With the New Year practically upon us, MeriTalk SLG is taking a look back at the most popular education technology stories from the past year.

January

New York State Halts Use of Facial Recognition Tech in Schools

New York State temporarily halted the use of facial recognition technologies in schools pending further investigation of the technologies. Then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law a bill that suspended the use of facial recognition technology, and other kinds of biometric technology in schools. In addition to the suspension, the bill directs the State Education Department to conduct a study of whether the use of facial recognition and biometric technologies are appropriate in schools, and issue recommendations.

NC State to Study Wireless Broadband Tech to Close Homework Gap

North Caroline State University’s Friday Institute for Educational Innovation partnered with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) on a new project to research, pilot, and analyze emerging wireless technologies that can close the homework gap, particularly in rural areas. As schools have had to shift to distance and hybrid learning to stem the spread of COVID-19, the broadband divide has become more impactful. A band-aid solution employed by many localities is the use of cellular hotspots. While these devices may work in the short term, more permanent solutions are needed.

February

OSU Updates Its COVID-19 Dashboard to Improve User Experience

The Ohio State University updated its COVID-19 dashboard to improve user experience while also offering a complete picture of cases and positivity rates dating back to the beginning of the university’s testing program. In a statement, OSU said the latest update to the dashboard allows users to view the school’s COVID data going back to the 2020 fall semester. The previous version only showed the most recent 20 days of testing data.

University of Texas Nurses Use Telepresence Robots to Train Remotely

The University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) is using telepresence robots to help train rural and remote nursing students during the COVID-19 pandemic. The school is using a grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s Nursing Innovation Grant Program (NIGP) to triple its fleet of robots, as well as purchase new training devices. The robots are essentially a computer tablet on wheels that allow for two-way audio and video communications. When using a telepresence robot, a UTA nursing faculty member or student can move about a clinical space and interact with patients and other caregivers.

March

College Students Rate Online Learning as Equal or Better Than On-Campus Learning

According to a report from BestColleges.com, 74 percent of college students thought that online learning was better than or equal to on-campus learning. The report comes as nearly every college had to shift to distance or hybrid learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of more students enrolling in online courses, the report found that perceptions around distance learning continue to improve. Nearly all students surveyed (95 percent) and the vast majority (83 percent) of remote learners said they would recommend online or remote learning to others.

US Department of Education Announces EdTech Appointment

Among a slew of appointments, the U.S. Department of Education announced that Chris Rush has been tapped to be the director of educational technology in the Office of the Secretary. Rush will be tasked with reinvigorating the office, as it had operated with minimal staff under the Trump administration. The Department of Education said that Rush joins the department “with a critical focus on reimagining the role of technology and innovation in teaching and learning, as we move towards a post-pandemic world.”

April

IRS Issues Warning for Email Scam Targeting University Students, Staff

The IRS issued a warning regarding an impersonation email scam targeting university students and staff. The IRS said scammers have been impersonating agency staff and specifically targeting individuals with  “.edu” email addresses. The warning said that the fake emails use IRS emails and employ various subject lines, including “Tax Refund Payment” and “Recalculation of your tax refund payment.” Scammers then ask would-be victims to click a link and submit a form to claim their refund.

Universities of Miami, Colorado Hit With Ransomware Attacks

The University of Miami confirmed that it has experienced a ransomware attack involving Accellion, a third-party provider of hosted file transfer services. The University of Miami wasn’t the only victim of an Accellion data breach. In January, Accellion notified the University of Colorado that it also was a victim of a ransomware attack. Reports indicate the CLOP ransomware group contacted the universities and demanded $10 million in bitcoin or they would publish the stolen data. This week the group began publishing screenshots of files stolen from Accellion servers used by the University of Miami and Colorado.

May

Millions of K-12 Students and Federal Pell Grant Recipients Eligible for Discounted Broadband

The Department of Education launched an outreach campaign to alert K-12 and higher education students that they are eligible for a monthly discount on broadband internet service. The campaign will target families with children participating in the free or reduced-price lunch or school breakfast program, and 6.5 million Pell Grant recipients to alert them that they are now eligible for the discount of up to $50 per month. Eligible households on qualifying tribal lands can receive a discount of up to $75 per month.

FCC Chairwoman Unveils $7.1 Billion Order for School Connectivity Funding

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel released a draft of a proposed order for the $7.17 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund, which would reimburse schools and libraries for their purchases of devices and broadband connections during the COVID-19 pandemic. The 80-page draft order comes after the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 gave the FCC 60 days to establish rules for the Emergency Connectivity Fund.

June

College Students Want Blended Learning Post-Pandemic

After learning remotely for multiple semesters, most college students still prefer in-person learning, but a growing number of students want to see a mix of in-person and online learning post-pandemic, according to a new report. Top Hat’s “3,052 College Students on the Good, the Bad, and Learning Post-COVID” field report found that college students want different technologies and digital content incorporated into their courses even after the pandemic.

