The Corona crisis has accelerated the digitalisation of schools. Unfortunately, the supposedly easier path in regards to software has often been the first choice. Our opinion: Office 365 does not belong in schools. End of story. We’ve previously written about this topic in our statement Using Microsoft Teams in Bavarian schools.

It is essential to protect the personal rights of children. Educational data is intimate, so it should not be possible for anyone to create personality profiles from it in the future, and it must not be possible to draw any conclusions from existing student data in the future. This data is highly sensitive and must be protected. The editors of Golem recently addressed this issue in an extensive Article. It’s extremely important that students be enabled to get to know software from different manufacturers, and an early “conditioning” to a single manufacturer, even with very young students, should be strictly avoided.

 

Homeschooling – What are the most important requirements?

 

There will certainly never be one single software solution for all schools that meets all criteria, as requirements vary. However, in today’s blog post, we would like to highlight some crucial factors that are of great importance for the selection, use and, if necessary, further development of school platforms:

1. Availability and reliability of the school platform used
2. Interactive learning – as close as possible to face-to-face teaching
3. Usability and intuitive use
4. Independence from devices
5. Data protection and security
6. Privacy of data
7. Interoperability
8. Simple administration and straightforward support in case of issues
9. Training for teachers
10. No vendor lock-in, transparent licensing models, open source

 

Even prior to the start of the pandemic, many students and teachers had begun to think about what digital teaching could look like. The deficits that existed were and still are obvious, especially during the time of school closures. Currently, overloads on server infrastructures which are used for the delivery of learning material are very common in many countries. There are also great uncertainties regarding the GDPR and a jungle of more or less suitable offers.

As an open-source solution, the HPI School Cloud in Germany offers some very useful approaches. However, there is also a significant disadvantage: although personal data is encrypted externally, plain names are stored on the platform itself. Adjustments should be made here as well.

The requirements for homeschooling in detail, and our suggested solution VNCtalk for e-learning with chat, video and audio conferencing, file sharing, document collaboration and screen-sharing:

1. Availability and reliability

Current problem: It’s Monday morning, 08:00 AM – many students want to access learning platforms at the same time, the servers are overloaded, nothing works …
Our solution: Instead of relying on external hosting, VNCtalk can be operated decentralized and distributed. Knowing the number of accounts required for teachers, students, etc., a private cloud can be implemented for each school, district or canton, tailored exactly to their needs. This can prevent an overload of other systems in use. For example, teachers can upload the teaching material they need directly as a file to the group chat of the respective class, instead of redirecting the students to the shared education servers.

2. Interactive learning

Currently, tons of worksheets are sent out or uploaded to school clouds. This works (reasonably well) to replace a week of face-to-face teaching, but is by no means a reasonable substitute for months of homeschooling.

With VNCtalk, lessons can be realised easily and securely in video conferences. For example, lectures can be given to an entire class via screen sharing; the “raise your hand” function also allows for interposed questions or objections by teachers and students. With this combination, lessons can be held as close as possible to face-to-face classes. In parallel to the video conference, questions can be easily asked in the chat.

 

 

By using the Whiteboard and the VNCpad in VNCtalk, documents can also be created for joint editing, for group tasks for example. The different coloured display of the chat for each user in the VNCpad also shows the participation of each team member. Via the specially integrated “Files” button, sent and received files, such as worksheets, can be found again quickly, even after long periods of disuse.

As the moderator of a VNCtalk video conference, teachers also have the option of muting individual participants. This option is particularly helpful if a microphone is unusually noisy or if a student has forgotten to mute theirself.

3. Usability and intuitive use

An easy-to-use interface is the key to a smooth experience for all users. Confusing menus or a multitude of applications can complicate the process and reduce motivation to engage with digital media. VNCtalk is very simple and intuitive to use, usability being a main focus during development.

4. Independence from devices

VNCtalk is available as a browser application, as an app for iPad, iPhone, tablet and Android and also offers a desktop client for Windows, MacOS and Linux. This should cover the most commonly used systems for most people. The only mandatory requirement besides a functioning end device is a stable internet connection. And even if this should fail, it is no problem rejoin a conference again at any time.

5. Data protection and security

VNCtalk can be implemented in a private cloud in the user’s country according to the guidelines of the GDPR. The optional OMEMO encryption and two-factor authentication additionally protect sensitive data. Unfortunately, data protection in particular is often compromised at the moment – in favour of the seemingly simple or most common solutions. In Thuringia, for example, this has already led to conflicts between schools and data protection supervisors.

6. Privacy of data

When using VNCtalk, plain names can be used consistently, as VNClagoon can be hosted in a private cloud and does not, for example, set any third-party cookies or specifically evaluates data on user behaviour.

