher perspective the whiteboarding and annotating features turned out to be the most important feature.

Operating System and Apps

I mentioned that the boards we looked at had different operating systems but they all boiled down to Windows 10 and Android. Here is what we found. With Windows 10 – it is a fully functional computer. Whatever you can install on a regular PC you can most likely install on the IWB. This is good and certainly a characteristic that was important to consider even though our teachers use Macbook Airs. Having the ability to launch an app without having to log into a website was very appealing. The Android IWB we looked at had varying amounts of apps that we could install. None of them had the actual Google Play Store meaning we would have to sideload the app and then there was no guarantee that it would work.

A teacher pointed out to me that if they wanted a particular program to be running, they would hook up their computer or connect wirelessly via Apple TV (which our school would provide) so the importance of apps on the whiteboard was not a deal breaker for us and probably shouldn’t be for you either.

Many of the IWBs would allow you to swap out the computer for another. This may be very handy if you have a fleet (one in every classroom). You could have a warm spare ready to deploy incase something happened to a particular board. Once swapped out, the technology team could take the bad one back and try to repair it and get it ready for another swap. Of course, the data on that damaged computer would most likely be lost – so save in the cloud folks!

Connecting other devices

All the IWBs we looked at could connect multiple devices to it. Usually via an HDMI cable. They also contained a USB B port as well that you could connect to your computer. What this would do would show your computer’s screen on the IWB and allow you to interact it with via touching the whiteboard. This worked pretty well for all but one thing to keep in mind is that gestures do NOT work with this interface. I could not use two fingers to scroll a webpage for example or tap two fingers on a file to bring up options. This seemed to be true for all we tried.

We tried an Apple TV and it worked fine. No touch but this was to be expected. We also tried an AirTame and it worked fine as well but again no touch capabilites.

Sound

This is more for me than the teacher or others on the tech team. I expect that this device should be able to pump out enough sound that a class of 20–30 students should easily be able to hear. Each IWB had their own built in speakers but some were better than others. One IWB we tried sounded as though the speakers were inside a protective casing. The sound was tinny and a little muffled and definitely not very loud.

All of them did allow for external speakers and all could also the mounting of a soundbar or side speakers, but that is an extra cost and I’ve seen some “mounted” speakers onto IWBs that look like they could fall off with a bump.

Multiple users & Licenses

Some of the IWB were clearly made for a few users. Since this particular board will be living in our library for any teacher to use with her/his class, then we needed to make sure that multiple people could easily switch from one account to another, so this was an important factor for us. If every classroom is getting one, then maybe not so much for you or your school but it is something to keep in mind.

Also, do you need to purchase a license every year to continue to use the board. Some boards have their own proprietary software that requires a yearly license. Be sure to know what those costs are will it still function if you don’t want to use that service anymore. I’ve seen presentations and asked that question and sometimes have gotten conflicting answers from the vendor. Be sure to know.

Try them out and gather data!

I looked at quite a few and if we couldn’t get a demo unit into the school then we did not consider it. It was too important piece of equipment to base it upon a tech spec sheet and tutorial videos. If a vendor can’t provide a demo unit (or if you can’t go to them and try it out) stay away.

Also, when you try them out set up a formal demonstration either through the vendor or doing it yourself. Show off some highlights of each machine and allow teachers to give feedback. I know there will be times I will be use the IWB but teachers and students will be using it more than myself and hearing what they want is critical for getting buy in.

Lasting thoughts

Devices in this area are rapidly changing and developing. Do not worry about buyers remorse. If you find the best fit for your school at that time be comfortable with that decision and don’t kick yourself when the prices drop $500 the next year or when an 8K display becomes available for the same price, etc.

Also, stay away from IWBs that are aimed for corporate environments. I’m looking at your Surface Hub 2. This is a great device and a marvel of engineering but the sheer cost of it ($9000 for the 55″) is not realistic to most K–12 schools regardless of funding.

Finally, make it a team decision. Don’t unilaterally make this decision. Gather a group of educators (teachers are a must) and get feedback. If no one can agree on a path forward then that is not a failure or people being difficult. It is most likely a sign that your school may not be ready for this device yet or more likely, the devices out there cannot meet the needs of your school. I’ve been in a school with “Interactive Whiteboards” and they stunk! Few teachers used them, they weren’t enjoyable to use and basically sat unused.

When it does arrive, be sure to educate your staff and do it often throughout the years to come. Make sure people know how to use the basics and are somewhat comfortable with it.

Self Checkout with a Chromebook!

I know I’m not the first (not even close!) to do this but I figured it would be a good post anyway. We now have a self-checkout station in our library, so our students can check out books on their own. This post will show how we set it up and implemented it, which was easier than I originally thought it would be.

