It’s still Day One for remote learning: A tech dad’s thoughts on the new era of public education

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[Editor’s Note: Seattle tech entrepreneur and hacker Adam Doppelt, co-founder of local business recommendation startup Fresh Chalk, previously co-founded Dwellable and Urbanspoon. GeekWire asked him to expand on a recent Facebook post in this guest commentary.]

As a tech guy and dad to kids in Seattle Public Schools, I experienced the first day of the new school year with a strange brew of empathy and frustration. Man, what a nightmare. The district handed out laptops to tens of thousands of kids. Can we fathom the herculean effort required to purchase, unbox, image and distribute tens of thousands of laptops in just a few weeks? Pour one out for the SPS Department of Technology Services.

Adam Doppelt
Adam Doppelt

I witnessed the carnage up close. Here are a few thoughts on where we can go from here. While these observations are specific to Seattle Public Schools, many of the larger principles will be relevant to other districts facing similar challenges.

VPN trade-offs: Laptops distributed to students were carefully configured to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) provided by SPS. This lets SPS exert control over these new devices. Can’t have the students playing games or viewing adult content on SPS equipment. When the laptops try to connect to anything, anything at all, those connections go through the VPN. Physically, the VPN is a small set of machines that live in the cloud. All internet connections must first pass through those machines. That includes the three key components of SPS remote learning: Microsoft Teams for video streaming; the Schoology and Seesaw learning management systems; and Office 365.

Guess what happened when every kid in Seattle tried to connect to that poor VPN at the same time? It crashed. Over and over throughout the day. Parents frantically tried to reconnect, to little avail. Kids were disconnected from classrooms and couldn’t get back in.

To be fair, building a VPN like that is a challenging task. It’s a hard technical problem, and I’m not sure it can even be made to work on short notice. If I was tasked with creating a VPN that could simultaneously support tens of thousands of connections starting at the same time on the same day with no time for testing, I would find a new job. I fondly recall the first time Apple tried to stream their keynote address and the video crashed and burned in memorable fashion.

My observations of the VPN challenges were second-hand. My family opted to use our own computers, helping to ensure that enough laptops were available to the kids who needed them. But even our personal devices failed, as Microsoft Teams slowly buckled under the load. That look on your kid’s face when they can’t connect to the classroom on the first day of school, ugh.

More speculation here: If SPS can’t make the VPN work, they may have to collect the thousands of laptops, reconfigure and redistribute them. They might have to pause school entirely for a week or two. As a sneak preview for the fun times ahead, this weekend all parents were forcefully instructed to “reboot the laptops and leave them on to trigger an update.”

Previously: Seattle Public Schools’ return to remote learning gets off to rough start with technical problems

Ad-hoc IT support: Facebook filled up with plaintive requests for IT help from overburdened parents. My kid was kicked out. I can’t connect. My laptop is slow. I have no audio. Is class still happening? Am I muted? There is a problem with my wifi. I can’t find that button. Where do I go for help? Can anyone hear me? Facebook was transformed into the world’s worst ticketing system since angry parents had nowhere else to turn. It’s the only thing available when “SPS is down.”

SPS sent many emails urging parents to prepare for the first few days of school, optimistically dubbed “Strong Start.” Strong Start is intended to be a technology break-in period. SPS clearly had an inkling of what might occur. Maybe they’ll be able to patch things up remotely without reimaging the machines. We’ll find out on Tuesday as Strong Start rolls onward.

My son’s wonderful 5th grade teacher exhibited superhuman patience on Day One, trying to assist parents flailing in the chat. I don’t know how she remained calm. Muting issues, hardware problems, connectivity snafus, versioning, password problems. It went on and on for hours.

Somehow our teacher is supposed to act as first line IT support for 30 families. A thankless and impossible job. Can you imagine what it must be like answering calls on the SPS IT hotline during Strong Start?

Reducing technology risk: In my day job as an entrepreneur, we refer to this problem as “technology risk.” Let’s hazard some guesses as to how SPS could reduce technology risk.

Each kid who uses a personal device reduces the load on the VPN. Maybe families who are able to use their own computers should be encouraged to avoid the SPS laptops until the network is stable. Perhaps we could switch to staggered classes to give the VPN a breather. As a last resort, teachers could ditch the huge video calls and switch to recorded video or small groups to take pressure off the VPN. Some districts are broadcasting classes over television instead of relying on our creaking internet. Just put one teacher on TV and free up the rest for small group work.

If we proceed with Microsoft Teams, the most reliable way to connect to the classroom is the plain old phone system. Each classroom “meeting” comes equipped with a conference number, which should work as a last resort. Possibly a first resort. Maybe we should all just dial in to reduce the load on the VPN?

Can glitching classrooms abandon Teams and move to Zoom, Slack, Hangouts or any number of stable video platforms? That would take pressure off the VPN and other centralized SPS systems. Or maybe turn off the VPN entirely and use DNS for filtering. People seem to like CleanBrowsing DNS.

Another problem is that every family seems to be running a different version of Microsoft Teams. In our one classroom, I heard people were using Windows, Mac, iOS and web. Some people appeared to be using stale versions. That doesn’t help when our poor teachers are the first line of IT defense. Web-based software crushed native software ages ago. Maybe we should switch to the browser-based version of Microsoft Teams so we’re all talking about the same thing, and Microsoft can roll out fixes quickly.

Again, a moment of silence for our poor comrades in the SPS Department of Technology Services. I look forward to Tuesday, when I’m sure these problems will magically resolve. Let the remote learning commence! #2020

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