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School districts across the United States had varying experiences with trying to get devices to every child at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Every teacher and administrator was faced with an unprecedented problem when schools across the country were shut for the year in March to help states deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Most schools were given barely a few weeks to suddenly prepare students, parents, and themselves for remote learning, which is only possible with some kind of device. While hundreds of districts were lucky enough to already have 1:1 device lending programs in place for all their students, others scrambled to order and deliver millions of iPads and Chromebooks just in time for the end of spring break.

SEE: Coronavirus: Critical IT policies and tools every business needs (TechRepublic Premium)

“A lot of districts are building the plane while they’re flying it. Some districts were better prepared for this online transition than others but it’s all over the map,” said Susan Bearden, chief innovation officer with the Consortium for School Networking. 

“Districts that were better prepared for this before it happened are probably handling it well. Other districts just were not at a point where they were thinking about distributing laptops for student use. It’s not something most people have on their radar. I’m a former district K-12 technology director myself and, I’ll be honest, I’m grateful that I’m not in the field right now because I would not want to have to be dealing with these challenges,” Bearden added.

Schools have already reported shortages of devices for the fall semester, with Lenovo, HP, and Dell reportedly telling school districts that they have a shortage of nearly 5 million laptops. 

After a haphazard Spring term, schools spent the summer trying their best to acquire enough devices to teach the nation’s 55 million students in the fall. But shipping issues and supply shortages have left thousands of schools in the exact same place they were in the March when schools closed. 

Foreign policy feuds between the US and Chinese government have also exacerbated device shortages, leaving many schools with almost no options, and device makers themselves are still recovering from being shut down for months due to the pandemic. 

1:1 programs or lack thereof

Each state and school district had come up with its own device lending policies, but for the vast majority, size is what matters. Smaller school districts have long given school-owned devices out to students while larger ones, particularly those in big cities, have never even considered it before being forced to in March. 

Steve Smith, chief information officer for Cambridge Public Schools in Massachusetts and the founder of the Student Data Privacy Consortium, said districts faced a variety of problems that ranged from device preferences to a district’s flexibility on specification requirements. 

Due to overwhelming demand and sourcing constraints, some districts settled for different devices for different grades, both Smith and Bearden explained. Much of it depended on a school’s relationship with resellers, especially for those schools ordering by the thousands. 

Cindy Costanza, technology manager at Denville Township Schools in New Jersey, said their 1:1 device lending program began last year while Mike Daugherty, director of Technology & Innovation at Chagrin Falls Exempted Village Schools in Ohio said the district’s 1:1 program began in 2015. 

SEE: Online education toolbox: Tips and resources for distance learning (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Chantell Manahan, director of technology at the Metropolitan School District of Steuben County, IN, said the district’s lending program began in 2015 and while Drew Lane, executive director of information and communication technologies for Shawnee Mission School District in Kansas, told TechRepublic its device lending program goes back to 2013.  

But cities like New York City have never had a 1:1 device lending program at all due to the sheer size of its student population. With more than a million students attending New York City public schools, the city had to rush to deliver 300,000 tablets as well as 175,000 devices in just a few weeks. Parents had to go online and fill out forms to get devices while thousands of others were forced to use their own tools.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio reportedly had to personally ask Apple CEO Tim Cook for help in procuring the thousands of devices needed to fill the gap. 

While devices were eventually procured, the program in New York City has faced criticism from some students and families who said it took weeks to get working laptops or devices. The students, many of them being already disadvantaged, lost valuable education time that they can never get back. 

“Districts with 1:1 programs where kids could take devices home were better prepared but in many cases, districts were forced to have students use their own devices or disassemble laptop carts and send those devices home. What that looks like is very different across the country,” Bearden said. 

SEE: Inside UPS: The logistics company’s never-ending digital transformation (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

“Even if districts have devices available at school which had not been sent home, they may not have been configured for off-campus use. That can include everything from web filtering to device updates remotely. If districts had 1:1 programs, they probably had those issues addressed.”

Bearden said the Consortium for School Networking has been a resource for school administrators nationwide as they grapple with a range of issues related to device lending, like security, returns, damage, cost, repairs, and more. 

Some schools without 1:1 programs, she noted, had to just tear Chromebooks off of carts and hand them out to students, with thousands of schools not having any time to think through the logistics of managing or counting devices that went out. 