7. Interoperability

Besides VNCtalk, other VNClagoon products are also suitable for e-learning. VNCmail for communication via email, VNCsafe for secure storage of files such as worksheets and homework, VNCoffice for new office documents, VNCcalendar for managing appointments and VNCcommander to connect all components in one application.

8. Administration and Support

To comply with data protection guidelines, schools have two options: Operating the chosen solution on-premise, i.e. directly in a dedicated data centre, or in a secure private cloud. However, it is not only the location of the server that is crucial here, but also correctly configured security precautions such as firewalls. These must secure the infrastructure as much as possible, but also transmit relevant communication data with sufficient performance. Good staff training is also essential here, unless these tasks are outsourced to specialised companies that can guarantee fast support. Systems in public clouds that have been frequently used should now be used solely as a short-term emergency solution, but these solutions are not suitable for long-term operation, as there remains the threat of high penalties due to violations of the General Data Protection Regulation.

9. Training for teachers

Training in the use of new media is indispensable for teachers and is not yet included as a separate lesson in the curriculum at many universities. For a long time, it has been the students who set up the video equipment, beamer or other technical devices in the classroom. In addition to the general teaching of the use of new media in the classroom, training for the specific software used is also necessary to ensure that the lessons run smoothly and to avoid disruptions.
The security of the systems also depends on well-trained staff. Servers can only be operated safely on one’s own if they are looked after by competent persons.

Another important point is the training for teachers to teach school material virtually. What group sizes should not be exceeded? How can we keep the students’ attention on the subject? What duration should not be exceeded in a video conference? Which media can be used specifically and in what form to illustrate the subject matter? Even with the best software, good learning results cannot be achieved if the lessons are not adapted to the teaching of the material via video conferencing. At the same time, this new form of teaching offers wonderful opportunities to make lessons exciting – a departure from mundane frontal teaching towards varied teaching formats, work in teams and the use of different media for illustration.

10. No vendor lock-in, transparent licensing models, open source

A free choice of hardware and software, flexibility and transparent licensing models should be the long-term goal in the digitisation of schools. Open source software can make a decisive contribution to designing reliable and affordable school platforms – secure, resilient, sovereign and sustainable. Auditable source code can prevent the unintentional “leakage” of sensitive data, as has been criticised for years with all Microsoft products. Open source software is more agile and flexible and can be adapted to ever changing requirements at short notice. At the same time, weak points in the code can be uncovered during code audits or by the community and then corrected.

 

 

 

Summary:

There will probably not be a single solution that fits the needs of all schools. Different requirements demand a minimum of flexibility in the use of communication and collaboration software. Our kids should be made aware at schools and universities of self-determined use and also of the advantages and disadvantages of individual solutions, and a “conditioning” to special solutions should not be promoted at primary school age. Another decisive goal in order to remain independent of the influence of other countries and individual software providers: Use of European and GDPR-compliant software that can be hosted flexibly – in the data centre of choice or also on premise. And here, too, crisis resilience and independence should be a much stronger focus than before!

 

 

VNCtalk – as a platform for interactive learning:

 

Our product VNCtalk can be used as a platform for communication and collaboration in schools. VNCtalk is a secure and flexible customisable real-time communication solution and offers chats (1×1 or group chat), video and audio conferencing, screen sharing, voice messaging, file transfer, collaborative document creation and editing (VNCpad), sending files between users, whiteboards and much more. VNCtalk works on every common browser and every end device, and can of course also be used mobile.

Would you like to learn more about VNCtalk?

Register on VNClagoon LIVE and test the reference implementation of our VNClagoon Communication and Collaboration Stack!

 

 

Read about the changes we have introduced with VNCtalk version 3: VNCtalk Version 3 – Worlds ahead! The adaptations in VNCtalk 3.0.2 and 3.0.3 can be found here.

Information about encryption in VNCtalk can be found here: Encryption in VNCtalk – Truly secure communication

With all our products, the security of your data is our top priority. Keep important information where it belongs – in your company or organization!

 

VNCtalk is part of our VNClagoon Business Software Stack.

 

VNClagoon is the enterprise grade software stack for all of your communication and collaboration needs. At the same time your valuable data remains under your control – no black boxes and no hidden backdoors! VNClagoon is a real alternative to closed software from vendors such as Microsoft, with all the features and functionalities you expect from a modern communication and collaboration suite including a messenger, real-time communication, groupware, project & task management, and much more.
We are convinced that the future of business software will be open source. Therefore, our integrated VNClagoon stack is entirely based upon open standards.

Further information information about all our products can be found at: www.vnclagoon.com!

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