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Mr. Froberg, how many users are you responsible for in total at the schools in Bremerhaven?
As a local education authority, we provide the IT services and IT infrastructure for almost 20,000 users all told. 18,000 of these are pupils and 1,700 are teaching staff and other employees in our 40 schools.
What digital solutions do you have in your portfolio for the schools right now?
As far as solutions for schools are concerned, Bremerhaven works in close cooperation with the education authority in Bremen and the State Institute for School (LIS). Your UCS and UCS@school solutions have already been in use in the city of Bremen for some time now. When we started thinking about introducing a learning management system in Bremerhaven four years ago, it was only natural to take a look at itslearning – the solution that Bremen had selected the year before. It quickly convinced us, and, like Bremen, we decided on a centralized, interschool concept. That’s why we operate UCS in the BIT computer center and maintain a digital identity with a username and password for each and every user in its directory service. Following the setting up of this directory service, we created a personal work e-mail address for all teaching staff and other employees at the schools. itslearning was also made available for all schools. It was initially employed at all the vocational training schools, for senior classes in the grammar schools, and at some high schools. Since its introduction, we have noticed that use of the solution by both staff and students has increased steadily. In addition, many of the staff in the elementary schools are also using itslearning for organizational purposes. The introduction of the itslearning Sofa Tutor tool, which allows teaching staff to create their own digital learning content, brought with it new impulses.
Are those the only digital solutions that you have in Bremerhaven?
No, we have even more in our portfolio. For example, our elementary schools use the state media authority’s Internet ABC, Zahlenzorro, Antolin, Onilo, and Anton. These are all learning platforms which provide digital learning content for pupils and that the pupils can work with both in school and at home. Many teachers have also been using Worksheet Crafter for a long time already. This tool allows them to create their own digital learning content and send it to the children and young people’s iPads, which we have available in the schools as school devices.
Does that mean that you operate a get-your-own-device concept with the school tablets in Bremerhaven?
In Bremerhaven, we are faced with the situation that many of our students come from low-income households, where it is by no means a given that there is a tablet or laptop at home that the children may use. For this reason, we have acquired 1,000 iPads for use in the schools in recent years. This number is also set to increase further thanks to the DigitalPakt Schule education funding program. If schools are forced to remain closed for longer, these school devices will be lent to students and pupils who would otherwise not have access to digital learning opportunities. We still need to clarify the insurance aspects of that plan though. As the number of available devices is unlikely to be sufficient, we are also contacting device suppliers offering leasing contracts with very low installment payments and interest-free credit so as to be able to procure devices for low-income households too.
The school closures were decided upon and implemented very quickly. How have they affected you as a local education authority?
It quickly became clear that sending learning material as an e-mail attachment was not an effective solution, as the students’ e-mail inboxes were soon full due to the large file sizes or indeed the attachments themselves were too large to be accepted by the e-mail service providers used by the pupils or their parents in the first place. Many teachers, in the elementary schools especially, also sent worksheets by mail, but that is associated with considerable time and effort, plus the work materials don’t last long.
The large number of password activations is an indicator to us that the number of accesses to itslearning has increased in leaps and bounds. So much so in fact that the servers were not always able to cope in the first few days. However, the responsible parties at itslearning reacted at lightning speed and made additional server capacity available, with the result that by the second week, despite the ever-increasing number of accesses, everything was running smoothly.
Are all the users finding it easy to work well with the tools?
As some of the colleagues in the schools had never worked with itslearning before, we hosted some online seminars covering the basic functions. In addition, teachers who already had a sound working knowledge of itslearning also stepped up to the plate and created their own tutorials, making them available as courses for their colleagues on the itslearning platform. All told, that worked very well, even if things maybe aren’t working 100% in all cases just yet. As the lack of classes means staff also have more time and freedom to explore itslearning and begin working with it whilst the pressure to provide online content is of course growing in parallel, the number of users is rising steadily.
In addition, we as the local education authority are operating a telephone hotline that teachers can use for real-time assistance if they have forgotten their password, for example. This hotline is manned by colleagues all day long.
What other measures have you got planned for the short and medium term?
Above all, we are looking for a data protection-compliant alternative to Dropbox, which some teaching staff are currently using to make materials available online. At present, we are checking out Nextcloud. In contrast to Dropbox, we could host Nextcloud on our own servers and thus maintain control over the data created by the students and staff. However, its introduction is subject to the proviso that we have the requisite funds available, as in the State of Bremen there is still no approved budget with which we could plan and launch new projects.
In addition, we urgently want to introduce a data protection-compliant messaging app. After all, even though it is officially not permitted, we know that many teachers communicate with their classes via WhatsApp.
Furthermore, we are planning to introduce a video platform where staff can make clips available without intrusive ads, as is the case on YouTube. That is simply not suitable for use in a teaching situation. We are currently considering Vimeo.
Is there anything that you pay particular attention to when introducing new digital solutions?
We certainly need to ensure compliance with the pertinent data protection regulations. Even though we are currently in a crisis situation and everyone is looking for quick and easy solutions, it is not as if the basic data protection principles simply no longer exist.
Students’ data in particular must be protected. Many of those who are introducing new solutions ad hoc as they are particularly easy to implement or free of charge will come to regret that in a few months and have problems turning back the clock. For this reason, we consult our data protection officer regularly and seek his advice on such matters.
In your opinion, in addition to the data protection already mentioned, are there other things that education authorities and schools need to pay attention to in these times?
I believe that IT administrators in the schools need to focus on consistency and a central approach. For us, this includes connection to our central, UCS-based identity management system, for example. Insofar as possible, every new solution should be integrated into it, allowing every user access with just one password and username.
If this is not the case, pupils and students are required to install different apps in parallel on their devices, for example when using conference tools, depending on which solution the teacher of the specific subject prefers.
If we let everyone do as they please or introduce what they believe to be the best solution, we will be left with an extremely heterogeneous IT infrastructure which is impossible to maintain and control in next to no time. For this reason, I can only advise everyone to use sound judgment in these times and compile concrete recommendations for the schools and staff, recommendations that everyone can work with and that need to be observed and followed by everyone.
Another essential point is transparency and communication. To keep the rumor mill under control and stop the differing opinions and fake news circulating about the length of the school closures, for example, we publish up-to-date information via our official channels on an almost daily basis. That has worked very well up to now.
Mr. Froberg, thank you very much for your time and the interesting insights into both your work and the current situation in the world of education in Bremerhaven. We wish you every success with your work and hope that a certain degree of normality will return in the foreseeable future.
Andreas Froberg is head of the Bremerhaven Media Centre at the Bremerhaven City Council.