What’s going on in that (virtual) classroom?

My kids’ (virtual) classrooms are buzzing, beeping, and a whirl of activity these days. The problem is that these are virtual classrooms and are all located within earshot in my real house. Keeping a grip on all of these activities is a large task.

On one hand, it’s more difficult than ever to make sure kids are on task and progressing with the needed tasks. Then there are the safety issues. The two biggest issues are how safe these apps are from online intruders and the privacy of the e are the call participants, and who is gathering what types of information about their activities. A lesser issue (at the moment) is how Covid is breaching the carefully constructed barriers between students and teachers on social media.

It’s a brave new world

The shift to virtual classrooms has raised some thorny privacy and behavior issues. What happens when a student decides to smoke in class – virtually, of course? And what about those boys that derided their teacher as an idiot – but forgot that they were still logged into the virtual classroom and the mic was live? In one case, the teacher shrugged, in the other, there was a real reprimand given. Real cases, but I can’t say more without breaking some European privacy laws.

This is more than a single app problem … or solution

When checking on my kids’ schoolwork, I learned that they’ve been served a big bowl of technology goulash, albeit without paprika. Some of the names on their lists include Google Classroom, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, the school’s own online school app, Quizizz and Quizlet, WhatsApp, and Zoom.

At least in my case, it appears that there is no cohesive school or district system in place, with kids using an ad hoc mix of teacher-selected apps and programs. A quick calculation puts the total at four educational apps per kid. Yes, it is a question what all of these apps are doing with data collected from kids, their privacy policies,  and how secure these apps are.

Is this the time to start (or start) Zooming?

Zoom is at the top of almost every COVID-19 list of teleconferencing apps – and there are reasons for this. For starters, the app is a basically free and easy way for groups to connect. These are important details for teachers and students that have suddenly been sent home. The app has captured a huge segment of the new spike in online teleconferencing since the home quarantine period started.

But all is not perfect with Zoom. The app has rightly gotten lots of flack for a range of privacy issues that enabled “zoombombing” – people stepping into Zoom meetings and disrupting them with profanities and obscene content. There have also been questions about the Chinese-owned app’s privacy policies and the location of the servers storing login details. Some organizations have banned the use of Zoom such as the Taiwanese government, Google, and the New York City. There have even been bugs reported that could let a hacker take control of webcams and mics on a user’s Macs. But, stopping at this point – especially for the student in your house – is probably not an option.

Your choices are limited, but …

The onslaught of COVID caught most – but not all – schools, teachers, and parents unawares. It has placed many in the position of simply going with whatever apps and programs are available, free, and decided upon by the specific school or teacher. Given the complexities of the situation, there are three basic steps you can do to help improve the security situation.

  1. Pay attention to issues – If a privacy issue or software bug comes up, it will be usually written up in the IT press or on Twitter.
  2. Keep that device updated – Some of the Zoom security issues were resolved in a recent software update. Check that you have the latest version – and think about having a software updater help you stay updated.
  3. Practice best practice – Many of the Zoom security problems can be minimised by users more carefully setting up their online meetings such as not posting the meeting links on social media or not using their personal meeting ID to host a public event.

This post is also available in: FrenchSpanishItalianPortuguese (Brazil)

As a PR Consultant and journalist, Frink has covered IT security issues for a number of security software firms, as well as provided reviews and insight on the beer and automotive industries (but usually not at the same time). Otherwise, he’s known for making a great bowl of popcorn and extraordinary messes in a kitchen.
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