Saturday, March 28, 2020

The week I got Zoombombed

Before the COVID-19 emergency, I travelled to work to sit at my desk and have lots of video meetings, mostly using Zoom. Now I stay at home and do the same thing. I haven't noticed a massive change in my working routines basically. However, since most education in the world is now being conducted online the use of e-meeting tools like Zoom has gone off the scale and all platforms are busy expanding their capacity to meet the unprecedented demand.

But when a service gets popular it attracts the trolls and cranks that get a thrill out of disrupting and sabotaging. They now seem to have found their way into Zoom meetings and this week I got my first taste. I have been very fortunate to have escaped the trolls over all the years that I have been active in social media and online communication. I have also been quite open at inviting people to webinars and other synchronous events. Anyway on Thursday we were running a 2 day internal conference where teachers could exchange ideas with each other on teaching online. The conference ran over two days and teachers could come and go as their schedules allowed. On Thursday morning we had an external speaker and I thought we could maybe attract some external participants by tweeting about it. This is not unusual and I'd never heard of anyone having problems with advertising a live session this way.

Seconds after my tweet, the trolls turned up and started screaming loudly and sharing their screen shots of assorted excrement. I scrambled to cancel the participant screen-sharing and ejected the offenders from the room as soon as I could. I also deleted my tweet. After a few minutes of chaos things calmed down and we could start the session though I was on red alert checking all new participants and immediately ejecting people with generic names like John or Dave. The rest of the conference went well and no more trolls turned up. Unfortunately I mistakenly ejected a real participant who was then unable to join the rest of the conference (once ejected you cannot return). I could have changed the setting to readmit ejected participants but didn't dare unless the trolls came back.

I felt less ashamed when I realised that I was not the only one to suffer from this. There's even a name for it, Zoombombing, and is described in an article in the Guardian, Trolls exploit Zoom privacy settings as app gains popularity. In Zoom we want to create creative meetings where participants have a voice, can share screens and collaborate so we have all these options open. We also want to make it easy to come to a meeting without the barriers of passwords and up till now this open attitude has been possible. But after this experience I will need to be more careful organising events and build in safeguards against unauthorised entry. Zoom have reacted quickly and have now published a page of tips on how to limit the threat from trolls, How to Keep the Party Crashers from Crashing Your Zoom Event. useful measures for future public events are password protection, use a waiting room for monitoring new arrivals, stop screen-sharing for participants (unless the host gives them permission), mute all participants on entry, put everyone on hold until you eject the intruders, temporarily disable participants' video and more. For webinars I only send the link to the room to those who have registered for the event (usually one day before) and that has so far been enough to keep the meeting in order.

I will certainly be more careful in future and I would urge you to do the same. That doesn't mean locking down a wonderful forum for collaboration, just be careful as host and know where the emergency buttons are. But think before you post that link publicly.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Suddenly the whole world is going online

It's hard to avoid writing a post about the effects of the COVID-19 virus and even harder to add something particularly new given the flood of posts from educators all over the world. I will just pick out a few articles that I have found particularly useful and point you in their direction.

Many countries have already shut down their university campuses and all teaching will now take place online until further notice. Here in Sweden we haven't got that far yet but all institutions are preparing for a possible shutdown. This is an unprecedented move and an opportunity for all teachers to get experience in teaching online. The challenge is to offer the right level of support and advice to teachers new to the field and help them offer a good enough online experience without risking them becoming confused, frustrated and stressed.

On the right here you can see a good infographic by Alison Yang that gives teachers a realistic view of what to focus on and what to avoid when switching abruptly from classroom to online teaching (see original post, How do we teach online). The main advice is to keep it simple: don't try anything fancy, don't get ambitious, don't try to be always available and don't stress your students. Interestingly she advises avoiding synchronous online meetings. In these extreme circumstances you can't be sure that all your class can log in at any given time and they may even have connectivity problems. Another issue with e-meetings is that many platforms have limits in terms of capacity and in recent days there has been an extreme demand on tools like Zoom and Skype resulting in some users being unable to join meetings. A good piece of advice if you are going to have synchronous meetings is to have alternatives such as Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, Webex etc. In general it is probably better to focus on asynchronous interaction with recorded mini-lectures and discussion forums.

