Reston, VA

The rollout of the second week of distance learning by Fairfax County Public Schools continues to be wrought by challenges.

Earlier this morning, FCPS noted that many people are still having problems logging on the Blackboard Learn, the online system used for distance learning. School officials say that updates made by Blackboard over the weekend have not corrected delays with the system.

We are aware that some students were able to access the 24-7 system early, however as the volume increased, we received word that access was intermittent or slow, in some cases requiring multiple log-on attempts. Once inside the system, Blackboard Collaborate worked well and that resource is continuing to be used by some teachers,” FCPS wrote in a statement.

The Fairfax County School Board is expected to receive an update on the rollout of distance learning on Thursday (April 23). The virtual meeting begins at 10 a.m.

Last week, FCPS canceled distance learning because of major failures with the system. Students and teachers were unable to log on and teachers felt they were unprepared to log in.

The school system’s top leadership officials conceded that the rollout of the plan was a failure and apologized for missteps. They also noted that the school system did not implement seven recommended upgrades to the software over the last two years.

A recent Washington Post story shed light on major security problems that occurred last week. Students appeared on-screen naked and flashed weapons while other chats were hijacked by racist, homophobic and inappropriate language, according to the story.

The story also flagged delays in the rollout of distance learning, which took roughly four weeks, including spring break:

In staff meetings held in late March, teachers suggested using programs such as Zoom to facilitate face time with students, according to educators, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retribution. But those ideas were shot down by higher-ups, who cited concerns about security.

That anxiety was well-founded: Schools across the country have fallen prey to “Zoom bombing,” a phenomenon in which anonymous users disrupt online classes with hateful rhetoric or sexually explicit images. Nonetheless, Zoom and popular platforms like it had helped school districts, businesses and even families get connected quickly during a time of upheaval.

Fairfax settled on a solution many were less excited about: online learning tools offered by Blackboard. Caldwell said the division has a contract with Blackboard for $2.6 million in 2020, which includes an extra $150,000 per month that the division agreed to pay the firm during the shutdown.

In interviews, teachers described Blackboard as a lumbering program that they found more difficult than other technologies and more likely to malfunction. The school district was planning to switch to another online platform, Schoology, in 2021, Caldwell said.

A community petition to hold FCPS “accountable for educating our kids during [a] pandemic” has received 937 of the 1,000 needed signatures. The petition calls for an independent audit of decision making and events prior to the rollout of distance learning.

FCPS plans to continue its distance learning plan tomorrow.

Photo via FCPS

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Fairfax County school board members expressed major dismay over the botched rollout of the school system’s first week of distance learning, including security issues and technical problems with Blackboard’s system.

At an online meeting today (Thursday), school officials acknowledged the school’s leadership failed to ensure adequate security measures were in place when students and teachers logged on to online sessions.

Teacher-led distance learning was canceled this week due to technical issues the school system is working to resolve.

FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand told the school board today that the issues have been two-fold: capacity and load issues on Blackboard’s end and failures to implement and monitor security protocol by FCPS.

Security Issues

Sloan Presidio, the school system’s assistant superintendent for instructional services, described security issues as a “leadership failure.”

“We failed to properly train the staff,” Presidio said, adding that the school’s leadership did not communicate how teachers should properly set up online sessions and make sure security settings were in place.

In some cases, students were able to set up and run unmonitored chat sessions that were not seen by moderators. Some students were able to log on with fake names and upload inappropriate photos.

“We absolutely share the concern and the dismay at some of the behavior that was reported,” Tim Tomlinson, Blackboard’s chief product officer, said. “It’s unconscionable.”

Although instructors were given guidance on how to maintain security and set up online sessions, school officials said the information was not properly disseminated. Once school officials were made aware of security issues, additional guidance on security was provided.

School board member Megan McLaughlin said she was “shocked” the 10th largest school system in the country did not conduct load testing prior to the launch of the system.

“There is no getting around it,” McLaughlin said.

Blackboard Problems 

In addition to security challenges, the system experience log-in issues on the first day of learning, following by problems associated with Blackboard’s servers. The Reston-based company is working on upgrades to the system to resolve ongoing issues.

Tomlinson said that Blackboard “had no indication that these problems would occur” and shared a statement from the company apologizing for the disruption.

“We are working with FCPS to require students to log in to the FCPS 24-7 site and authenticate their identity before they are permitted to join a virtual classroom,” according to the Blackboard statement.

Tomlinson also noted that FCPS chose not to update its software for three years to the latest system. Seven updates were publicly available but not applied, he said.

But Maribeth Luftglass, assistant superintendent of the school system’s department of information technology, noted that the school system was never told those upgrades were required for performance purposes, especially prior to the launch of distance learning. She also added that the system was due for a planned upgrade this June.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic hit locally, the school system had plans in place to replace Blackboard Learn, a virtual learning environment, with Schoology, another distance learning tool operated by PowerSchool Unified Classroom, over the next two years.

The school system hopes to pilot the system in the fall.

School Board Responds   

School board members also questioned why distance learning proceeded if there was indication there were technical problems prior the launch. Several of the members urged FCPS to consider learning alternatives, like resources from Google.

“If Blackboard can’t handle this, lets try Google” Laura Jane Cohen, who represents the Springfield District. “Everyone has worked too hard to make this happen.”

According to the presentation, less than half of the teachers have Google Classroom sites, which could be used as a learning supplement.

