Mobile Security | Feature

Do You Know Where Your School iPads Are?

How one school district relies on technology to help track its mobile assets.

Three years ago Brick Township Public Schools was facing a big challenge with its mobile computing program. The district, which gives out laptops to teachers, administrators, and students who require assistive technology, didn't have a handle on who had those machines, where they were located, or whether they ever made it back to the district office in Brick, NJ.

The problem went beyond simply knowing where the assets were and who was responsible for them. Leonard Niebo, director of IT, said his department was feeling pressure from the community and school board members who were allocating dollars to the district's technology program.

"Auditors were coming in and wanting to know how we were spending the money and where the machines were," Niebo said. "These visits were CLEs, or 'career-limiting events,' and pretty scary scenarios since most of the equipment was bought with federal money, and wasn't being accurately audited or tracked."

With a current count of 700 mobile devices distributed district-wide--including the very small iPod touches and, more recently, iPads--Niebo said that getting his arms around the problem would take more than just another Excel spreadsheet. Add in the fact that the tracking had to take place across 15 different campuses, and the challenge became even greater.

Niebo said the administrator computers were especially onerous, since they were being deployed to individuals who had a single home base but who regularly roamed among the 15 different schools. Special needs students who were equipped with assistive technology (including laptops, tablets, and netbooks) weren't any easier to keep tabs on, said Niebo.

"Getting the units back was the biggest challenge," Niebo explained. Upon entering high school, for example, a student would be given a laptop with a 15-inch screen. That student would hold onto the computer for four years, during which time its value would depreciate, making it fairly obsolete by the end of his or her high school career. Still, Niebo said, it was up to the district to retrieve those computers and properly record them for auditing purposes.

"From the accounting standpoint, the notebook or laptop itself didn't have much value at the end of three or four years, but it was a matter of, 'It's 3 a.m.; do we know where our laptops are?" Niebo quipped. "Despite the fact that it had lost value over time, we still needed a way to get the equipment back and possibly repurpose it."

Two more obstacles stood in the way of that goal: students who never actually came into school, and those who left the district, taking their computers with them. "Many of our special-needs students are homebound, and never even come into a school building during the year," said Niebo. "Then there were those who had transferred out of the district without our IT department ever being alerted to the move, making it that much harder to retrieve the machines."

To deal with the growing problem, Niebo said, he started looking for a solution to replace the district's Microsoft systems center configuration manager, an asset-tagging system that only functioned when the equipment was on campus. "As soon as someone took the laptop or netbook home, we couldn't see it anymore," Niebo said. "We needed something better and more far-reaching."

From the solution, Niebo said he was looking for LoJack-style asset tracking that would pick up on the location of any device within a certain geographic radius, alert him when the asset moved out of range, and deliver reports that he could show to his auditors. After shopping around, Niebo selected Absolute Software's Computrace product, which provides a constant connection to all of the computers in the district's deployment.

Not long after implementing the solution, the district began getting pushback from users who resented the idea of being tracked via their computers. "They wanted to know why we were following them, and why we didn't trust them," said Niebo, whose team spent time educating users on the business side of laptop and device deployment. "At that point, IT became a business process for us, with federal compliance at the center of the strategy," he said. "It wasn't about the technology."

Today, when the auditors walk through the doors of his office, Niebo no longer has to wonder if he'll have a job the following day. He prints a report detailing every piece of district-owned mobile equipment that was purchased with Title One or other federal funding, and hands the data over. Niebo can also push out upgrade system-wide messages, requesting that users bring in their devices for patches and updates.

"This technology not only saves a lot of time and effort for my IT team," said Niebo, "but it helps us sleep better at night, knowing that we have a handle on where our equipment is at any given moment."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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