According to Bearden, one of the biggest challenges is getting the devices back safely, if at all, during the summer and preparing for the fall, which may present its own issues. 

Collection and repair

Once the school year ended and summer began, administrators focused on the next phase of problems related to their device lending programs, namely the collection-and-repair processes. 

How do you collect millions of devices from students safely during a pandemic? How do you  cover the costs for repairs? Should students be able to keep devices over the summer for learning? 

Costanza from Denville, NJ, said the school district put measures in place when bringing devices back from the more than 1,600 students who attend Township Schools. They now repair the devices in house instead of shipping them out, saving time and money that can be better spent elsewhere. All of the devices brought back were not touched until the summer and eventually were sprayed down, disinfected and only touched with gloves before they were put back into circulation for the fall term.

Costanza added that the school district plans every year in its budget to replace and purchase devices for the incoming class and include a 20% overage so that if devices break they can be replaced. 

At Chagrin Falls in Ohio, Daugherty said the school district purchased about 25 more Chromebooks to add to its current fleet, and the district has been doing weekly swap outs with students who have issues with their devices so they can be repaired. 

“Our transportation department drops off a replacement device and collects the broken one.   We fix it, clean it, and it can be sent out to another student,” Daugherty said. 

For Indiana’s Steuben County, Manahan said the district has been swapping damaged and malfunctioning devices twice per week while the buildings have been closed, running tiered help desk support through all layers of school staff, and attempting to accommodate students who may not have internet access at home as well. 

“We collected devices in June and redistributed in August,” she said adding that one of the biggest challenges has been setting up safe protocols for exchanging broken or malfunctioning devices for loaners. 

“I am very proud of our program. We are fortunate to have an established 1:1 program and experience with e-learning days for inclement weather and for teacher professional development,” she added. 

Anthony Smith, director of technology at Brockport Central School District in New York said overall, the district’s device lending program has gone over very well. It put structures in place for a remote help desk and device repairs, with two phone lines for the community to call tickets in and then put a process in place for students and staff to be able to drop off broken devices for repair and to pick up when done. The district’s transportation department pitched in as well to deliver devices to those who were unable to pick up the device at the district.

Prepping for the fall

Even as the summer approached, administrators were very worried about how things would play out in the fall. Bearden said most school districts planned for three different scenarios including full in-person instruction, which some schools across the country have returned to due to low coronavirus infection numbers. 

The next scenario has become the most common route schools have taken since last month and involves a partial return with a mix of in-school learning and remote schooling done on a rotating basis. A few schools around the nation have continued a version of the spring, when every child learned from home. 

There are still concerns about whether an increase in coronavirus infections due to a partial return to in-school learning will force schools to shut again, Bearden added. 

SEE: Zoom vs. Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Cisco WebEx and Skype: Choosing the right video-conferencing apps for you (TechRepublic)

A number of schools reopened but were forced to close because of infections of teachers and students. 

“This was a disaster scenario that no one could have predicted,” Bearden said.

One of the biggest concerns every district has had this fall are budget cuts, which most state governments have hinted at due to the decreased tax revenues resulting from quarantines. Bearden said multiple district administrators have been told to expect cuts as high as 20%, which is particularly difficult considering the increased money required for digital learning.  

“How are they going to acquire more devices? Even if you have the funding to acquire devices, because of the supply line cuts with China, there are shortages of computer hardware, like Chromebooks and hotspots that are available for sale. Districts may want to place orders for devices but they may not be in stock,” Bearden said. “A lot of resellers had big inventories so they were able to absorb immediate demand. But are there devices for purchase now?”

A recent report from the Association of School Business Officials International found that on average, districts will have to spend an extra $490 per student to cover the cost of hand sanitizer, extra cleaning and beefed up nursing teams for the fall. 

A district with an average student population of about 4,000 kids will have to spend about $1.8 million just to pay for the health-related costs. This figure does not include the cost for devices and repairs. Administrators are now looking to the federal government for more than $175 billion to help with the costs of teaching the nation’s 55 million children.

But despite the concerns, many school district leaders said they felt their experience this spring would help prepare them for what is coming. 

“If we can turn toward that 21st century learning and embrace it more fully, then all the lessons we’ve learned through this, even those that have been painful, we can come out the other side of this much much stronger,” said Lane of Kansas’ Shawnee Mission School District. 

“We can be an even better educational institution, we can be even technology people, even better support personnel. Even better teachers and administrators. There’s opportunity for growth and continued success, even in the face of the challenges that we have in our near future.”