A post by Rebecca Barrett-Fox with the provocative title, Please do a bad job of putting your courses online, urges inexperienced colleagues to be realistic in what they offer online and remember that the students may have all sorts of other concerns in their lives than just this course. As in Alison Yang's post you need to adapt to the situation and not try to impress your university with your ability to teach online without help.
For my colleagues who are now being instructed to put some or all of the remainder of their semester online, now is a time to do a poor job of it. You are NOT building an online class. You are NOT teaching students who can be expected to be ready to learn online. And, most importantly, your class is NOT the highest priority of their OR your life right now. Release yourself from high expectations right now, because that’s the best way to help your students learn.
Tony Bates' post, Advice to those about to teach online because of the corona-virus, echoes many of these sentiments. Most importantly you need to get support from your university's educational technologists or colleagues with experience in online learning. Most importantly is implementing a less is more principal and remembering that the students have limited time for your course. Let them find information for themselves and encourage discussion.
Ask yourself the question: what is the best way students should use that 8-10 hours a week, if they are studying online? How much of that must be through a lecture? How much could they do for themselves? How can I make sure they are connecting with other students online, so they do not feel socially isolated, and how best can they use that connection to further their learning?
After the current emergency is over all institutions need to take stock and see how to develop teachers' skills in online teaching so we are all better prepared for future emergencies. I suspect, sadly, that there may be more.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Why tech - the dangers of digital over-dependency

In our rush to adopt all things digital we seldom pause to consider what we are discarding from our lives. Handwriting, navigating by map, calculating in your head, remembering facts, deep reading, dealing with silence and so on. Obsolete skills you may think but extremely useful if the digital alternative breaks down. For example, here in Sweden we have virtually achieved a cashless society and although cash still exists it is becoming extremely difficult to spend it. Public transport is almost completely cashless, many shops and restaurants refuse cash and even the banks don't want to touch the stuff. Many old and vulnerable people (asylum seekers and homeless people without bank accounts) are therefore completely marginalised, but that seems to be regarded as collateral damage in the rush towards a digital future. As a result, every step your take and every move you make are being stored and exploited. At the same time we are building an extremely dangerous vulnerability into our society. If there's a power or network connectivity failure, nothing works. You can't buy anything and there's no back-up.

I have been thinking about this for a long time and have consciously reverted to some old-school habits in an attempt to keep myself in touch with both worlds, trying to become functionally ambidextrous; able to handle both the digital and the analogue. This week I stumbled across a short interview with Kris De Decker, founder of Low-tech Magazine, ”Reconsider the thinking that everything should become digital”. He's a former tech journalist who has discovered the joys of low-tech. The magazine's slogan is "doubts on progress and technology" and questions the belief that technology can solve all our problems. It contains low-tech solutions to everyday problems and the website itself runs on a solar-powered server showing that you can be low-tech and still benefit from some aspects of the digital world. It also questions many technologies that we consider green such as electric cars, wind turbines and solar cells; they all rely on batteries and manufacturing processes that have a considerable footprint. But it's not about retreating into a cave and living off-grid, but reassessing our over-reliance on a technology that is becoming frighteningly vulnerable.

In the interview, De Decker explains why we shouldn't discard our old skills.
We also lose a lot of skills. As someone who doesn’t have a smartphone, I have noticed that I have become one of the few people who still knows how to navigate a city without staring at a screen. This makes us also very vulnerable. If our complex infrastructures falter, we are helpless. Just think about the infrastructure we need to do digital payments. Cash, on the other hand, is very resilient.
Maybe we should all challenge ourselves now and again to go retro for a while. Try visiting a city and see how well you can survive without TripAdvisor, Google Maps, Uber etc. See the sights with a map and find restaurants by asking people. It works, but just in a different way. If we lose that ability we lose our resilience.

Then there's the issue of the environmental impact of technology. I have been working enthusiastically with webinars and digital conferences as an answer to the need to reduce the carbon footprint of frequent flying but we also need to realise that technology has en enormous impact too. All our devices and gigantic server halls that store our data are extremely damaging to the environment, not to mention the ever-growing mountain of electronic waste that is all too seldom recycled.
But of course digital technology is just as physical as any other technology. There is an enormous infrastructure behind the internet. The production of computer chips requires complex factories and lots of energy and other resources.
I'm not going low-tech (yet) but I am attracted to the idea that we embrace digitalisation with more caution than before and dare to maintain contact with the skills that digitalisation is trying to make obsolete. We need to be able to work on both sides of the digital divide and develop a functional resilience. You never know when you may need to work out something for yourself again.