Smart I.T.

6 Tips for Smart IT in 2014

From building robust networks to collaborating with other departments to fund new projects, here's what you need to do to keep innovating in the new year.

This article, with an exclusive video interview, originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's December 2013 digital edition.

To-do list

As 2013 draws to an end, it's time for the savvy district technology leader to look forward. We asked some smart leaders for their best ideas (and will share some of our own) to get 2014 off to a great start. Here are six actions you can take to ensure that IT is doing all it can to support the mission of your district.

1) Improve IT efficiency and effectiveness. Okay, it's not the sexiest idea, but efficiency and effectiveness are where the rubber meets the road. Focus on them and you can demonstrate value to your superintendent and improve the bottom line, sometimes in dramatic ways:

• Cut severe or major incidents and problems by 50 percent;
• increase on-time resolution from 70 percent to 82 percent of all cases;
• reduce the number of support tickets submitted annually by nearly 20 percent; and
• increase customer satisfaction from 95 percent to 97 percent.

Tony Inglese, CETL, CTO in the Batavia Public School District 101 (IL), accomplished all those metrics over the past two years by tapping into the Information Technology Infrastructure Library and implementing its change-management processes for continuous improvement. If you don't know about the ITIL, you should: It's the most widely accepted approach to IT service management in the world. ITIL provides a cohesive set of best practices drawn from the public and private sectors around the world. Interestingly, ITIL was started as an actual library by the United Kingdom's government in the 1980s. The library was built around a process-model based view of controlling and managing operations credited to W. Edwards Deming, creator of the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle.

Rather than look for outside guidance, Steve Young of Judson Independent School District in San Antonio, TX, developed an in-house metric-tracking system to try to sharpen his team's understanding and attention to data in IT operations. He created a Key Performance Indicator dashboard. (In case you haven't hear the term before, KPIs are a set of quantifiable measures that a company or industry uses to gauge or compare performance in terms of meeting their strategic and operational goals.) While the purpose of Young's effort was to create data awareness, he says that, for the 2014 school year, the dashboard has saved the district more than $96,000 at the campus level and $54,000 at the department level as of early October.

Before instituting the KPI initiative, when Young asked his IT staff how many guests they were seeing on the wireless networks at the high schools, a typical response would be, "I don't know. We can't identify this easily." And when he inquired about trends in help desk tickets and the department's ability to service them, he would hear something vague like, "There are a lot open…."

Young says the purpose of the effort was to create an easy-to-understand visual representation of metrics and KPIs, and make it very simple for staff to update data from their silos. The goal is to integrate and automate data analysis from a few key systems and share this data publicly. He didn't want to make his IT staff mini-data clerks or data analysts, but rather to create conversations about the data.

The district developed a ColdFusion web application that allows employees to quickly enter in metrics from their silo. That data is then displayed in a rotating slide format on a web page. Most data is displayed historically to facilitate identifying trends or patterns. While the IT staff can pull the page up on their desktop at any time, the main way Young increased visibility was to place a large, rotating digital sign in a public space that staff (and visiting vendors) see several times a day.

According to Young, the KPI effort has created greater awareness about data, helped staff better verbalize their performance numbers, and fostered cross-function awareness. This has resulted in an increased focus on customer service and great "water cooler" discussions. Finally, the dashboard shows district staff and students that IT cares about them.

2) Move toward cross-departmental integration.
Speaking of silos, as you look forward to the new year, it is worthwhile to look at your school system and ask yourself how many of the department applications (SIS, LMS, cafeteria, transportation, library, etc.) contain the same student information. Many of these applications have the capability to import student information fields using defined formats, SIF, or other standard formats. This capability allows staff to enter student data into one application, which can then export it to the others, saving lots of entry time and reducing errors and inconsistencies between systems. A quick review of common data used among the various siloed systems in your organization will help you determine how you can save users the time it takes to enter the same information more than once.

3) Don't forget about security.
If you have been reading about major 1-to-1 deployments, one theme keeps coming up: security. Think about the security breach that the Los Angeles Unified School District experienced when hundreds of students hacked their new iPads. It got national news coverage--and not the kind you want.

Two key strategies can help you avoid this situation. First, you need a solid plan to address network security. A great place to start is CoSN's Cyber Security for the Digital District resources, which include a self-assessment checklist, a cybersecurity rubric, and a security-planning template. Resources focus on four critical infrastructure components: management, technology, business continuity, and stakeholders/end users.

Second, when something bad happens (and it will), remember to take a deep breath and think of it as a "teachable moment." If you're operating with a solid plan, you can show your administration and the public that you have done what you can to mitigate risk. Frankly, even high-security organizations have the same problem--just ask the National Security Agency.