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Microsoft Windows Virtual Desktop: A cheat sheet

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Cloud-based DaaS offers several advantages to a remote workforce. This smart guide to Microsoft Windows Virtual Desktop assesses the platform and what it can offer.

Image: iStock/DragonImages

Unprecedented conditions surrounding COVID-19 and the accompanying global pandemic have left many business enterprises scrambling to find ways to accommodate an increasingly remote and virtual workforce. Some businesses have discovered that workforce productivity is the same, if not better, under a virtual scheme. These enterprises are likely to adopt platforms like Desktop as a Service (DaaS) and virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) going forward, even after the pandemic has subsided.

SEE: TechRepublic Premium editorial calendar: IT policies, checklists, toolkits, and research for download

Cloud-based DaaS and VDI services are offered by a number of vendors including Microsoft through its Azure cloud platform. Microsoft Windows Virtual Desktop is offered as a free service to certain Microsoft 365 and Azure subscribers. Licenses for individual Windows Virtual Desktops are also available with costs that vary with server location and type of virtual machine.

The are many advantages to Windows Virtual Desktop, but there are also several caveats to consider before your business decides to adopt the platform. Like all business decisions, planning and analysis before making any decisions is warranted and highly recommended. This Microsoft Windows Virtual Desktop: A cheat sheet from TechRepublic will help you assess what the platform is and what it can offer, so you can make the best decision possible for your business.

SEE: All of TechRepublic’s cheat sheets and smart person’s guides

What is Windows Virtual Desktop?

Leveraging the power of Microsoft Azure, Windows Virtual Desktop is an instanced virtual machine hosting a desktop and app virtualization service running on the cloud. Windows Virtual Desktop delivers a virtual desktop experience and remote apps to any device. Depending on how it is configured, the platform can bring together Microsoft 365 and Azure to provide users with a multi-session Windows 10 experience, which includes scaling and reduced IT costs.

Windows Virtual Desktop can be configured to run Windows 10 Enterprise, Windows 7 Enterprise, or Windows Server 2012 R2, 2016, 2019. Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 are not supported.

The following Remote Desktop clients support Windows Virtual Desktop:

SEE: Software as a Service (SaaS): A cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Why is Windows Virtual Desktop important?

Whether out of necessity or as part of an overall productivity strategy, the modern workforce is increasingly a remote and mobile workforce. To gain access to the systems and applications it needs to do its jobs, the workforce grows more and more dependent on cloud platforms and virtual machines which can be accessed from anywhere, at any time, by any device.

Windows Virtual Desktop provides a workforce with access to a virtual Windows computer running whatever apps a typical IT-sanctioned Windows computer should be running for your business. By taking advantage of Azure’s cloud infrastructure, businesses can setup multi-session Windows 10 deployments optimized to run in multi-user virtual scenarios.

From a worker’s perspective, their Windows Virtual Desktop is exactly the same as a traditional PC setting on their desk. From the enterprise’s perspective, the cost of purchasing, setting up, deploying, and securing physical hardware can be saved by entrusting Microsoft and Azure to handle those specifics in the cloud.

SEE: Microsoft sees surge in demand for cloud services during coronavirus outbreak (TechRepublic)

What are the benefits of Windows Virtual Desktop?

Whether by choice or by happenstance, if your employees are working remotely, sensitive company data will likely be transferred and stored locally at some point, even if only briefly. Even with best practice security precautions, this transfer of sensitive data is risky. Add the variabilities of employees using their own personal devices and networks for work activity and you have a recipe for disaster.

Windows Virtual Desktop allows employers to deploy virtual machines, configured exactly how they need them to be, that are securely instanced in the Azure cloud. In essence, sensitive company data is never transferred out of the company’s control structure because any data transfers are merely between Azure cloud instances. Within the Microsoft Azure cloud, data is protected by all manner of built-in security protocols, including Azure Firewall, Azure Security Center, Azure Sentinel, and Microsoft Defender ATP.

SEE: How SMBs build their tech stacks (TechRepublic)

Under Windows Virtual Desktop, access to desktop instances is controlled by conditional access protocols, including multi-factor authentication. Azure infrastructure can be deployed to enable role-based access control (RBAC) and detect threats using Azure Security Center. Windows Virtual Desktop certified compliant with ISO 27001, 27018 and 27701, PCI, FedRAMP High for Commercial, and HIPPA.

