IT Trends | Feature

7 IT Best Practices for 1-to-1 Districts

CTOs and directors of technology share the lessons they've learned in rolling out devices to every student and teacher.

According to Lenny Schad, chief information technology officer for Houston Independent School District (TX), 1-to-1 initiatives should focus on education, not technology. Plunking devices in front of students won't do anything to improve learning outcomes unless educators participate in the decision-making and planning process and have sufficient professional development and support to help them make effective use of the devices in the classroom. "This cannot be driven by IT," Schad said. "When school systems are thinking about going down this path, they really need to think of it as a district initiative that is driven from an instructional perspective. Technology is a key player in that, but it isn't the primary driver."

In April, THE Journal featured an article called "9 Lessons From 1-to-1 Pioneers" that provides guidance on implementing a successful 1-to-1 initiative from a curriculum and instruction perspective. However, 1-to-1 most definitely requires IT involvement, whether in implementing adequate network infrastructure and security or providing maintenance and support. This article outlines IT best practices for 1-to-1 as identified by CTOs and directors of technology from five school districts.

1) Size your network for maximum use.

A successful 1-to-1 implementation requires network infrastructure that includes sufficient bandwidth to the Internet, between the schools and within the school, as well as enough WiFi density to support all of the devices. In an environment where every student could potentially be online simultaneously, that's a lot of bandwidth and density, and it has to be in place before you roll out the devices. Scott Smith, chief technology officer of Mooresville Graded School District (NC), said, "Kids don't care whether they're clicking a full-motion video or they're opening this tiny little email. When they click on it, they expect it to work, so we need to have the infrastructure in the background that makes sure it works."

Numerous organizations — including the United States Department of Education, SETDA and EducationSuperHighway — provide recommendations on how much bandwidth and density you need. Even if you can't initially provide as much as recommended, you need to make sure you can ramp it up quickly if necessary. "Let's say your ISP drops 100 meg at your door," said Smith. "What kind of connection did they drop you? Did they drop you copper or fiber? And if you went to them tomorrow and said, 'Hey, I need to turn this circuit up,' can they do it or do they have to run new wiring that's going to take three months?"

If you can't provide the recommended levels of bandwidth and density, you can use strategies to make the most of what you can afford. Before implementing 1-to-1 at HISD, Schad had a network assessment done. "When we got the results back from the assessment, the recommendation was to scale back, not do all of the high schools at one time," he said. Based on the district's existing network capabilities and the work they could do to upgrade before the rollout, they decided to limit the initial implementation to 11 high schools and plan to expand to additional schools as network upgrades permitted.

2) Use mobile device management.

When you have thousands of mobile devices to maintain, you need an easy way to install new apps, deploy software updates and manage configuration settings on a large scale. Many 1-to-1 districts meet this need by using a mobile device management (MDM) system such as Casper, AirWatch or Filewave. Others use similar tools built into an operating system or student learning platform.

Schad commented, "Automation of this management was something that we really wanted to ensure because we don't have the manpower to go out to every campus and install or troubleshoot things, so we really needed tools that would allow for automation and streamlining of the maintenance and support."

Kameron Ball, director of technology at Clinton Public School District (MS) said that MDM saved her from having to hire two more people. "As we move to online state testing across this nation, I cannot imagine anybody trying to do it without," she said. "If Java decides they're going to do an update three days before state tests, how am I going to go update 5,000 devices with a staff of five technicians in three days?"

3) Lock down device images.

Student devices should be locked down to protect them from hacking and reformatting them. According to Schad, no solution is completely bulletproof, but HISD has done as much as possible to lock down the devices to ensure that the image was going to remain secure and ensure the online safety of the kids.

Smith said, "There needs to be at minimum, BIOS passwords on the machine, so that they can't just go in and totally wipe it out and then it's gone."

4) Use inventory management to track devices.

Inventory management systems enable you to keep track of where the devices are. Homer Coffman, chief technology officer at Baldwin County Public Schools (AL) said that inventory management is vital. "We're rotating all of these devices," he said. "They're going from one school to the next school, or to the repair shop, or into central office. One device has been repaired four or five times, and we need to account for all of that."

5) Configure devices to go through content filters on and off campus.

Schools and libraries using E-Rate funding are required to comply with the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which stipulates that they use a content filter to help prevent kids from accessing inappropriate material on the Internet. Adam Seldow, executive director of technology at Chesterfield County Public Schools (VA), said that his district uses a network proxy so that, "Every time a student tries to get on the Internet from his machine, whether he's connected to a Starbucks wireless access point or his home one, and then when he tries to go to a website, a little box pops up that says to enter your username and password. And that's because that signal went back to our district, and then when you successfully enter it, it says, 'Okay, now you're under our content filtering, and you can do anything that you're allowed to do in school.' "

In Houston, Schad said the content filtering depends on the age of the student. "We needed to be able to split our filtering so that there was an elementary filter, a middle school filter and a high school filter," he said. "When you start doing a lot of Web 2.0 and digital content-based instruction, you need filtering systems that are very dynamic and very flexible because this environment is very fast-paced and it changes a lot. And so we needed to ensure that we had those tools in place that would allow us to keep up with this dynamic environment."

6) Prepare for device loss and damage.

When thousands of mobile devices are in use throughout a district every day, it's almost inevitable that a few will get lost, stolen or damaged. Coffman said, "Before you roll out, you have to ask a simple question: What's an acceptable loss? Most districts or people say that answer is zero, and that's very unrealistic. So you've got to develop that culture that you understand loss is going to occur. Then what you do is manage and mitigate and keep that down as low as possible."

Some districts prepare for loss or damage by purchasing insurance, some require students to buy into a district-managed device protection plan and some charge students a fee for lost or damaged devices. Ball said, "It definitely depends on your community and the individual district."

Regardless of which approach you take, it's important to make those policy decisions before issuing devices to students. "All of these things are up front," said Seldow. "We can tell the students, 'If you break it, that's okay if it was an accident, because we have 100 percent accidental damage warranty on these things. Also, if you lose it, we have a procedure in place where you pay us money and we can get you a new one right away.' "

A common practice to reduce the risk of damage is to issue devices with a protective backpack. Ball said, "We bought every kid a backpack with four inches of padding and foam on the inside. And they're designed for this initiative." He added that the district taught students "a certain way you put your computer in that pocket, so it protects the display of the device, and teachers correct them if they see them not doing it. And we make sure the kids wear their shoulder straps on both shoulders." Of the 5,000 mobile devices in Chesterfiedl County, the district had only six claims against its insurance this year.

7) Provide tech support at the school level.

When students and teachers rely on technology for class activities and assignments, they need to have a working device at all times. If something isn't working, they need help fixing it as soon as possible. Ball assers that, "Having on-site, school-based tech support is ideal."

If a tablet or laptop needs to be repaired or replaced, users need an interim device as soon as possible, too. Some districts keep an excess device inventory of 3 to 10 percent at the school; some keep a pool of older devices on hand to provide as loaners while student devices are out for repair. Smith said, "If a kid comes in and there's a warranty issue on their machine, we copy their files to a loaner and send them back to class. They may be in there 20–30 minutes, and then they're back in class, so it minimizes that down time."

All five CTOs and directors agreed that advance planning is key to a successful 1-to-1 initiative. Schad said, "The thing that people need to understand is, whether you're a district of one school or a district of 282 schools, these are things that must be considered. Don't skip steps, because that's how you get in the paper as being part of a failure."