Kids have a lot of time and energy to devote to hacking systems that adults tell them they can't access. To outline the responsibilities of students and faculty when using the school network, you need an Acceptable Use Policy--or better yet, a Responsible Use Policy. What's the difference? Acceptable Use policies typically ban the use of certain technologies at school, while Responsible Use policies focus on behavior. So rather than telling students they can't use mobile devices at school, Responsible Use policies tell them the responsible ways that they can use their devices. If, despite your best efforts, a student hacks the system anyway, make it a teachable moment. In fact, some districts rehabilitate student hackers by using them to help identify security breaches in the system.

4) Focus on bandwidth and network design.
CoSN just completed a national survey of nearly 470 school districts on E-Rate and bandwidth. The big takeaway: 99 percent of districts say they will need additional internet bandwidth and connectivity in the next 36 months. Do I have your attention?

More troubling, 43 percent of the school districts indicated than none of their schools can currently meet the goal of 100 Mbps of internet access per 1,000 students. This goal, set by the State Education Technology Directors Association (SETDA) and the LEAD Commission Blueprint and reinforced by President Obama's ConnectED, seems a tough one to reach: Only one-quarter of districts responded that 100 percent of their schools have met the goal. All CTOs need to keep a close eye on bandwidth needs to ensure that a lagging network isn't getting in the way of learning.

Our survey also showed that most school networks are not able to support broadband due to problems with wireless access points, internal connections/wiring, and the backbone in the school LAN. For example, 57 percent of districts do not currently believe that their school's wireless networks have the capacity to handle a 1-to-1 deployment.

There also is a geographic digital divide, with lower wireless classroom access available in rural schools. Only 51 percent of rural elementary schools have wireless access to 100 percent of their classrooms, and 8 percent have no wireless access. While suburban and urban schools have slightly better coverage for wireless access, no district reported that more than 71 percent of its schools have wireless access in all classrooms. Regardless of geography, almost one-third of the schools reported lacking wireless access in some classrooms.

Our respondents also told us that half of school buildings have, in part, older and slower wiring (Cat5 and Cat3) that will not carry data at broadband speeds. Meanwhile, 26 percent of districts are using slower copper backbones in their school LAN. The backbone in a school LAN provides the high-speed connection from the point that broadband enters the building to connecting points throughout the building. Like a major vein or artery to the heart, the backbone must be well designed to be able to collect and distribute data at high speeds--or the entire system fails.

It is time for district technology leaders to think holistically about their school networks-- from the big pipe to the school door to the internal connections, from the WiFi to the end-user device.

5) Define beneficiaries for new services, and seek their support.
Is your district implementing or considering a BYOD and/or a district-provided 1-to-1 initiative? Are you feeling the pressure for infrastructure upgrades to enable high stakes online assessments? Clearly there is no lack of demand for funding for new IT projects. And this is all happening when IT budgets are below 2008 levels for most districts.

For 2014, take a look at your project list and ask, "Who is the major beneficiary of each project?" If the project is worth doing, the department that it benefits should be willing to chip in from their budget to get it done. In the business world, they formalize IT as a service process with a charge-back system (as do some K-12 education service agencies). While a charge-back system may be further than your district wants to go, seeking budget help from those who will benefit may forge the partnership you need to get things done.

6) Fine-tune your skills.
Finally, the greatest thing that holds back school systems from practicing smart IT is the lack of human technology leadership. On the other hand, you and your team are the greatest IT asset you have. To help you develop the skills you need and connect with your peers, check out CoSN's Framework of Essential Skills of the K-12 CTO.

With these six best practices in mind, let's use 2014 to make us smarter about IT.


You're Certifiable

One way to quantify your skills as a tech leader is to earn certification. Through CoSN, you can become a Certified Education Technology Leader. This aspirational national certification demonstrates to your staff, superintendent, and other stakeholders that you have mastered the knowledge and skills needed to define the vision for and successfully build 21st century learning environments in your school district.

The CETL certification exam is based on the Framework of Essential Skills of the K-12 CTO, which is the body of knowledge defining the skill areas critical to today's education technology leaders. The Framework is divided into three primary areas: Leadership and Vision, Understanding the Educational Environment, and Managing Technology and Support Resources. The exam fee is $299 for CoSN members and $499 for nonmembers. To help you prepare, CoSN offers a variety of prep materials.

Another educational technology group that offers tangible proof of ed tech skills is Leading Edge Certification. This alliance of nonprofits, universities, and educational agencies offers three certificates: Online and Blended Teacher, Administrator, and Digital Educator. Certification programs generally run six to eight weeks, and can include online-only training or a combination of face-to-face and online training. All training is done by Leading Edge Alliance members. To earn certification, participants must successfully complete all coursework and assignments in accordance with the course calendar and then pass the LEC Portfolio. The cost for the Online and Blended Teacher and the Digital Educator certifications are $450, and the Administrator certification is $749. You can find opportunities near you or online here.


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