If your enterprise already subscribes to Microsoft 365 or an enterprise version of Windows, it can establish a desktop instance for each user for free with Windows Virtual Desktop. Therefore, at no extra charge, your remote users can access a ready-made virtual machine running Windows from anywhere, at any time, from any device.

Because Windows Virtual Desktop is managed through the Microsoft Azure Portal, your enterprise can scale desktop instances to meet business needs on the fly. Admins can increase virtual CPUs, add virtual RAM, allocate more virtual hard disk storage, etc., with a few mouse clicks and an admin login account.

What are the caveats of Windows Virtual Desktop?

The primary caveat to consider when deciding whether to deploy Windows Virtual Desktop for a remote workforce is the quality of network connections. No matter how well you plan and design your virtual desktop instances, they are only worth the effort if your employees have the ability to effectively reach the cloud. Slow internet connections, intermittent connections, and no internet connections are all a real possibility, and all must be mitigated for cloud-based virtualization to work efficiently.

SEE: DaaS and VDI: New report underscores the high costs and challenges of virtual workforces (TechRepublic)

Beyond the technical aspect of network connections, employers must also consider how much employee training will be necessary. Tech-savvy employees and IT pros will likely have no trouble connecting to Azure and Windows Virtual Desktop servers, but some employees may need at least some instruction to complete the connection. Who will provide that help, how will they provide it, what if it is not effective? These questions must have acceptable answers.

Other questions to be answered include, once in operation, how will employees ask for additional resources if they need them? Will there be a ticketing system with IT department personnel responsible for their resolution? Is that infrastructure in place? Setting up procedures to handle the maintenance of a Windows Virtual Desktop system should be completed before deploying the actual virtual instances.

Who are the major competitors to Windows Virtual Desktop?

Competition among cloud vendors in the virtual desktop space is fierce and includes dozens of different companies, many of which are prominent and familiar. Obvious competitors include the usual major cloud services suspects of Amazon AWS and Google Cloud Platform. Other prominent competitors include Citrix and VMware. Other smaller competitors offer specialized desktop services for engineers, architects, artists, and scientists that require specific features.

SEE: Research: SMB IT stack decisions based on fulfilling business needs (TechRepublic Premium)

Here is a short list of virtual desktop competitors:

With all of this competition, Microsoft will continue to feel pressure to keep costs and fees low for its Windows Virtual Desktop service. This competitive pressure helps explain why Microsoft is willing to offer Windows Virtual Desktop free to existing customers already subscribed to Microsoft 365 or enterprise versions of Windows.

How do you get Windows Virtual Desktop, and when will it be available?

Windows Virtual desktop is available through the Microsoft Azure Portal. For current subscribers to Microsoft 365 and enterprise versions of Windows, desktop instances are available for each user at no extra charge. Non-subscribers will have to pay a subscription fee determined by the specifications of the virtual machines used for each desktop instance.

Subscribers to these existing services have free access to Windows Virtual Desktop instances running specific operating systems on a per user basis:

Operating system

Required license    

Windows 10 Enterprise multi-session or Windows 10 Enterprise    

Microsoft 365 E3, E5, A3, A5, F3, Business Premium or Windows E3, E5, A3, A5    

Windows 7 Enterprise    

Microsoft 365 E3, E5, A3, A5, F3, Business Premium or Windows E3, E5, A3, A5    

Windows Server 2012 R2, 2016, 2019    

RDS Client Access License (CAL) with Software Assurance    

For enterprises without a pre-existing subscription, the price of a Windows Virtual Desktop through Azure will depend on the specifications chosen for each desktop instance. For example, a pay-as-you-go instance with 2 CPUs, 8 GB RAM, and 50 GB of storage is estimated to cost $137.29 per month. A quote from the Azure price calculator that is significantly more than a Microsoft 365 Business Premium subscriber paying $12.50/month/user.

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Scientists are getting closer to effective treatment for hair loss

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Hair loss seems like a minor problem to many. You got bald, so what? Some people prefer this look. However, for many men going bald is a terrible experience and they would pay good money to avoid it. Now scientists at the University of Helsinki have identified a mechanism that is likely to prevent hair loss.

Many men lose their hair as they grow older. It is natural and hereditary – if your dad or one of your grandads went bald, chances are your head is going to be very shiny in the future. On the other hand, ultraviolet radiation and other environmental factors damage our skin as well.