University of Nevada – Las Vegas to Continue Hybrid Learning in the Fall

The University of Nevada – Las Vegas (UNLV) announced that remote learning will be incorporated into select traditional classes. The school is currently recruiting instructors for a pilot program this fall. The initiative – known as RebelFlex – will enable instructors to teach students in the classroom and those who are remote at the same time. UNLV said instructors will engage both audiences using active learning techniques, which may include class discussions, live polling, or group work.

July

Report: Ransomware Attacks Against Education Sector Spiked in 2020

A research report from Sophos found that ransomware attacks against the education sector hit an all-time high in 2020. The report released earlier this month found that 44 percent of institutions were hit with a ransomware attack. In more than half of those cases, attackers succeeded in encrypting data of the victimized organizations. A third of organizations that didn’t face an attack last year expect to be attacked in the future.

Penn State Police Adopt FirstNet

Penn State University Police and Public Safety (UPPS) announced that it has adopted the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), a dedicated nationwide broadband network for public safety organizations. “With this tech advancement, we are equipping our first responders with new capabilities and reliable access to critical information while in the field,” said Charlie Noffsinger, associate vice president of UPPS, in a statement.

August

Texas School District Pays $547K Ransom Following Cyberattack

After falling victim to a successful cyberattack, Judson Independent School District in Texas confirmed that it paid a $547,045.61 ransom to “protect sensitive, identifiable information from being published on the dark web.” “While these are funds that we would have rather spent on the needs of our employees, students, and their families, there was no other choice for the district to ensure your safety – our number one priority,” the school district said in a statement.

Georgia School District Launches New Digital Learning Platform Ahead of 2021 School Year

The Toombs County School District in Georgia has launched a new digital learning platform. The school district partnered with Discovery Education to provide K-12 teachers and students access to a digital learning platform that provides resources in all subjects at home and in the classroom. The school district said the new platform connects teachers and students with “standards-aligned content, ready-to-use digital lessons, intuitive quiz and activity creation tools, and professional learning resources.”

September

New K-12 Cybersecurity Standards Released

As the new school year got underway, the nonprofit K12 Security Information Exchange released a set of guidance and best practice resources intended to help K-12 school districts and individual schools establish baseline cybersecurity standards. The resources were developed by K-12 IT practitioners, for K-12 IT practitioners, and are aligned to cybersecurity risk management best practices.

UMD Uses QR Codes to Aid in COVID-19 Contact Tracing

With students back on campus and in the classroom, the University of Maryland (UMD) has turned to QR codes to enable rapid COVID-19 contact tracing. Under the new program, students are asked to scan QR code stickers that are located throughout classrooms on campus. UMD says the resulting seating or location records will enable the University Health Center to easily identify those who have been in close contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19.

October

Biden Signs K-12 Cybersecurity Act Into Law

On Oct. 8, President Joe Biden signed the bipartisan K-12 Cybersecurity Act of 2021 into law to provide school districts with resources to combat and protect themselves against cyberattacks. The global pandemic has impacted an entire generation of students and educators and underscores the importance of safeguarding their personal information. The new law responds to growing data security incidents affecting K-12 schools in recent years, including a dramatic rise in ransomware and other forms of malware.

Colleges Look to Eliminate Passwords, Improve Cybersecurity

Two colleges took a seemingly unconventional approach to improve campus cybersecurity and worked to eliminate passwords. New York’s Marist College and Boston College have partnered with the cybersecurity company SAFE to pilot SAFE products built to eliminate passwords. In a press release, the schools said the pilot programs would also help staff and students save time and ensure accurate student activity reports in hybrid and distance learning environments.

November

Stanford University Leverages Tech Capabilities to Reach Historically Underserved Students

Stanford University announced a new initiative that seeks to leverage the school’s technological capabilities to reach students who have historically been underserved by higher education. As part of the initiative, the newly formed Stanford Digital Education office will partner with the National Education Equity Lab, a nonprofit organization that works to bridge the gap between high school and college.

Ohio University Uses Synchronous Online Learning to Expand Language Course Access

Ohio University was forced to expand its online learning offerings during the COVID-19 pandemic; however, as the university is moving back to more in-person learning it is seeing key opportunities that online learning continues to offer students at Ohio University and elsewhere. In a press release, the school discusses how synchronous online learning has allowed the university to increase access to Swahili language courses.

December

N.J. Sets $400M in Funding to Improve State Higher Education System

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced that the state will release a total of $400 million in capital facilities grant funding in a joint solicitation of four revolving bond programs to support New Jersey’s higher education system and students. Gov. Murphy’s office said the requests for proposals associated with this joint solicitation are anticipated in the first quarter of 2022, and will offer funding opportunities to both public and private institutions.

Alexandria City Public Schools Partner With Virginia Tech to Expand STEM Opportunities

In a bid to improve Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) learning opportunities for K-12 students, Alexandria City, Va., Public Schools (ACPS) and Virginia Tech have expanded their partnership to both enhance STEM opportunities for students and create potential pathways to higher education. As part of the pilot program, students at the school will have the chance to learn about the Micro:bit, which is a pocket-sized computer that shows how software and hardware work together.

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