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K-12 IT Trends | Feature

Beefing Up the Help Desk

Peddie School, a boarding school in New Jersey, has centralized its campus help desk function to improve service to users. The move has also contributed to a $20,000 initial savings and has freed up resources to allow its IT department to tackle new projects.

With a high percentage of its students living on its campus, Peddie School faces some unique challenges that many other high schools don't have to think about. Consider the fact that those students "don't go home after school," said Tom Phelan, director of technology for the school, which is located in Hightstown, NJ. Instead, they walk over to the school's dormitories, bringing their technology needs and challenges with them.

"Seventy percent of our students live on campus, so unlike a day school, where parents take over on issues like security and Web access when school lets out, this is home for them," said Phelan. "That creates a bigger job for us." Simply "blocking" access to sites like Facebook, for example, isn't an option at Peddie School. "To prohibit them from using these types of sites isn't fair," said Phelan, whose team has created numerous usage policies to ensure that students can surf the Web in a manner that's in keeping with the students' interests.

Peddie School, which relies on both physical and virtual servers to cover its campus with Internet access, has also faced tech support challenges that most other high schools don't have to wrangle with. Up until 2008, for example, the school used several homegrown solutions based on Access and Lotus Notes for IT service desk management.

The systems weren't comprehensive enough, didn't scale properly, and required "too much development time to add the functionality that we needed to improve our help desk," said Phelan, who built the school's initial help desk software application internally and was in the process of upgrading it when he realized that an off-the-shelf purchase would "save a considerable amount of my development time."

"I asked all of my staff members to start researching the options and give their recommendations," said Phelan. "What I thought was a simple task turned into an 18-month research project." Focused on developing a better way to handle help tickets and the management of equipment like computer printers, Phelan said the team sought out a system that would be easy-to-use and flexible and robust enough to handle all of the school's service and support needs.

"Our primary mission was to find a product that could handle incident/problem management, and that we could expand to other areas of our school," said Phelan. A minimal learning curve was also important, he added. "I wanted software that I didn't have to train all of our users on. I wanted to make the software work for us, and not the other way around."

Phelan said the school considered about five different solutions (including Track-It! and Remedy), neither of which was right for Peddie's budget or needs. "I couldn't drop $40,000 on a software installation," said Phelan, who learned of the Alloy Software help desk and IT asset management solutions at a tech directors' conference.

A one-to-one school that issues laptops to every incoming student, Peddie School implemented Alloy Navigator in early 2008, used the system internally during the summer, and launched it campus-wide in September. "We tested it over the summer just to deal with tickets," said Phelan. The solution provides a centralized service desk platform that administers all aspects of the school's IT support in a simple, standardized manner.

The system required little in the way of user training, according to Phelan. It took about three days to configure and roll out, and includes an e-mail-based incident request system. "Having everything handled by e-mail was one of my biggest requirements," said Phelan. "We wanted to be able to say, 'If you have a tech request, please send it to help@dotcom.org.'"

Accountability is also addressed with the new help desk solution, which accurately tracks all such requests. "Prior to implementing this system, we were notorious for getting requests and having them go into a black hole, with no one ever [following up] or handling the problem," said Phelan. "Hearing 'nothing' after a request was sent in was pretty frustrating for our users."

Currently, Peddie School uses its help desk system to handle work requests and trouble tickets generated by users and to manage internal technology department work requests and maintenance. Phelan said the school's help desk system has resulted in an initial savings of $20,000, namely in implementation costs. "The automation alone has been a resource saver," he said.

The school isn't a stranger to technology-centric efficiencies. According to Phelan, a recent migration from Lotus Notes to Google Apps (for e-mail and calendars) has also resulted in significant benefits. "On the IT department side, this migration freed up a lot of time," he said. ""We're now digging into projects that we haven't been able to work on for years."

Ready to get even more benefits from its help desk investment, Peddie School is in the early stages of using the asset management feature to track the repair history and value of all equipment from desktop computers to classroom audiovisual equipment to core routers and switches.

"I'm going to be expanding all of the school's assets from the network infrastructure to the new asset management system," said Phelan. "At the end of every year I want to be able to produce a report of both the value and the depreciated value of all of our equipment and assets."

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