Hardware & Requirements

OK, let’s talk about what we used to make this happen.

Chromebook

We decided to use a Chromebook because it is pretty cheap, doesn’t take up a bunch of space and is portable. Also, it is very easy to manage.

Barcode Scanner

We also gave the Chromebook its own scanner. This was a little more expensive than I thought and we made sure it had a base that it could sit in so students didn’t have to pick it up. Also, we want one that is a little heavy duty so it will last. Think of this as an investment. You can certainly find bar code scanners for much, much less but I firmly believe you get what you pay for here. This one in the picture is $150 USD.

Labels

We also used a label printer to print off student barcodes. We used a Brother label maker with its P-Touch software. This software lets us point it to a spreadsheet so we can design a simple template with tags in it and then print merge out all the labels for a grade level or school in one go.

This is a newer model than what we use but the labels in the end should be the same.

Here is a sample of what one of our student labels looks like.

Library Sticks

We use these are sticks to affix a label to that will have a student’s name and patron number as a barcode. We use some plastic heavier duty sticks instead of paint sticks thought paint sticks would probably work just as well. I do know these are more expensive than paint sticks but they’re already colorful, don’t break easily and won’t give any kids splinters.

I’m not sure what ours are called but I’ll find out later and update the post with that info soon.

Destiny

So our library (like many others) uses Follett Destiny to manage our collection; however, I believe that if you used another database that this could still work for you providing that it is web based like Destiny is. Even if it is run locally on your own network – there may be a place for a local user to log in and checkout books through a web browser. If so, then you could possibly set this up provided you would be able to create or modify roles in that system.

Self-Checkout Access Levels and User

In order for this to work we had to create a user in Destiny that can “check out” books. What we don’t want though is for that user to be able to forgive fines, remove books from the collection and basically bring upon an apocalypse.

Lucky for us, Destiny has lots of options and I’ll show you how we made this user.

First, you need to log in as an administrator in Destiny. Then go to Back Office. From here select Access Levels. Here we can create the role and then we will create the user.

When you are at the Access Levels screen go ahead and click on Add Access Level.

From here make sure you do the following:

  • Give it a memorable name
  • Change the Automatic log out to 240 minutes (this is the max time before the system logs the user out)
  • Change the Reset Circulation time to 120 seconds (or whatever you feel is appropriate)
  • Make sure the Collection Role is Student
  • Make sure the only access is Check out library materials

Then click Save.

Now we will stay on the Back Office page and but switch from Access Levels to Manage Patrons. Click on the Add New Patron button.

This will create a new patron or user. You need to fill in the information circled in the picture:

  • Last name
  • First name
  • Username
  • Password
  • Barcode number
  • Access Level (make sure you select the one you just made)

Putting it together

On the Chromebook, we navigated to Destiny and had the librarian log in as our Sample Student. You should see that there are no options to search, check in or do anything else on Destiny except checkout books – perfect!

Now that all the hardware, access level and user are in in place here is what it looks like. I apologize for the mess, this was taken on a Friday afternoon before Spring Break – so a lot of students had returned books.

On Chrome, I zoomed into 150% so it is a little easier for anyone to see what has been checked out.

How it works

Here is how it all works together. A student has their library stick with their barcode printed on it. They pick out the book(s) they want and bring it to the self-checkout station. They scan their library stick which will bring up their account. Then they scan their books one at a time.

When they finish, they then use the trackpad on the Chromebook to click the Reset button. This resets the system and gets it ready for the next student to checkout.

If the system is inactive for 120 seconds it will automatically reset itself and after 240 minutes it will need to be re-logged in.

Details to know

We just set this up but have already had first graders use it and it went pretty well. If a student checks out too many books the system will require for an administrator to put in their username and password to accept it. If not, it will not check out that final book(s) they want.

Putting the self-checkout screen in full screen mode is also highly recommended. This will hide the address bar, bookmarks and any other tabs that may be open.

That reset button is the only real sticky point I can see. Signage is one time tutorial with the students is highly recommended but I figure after one (maybe two visits) students will be good to go. We tried it yesterday with first grade students and didn’t have too many problems!

There should be a librarian, teacher or aid nearby most times just in case.

New Google Docs, Sheets or Presentation? Just type “New”

Well, sort of.

You see if you wanted to create a new document you could that out of Google Drive or go to Google’s respective Docs, Slides or Sheets website.

Those individual websites seem a little silly to me but hey, I just chose to only use Drive.

Now if you want to create a new document, Google has made it a bit easier. First, make sure you are signed into Google and then type one of the following URLs.
docs.new
sheets.new
presentation.net

BAM – you are ready to start creating and sharing.