“There would be significant teacher training required and additional workload on teachers to create these sites,” the presentation said. “Additionally, Google Classroom is not linked to the student information system and teachers would have to manually create courses.”

The presentation notes that students and teachers have equal permissions on Google Meet, which could let students override teacher content, and that guest access is allowed.

“Additionally, Google engineers expressed concern about handling the volume of FCPS users,” the presentation said.

Other school board members said a two-hour delay in instructor-led learning on Wednesday was not communicated effectively to the school community.

Brabrand apologized for not making the “right call” when he called for the two-hour delay.

“We could have communicated it better,” Brabrand said, adding that his mistake “caused undue confusion for our teachers and our principals.”

Next Steps 

Blackboard is currently working on software patches this week to address the capacity issues behind the login difficulties, Luftglass said.

On April 14, Blackboard Learn and Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, a real-time video conferencing tool, were linked with a new feature that will only allow students enrolled in a class to join the class session and ban guest access, school officials said. Additionally, a back-up plan is being developed using Collaborate Ultra, they said.

FCPS aims to resume its synchronous learning on April 20.

Catherine Douglas Moran contributed reporting

Image via FCPS

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The first week of distance learning for roughly 189,000 Fairfax County Public School students has been off to a rough start.

Technical issues with the Blackboard 24/7 system prompted FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand to cancel the online learning through tomorrow (Friday). The system encountered log-in problems and other issues since distance learning kicked off on Tuesday (April 14).

Brabrand made the decision after hiccups on Wednesday morning prompted a two-hour delay in teacher-led instruction. Online learning was later canceled due to ongoing technical issues that day.

“We sincerely appreciate your patience and share your frustration related to our distance learning challenges this week. FCPS had worked closely with Blackboard’s technical team for several weeks prior to the launch of distance learning and there was no indication that the system would be unable to handle the volume of participating users or would be susceptible to the security issues that many of our schools encountered,” Brabrand wrote.

Blackboard Inc., a Reston-based company that contracts with school systems nationwide, says it believes it has identified the root cause of connectivity problems. The company expects updates to the system will take until at least Friday to complete.

“As a Fairfax County-based company, we are deeply committed to providing Fairfax students and parents the robust and secure learning environment that they want and need. We apologize for the disruption this has caused to instruction and we appreciate patience as we all work together as an education community to ensure continuity of learning for students.”

Brabrand noted that the school system will provide an update on the status of distance learning tomorrow (Friday).

Teachers will contact students over the email and phone to make sure third-quarter work assigned before March 13 is submitted. Students can live stream instructional programs on local cable channels and other resources are available on the school’s website.

Some local schools are offering additional guidance for instruction online. Coates Elementary School has pre-recorded lessons posted on its Facebook and Twitter.

“We offer this because we know how much you value your child’s learning, we are excited to get back to regular teaching, and a scheduled lesson provides kids with structure,” wrote Principal Jesse Kraft in an email.

The school system’s distance learning plan is scheduled to run through June 8. High school and middle school students will receive no marks for the fourth quarter, although fourth-quarter assignments can be used to lift a student’s final grade. Elementary school students will not receive any fourth-quarter grades.

Image via Blackboard

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Education technology giant Blackboard, which operates its global headquarters in Reston, is a major force in the shift to digital teaching and learning during COVID-19..

The company — which is contracted by Fairfax County Public Schools and many other jurisdictions nationwide — is partnering with K-12 districts and higher education institutions in the region as COVID-19 forces schools to close for the remainder of the school year.

Earlier this week, State Gov. Ralph Northam ordered all schools to close through the academic year. The Fairfax County School Board is expected to release information on online teaching, impact on seniors and grading over the next several days.

We appreciate and support the work that our superintendent and staff have done to set in motion the distance learning initiative. Adjustments will be made over time as we learn from our students and staff. The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) has provided school districts additional guidance regarding continuity of learning that has an equity focus,” wrote board chairwoman Karen Corbett Sanders on Tuesday.

Classrooms will likely leverage Blackboard Collaborate, an online classroom solution, to complement Blackboard’s existing online communication tools and website.

“We reach over 50 percent of the top 100 U.S. largest school districts with our educational communications and learning management tools,” a Blackboard spokesperson told Reston Now in an interview.

The company is currently working with Amazon Web Services, an Amazon subsidiary that provides cloud computing platforms, to ensure the company can meet increased demand.

The spike in global demand for cloud-based learning solutions like Blackboard due to the coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented. But the company says it can apply lessons learned and best practices from situations like Hurricane Harvey and H1N1.

Blackboard is working with clients to understand how they might use the company’s services in two-week intervals to “improve our own processes and readiness,” the spokesperson said.

“These two-way conversations help us plan so that we can be more proactive with changes to our capacity.”

Photo via Blackboard

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Tuesday Morning Notes

Blackboard Inc. Opens New Global Headquarters — The leading education technology company officially opened the doors of its new global headquarters in Plaza America on Monday. The company considered “best value, convenience to public transportation, commuter routes, airports, and life-style amenities” when making the decision to choose Reston. [PR Newswire]

Big Activity at Reston Station — Chris Clemente, Comstock’s CEO, talks about “big activity” at Reston Station. [Commercial Observer]

Sunoco Gas Station in Herndon Robbed — The gas station on 12370 Coppermine Road was robbed on Friday, Jan. 25. Police believe a man threatened a store clerk with a knife and took off with cash and merchandise. The suspect is described as black and in his 20s. [Fairfax County Police Department]

Photo via vantagehill/Flickr

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