Scientists are getting closer to effective treatment for hair loss

Baldness can be a serious psychological drag – some men got to huge lengths to hide it. Image credit: Nesnad via Wikimedia (CC BY 4.0)

Stress is another factor as well as various diseases and some treatments. Scientists in Finland now think that hair follicle stem cells, which promote hair growth, could live longer if their metabolic state was switched. And scientists already managed to demonstrate that in experiments with a Rictor protein.

Naturally, an average human sheds 500 million cells and a quantity of hairs weighing a total of 1.5 grams every day. If you are not going bald already, this tissue is replaced by specialised stem cells. If these stem cells become inactive or at least less active, lost tissue is not going to be replaced and hair follicles are going to become weaker and smaller. Normally, as a hair follicle becomes older and weaker, stem cells replace it with a new one and then return to their specific location and resume a quiescent state. If this cycle could be maintained, baldness would be essentially cured.

1603134795 223 Scientists are getting closer to effective treatment for hair loss

Hair follicle stem cells, which promote hair growth, can prolong their life by switching their metabolic state. Image credit: Sara Wickström, University of Helsinki

Scientists now found that stem cells need a change in the metabolic state in order to return to their specific location. Essentially, they switch from glutamine-based metabolism and cellular respiration to glycolysis – this switch is induced by a protein called Rictor. Scientists found that when Rictor is absent, slow exhaustion of the stem cells and age-related hair loss begins. Experiments with mice showed that Rictor deficiency results in hair loss.

Sara Wickström, lead author of the study, said: “We are particularly excited about the observation that the application of a glutaminase inhibitor was able to restore stem cell function in the Rictor-deficient mice, proving the principle that modifying metabolic pathways could be a powerful way to boost the regenerative capacity of our tissues”.

Baldness is a minor issue – it is not life threatening and some people can really rock that look. But it can be a serious drag psychologically and it would be worthwhile to fix it. Also, scientists can use this opportunity to learn more about stem cells, their function and regenerative functions. This could benefit the entire aging research field.

 

Source: University of Helsinki




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Apple Offering Free Virtual Workshops in India on Photography, Art, Music, and More

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Apple is hosting a series of free virtual sessions in India under its ‘Today at Apple’ initiative. Nearly month after the online Apple Store launched in India, the tech giant will be commemorating the occasion by offering free virtual workshops related to photography, music, art, and other creative fields. The workshops began on October 17, and will continue till November 29. Today at Apple was launched as a retail-focused initiative back in 2017, but this is the first time it is being extended to India.

While under ordinary circumstances, consumers visit Apple’s retails stores for the Today at Apple sessions, this year the workshops are being conducted online worldwide, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Starting from 2017, Today at Apple conducts hands-on sessions with experts on basics, how-to-learn, and professional-level programmes on topics ranging from art, coding, design, music, photography, and more. The workshops in India will kick-start with sessions from local photographers and acclaimed musicians, with tips on skills and techniques from Apple Creatives.

The photography workshops for the coming weeks include sessions with Siddhartha Joshi, Avani Rai, Anurag Banerjee, Prarthna Singh, and Hashmi Badani. Music sessions so far include a beginner’s course to Garage Band. The full schedule can be found here. The music skill sessions will also include sessions by Lisa Mishra, DIVINE, Aditi Ramesh, Raja Kumari, and Prateek Kuhad soon.

The first session of the Today at Apple series in India is Photo Lab: Faces and Places with Mumbai-based photographer Siddhartha Joshi, on October 22. He will be showcasing portrait projects he has taken across India, and giving professional photography tips.

You can head to Apple India and sign up for these sessions. To join a Webex session, you need a mobile/ laptop/ tablet/ computer, along with a stable Internet connection and the free Cisco Webex Meetings app. If you’re under 18, your parent or guardian can register for you, as per Apple. To recall, Apple Store launched in India in late September, and the company had that point itself announced plans to bring Today at Apple to India.

“We’re creating a modern-day town square, where everyone is welcome in a space where the best of Apple comes together to connect with one another, discover a new passion, or take their skill to the next level,” Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s senior vice president, Retail had said at the time of launching Today at Apple in 2017.


Are iPhone 12 mini, HomePod mini the Perfect Apple Devices for India? We discussed this on Orbital, our weekly technology podcast, which you can subscribe to via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or RSS, download the episode, or just hit the play button below.

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