Mobile Learning | Feature

Meet the District Rolling Out 25,000 iPads and iPods

Some districts talk about incorporating technology, others consider testing a BYOD pilot, and many call bringing a few tablet computers into the classroom a technology advancement of 21st century proportions. Then there's the McAllen Independent School District (TX), which is gearing up to bring technology--namely, mobile devices--to every single child, teacher, and administrator, and into every aspect of its curriculum.

Called TLC3--Transforming Learning in the Classroom, Campus, and Community--the program is designed to support the district's stated mission of educating "all students to become lifelong learners and productive citizens in a global society through a program of educational excellence utilizing technology." With 6,800 iPads and iPod Touches deployed to students and faculty already, a total of 25,000 devices (one for every student) will be in place by October.

T.H.E. Journal Contributing Editor Margo Pierce asked Pat Karr Jr., McAllen's coordinator for network services and support, about the program and how a Texas district with 33 campuses, 3,265 employees, and 1,634 teachers was able to realize such a dramatic and expensive transformation in instruction.

Margo Pierce: Given the popular notion that technology is only for play, how and why did you decide to so thoroughly incorporate technology into the educational process?

Pat Karr Jr.: Students today are digital natives. It's common to have a device in their hands because they've grown up using them. This is our business--our students are our product, similar to any other business. It's our responsibility to push the envelope and push it hard to make our enterprise infrastructure the best it can be. The end result is a manageable environment for all of our resources.

TLC3 leverages powerful new technologies and merges them with an advanced concept known as challenge-based learning. It empowers students to live and learn in a continuously changing 21st century environment and enables them to effectively interact in a global marketplace.

Two key features in the decision process was the management of the device and role-based provisioning. Through our dashboard, we are able to manage all activities of the devices. Role-based provisioning helps relate the educational content to students' respective grades and ensure they are receiving valuable material. It's this custom tailoring that's a huge advantage for us.

Website filtering is performed through a Cisco AnyConnect client, so students are not allowed to visit unauthorized websites.

Further, we enable blacklisting to ensure students and teachers do not install unauthorized applications that do not contribute to the educational process (for example, Angry Birds).
Pierce: Where did you get the money to build such a high-tech infrastructure at a time when school funding in most districts is on the chopping block?

Karr: The five-year initiative uses private, state, and federal funding for costs related to technology, with some funding derived from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. As a whole, we're choosing to invest our budgets differently going forward.

Pierce: You say you have less than a 1-percent rate of theft and missing devices. How did you accomplish that?

Karr: The students cherish and feel empowered by the device. Therefore, they are more responsible with their learning tool and keep a closer eye on it. Should a device go missing or be reported stolen, which to date has been minimal, AirWatch is configured to remotely wipe district-owned devices to ensure information is protected via an enterprise wipe function. BYOD devices have enterprise-provided information wiped remotely in the case of "un-registration."
Pierce: Explain how your role-based provisioning and remote pushes by the library work. What does all that even mean?

Karr: We provision each device, whether for a teacher, a student, or an administrator, based on the roles and activities of the individual. For example, we push specific applications or content to students that teachers may not require. Further, we provide certain applications that we can customize based on grade level and by school type right from our dashboard.

For remote pushes by the library, our library is able to remotely send webclips to students that are pertinent to their respective curriculum. For instance, our library services department can designate clips district-wide or through specific grades or classrooms.

Pierce: How are special needs students leveraging this mobile technology?

Karr: Special needs students, such as those who are hearing and vocally challenged, can speak now through the device using applications on the iPad/iPod Touches. Examples of applications include Dragon Dictation, iASL, and Z4/Z OneStop.

Moreover, we see low-income students and their families, who previously had limited access to mobile technologies and the web, being impacted, and it has been quite intriguing. It really illustrates the mission of TLC3: We're impacting students and their entire support network.

See: 8 Top Apps for Autistic Learners

Pierce: Do you have an acceptable use/responsible use policy in place?

Karr: Yes, we have a policy in place that all devices adhere to through an end-user license agreement. Through the AirWatch agent, we are able to minimize any and all violations through device provisioning. If a student attempts to "jailbreak" a device, we know immediately.

 Pierce: You have data showing that productivity has increased 300 percent during non-school hours. How are you measuring productivity?

Karr: We measure non-school-hours productivity by the amount of bandwidth being utilized by the device during those hours. We have seen bandwidth on our servers increase by 300 percent during non-school hours. We are absolutely seeing more productivity and engagement during school hours through bandwidth usage, as well.

Pierce: What have you learned from this process that you think would be helpful for other schools to know?

Karr: My first piece of advice is education. Test several [mobile device managers] over a few months. It helped me see what the must-haves were and what I could do without.

Pierce: I'm sliding the soapbox over to you and asking you to hop up there to share whatever it is you think is most important. What should our readers learn from your story?

Karr: We are at a moment in time that we may never see again. The digital arena is now becoming the mainstay in all of our environments. From state and local government, to private and public education, to corporate and privately owned entities, we are seeing technology engross our culture like never before.

Our children need access to resources that they feel most comfortable with so that they can excel. If we don't create, implement, maintain, and sustain a functional, easy-to-use, and manageable environment, we will be depriving them of their greatest tools: creativity and resourcefulness. Our students are creating the content for future generations to learn from. Having a managed infrastructure in place is the first item that should be at the top of everyone's list to ensure success of this enormous responsibility.