Mobile Computing

3 Unexpected IT Issues in 1-to-1 Districts

IT Issues Teaser

Directors of information technology in school districts starting 1-to-1 deployments have learned one thing the hard way: You can never have too much bandwidth.

Robert Craven, senior director of information technology at Tustin Unified School District (CA), said that as soon as the district gave devices to all students in fifth through eighth grade, it stared to see a lot of impact on its network. He realized that he needed to upgrade from 1 gigabit to 2, but because of funding approval process, it took 20 months to get there. Four months after that, he remembered, “Students started coming to school with two and three devices and 2 gigs wasn’t enough,” he said. “We are planning to put in a 40-gig WAN [wide-area network].”

Craven and his department now manage an 18,000-device 1-to-1 laptop and iPad program for the 24,000-student K-12 school district. Speaking on a panel at the recent ISTE conference in Philadelphia along with other veterans of 1:1 deployments, he called not having enough bandwidth the biggest mistake he had made in 1-to-1 deployments.

Craven said that broadband usage spikes so dramatically in the early days of a 1-to-1 rollout that you really must plan way ahead for it. If you don’t, teachers will get irritated, and you can’t just call a provider and get an upgrade immediately. “You must keep the board and cabinet appraised of the network needs just as you would about the modernization of buildings,” he said. “It does not happen overnight.”

Andrew Schwab, chief technology officer of Union School District, a K-8 district in San Jose, CA, is preparing for bandwidth issues of his own. Union currently has a 1-gig connection, but with the increasing use of video and expansion of 1-to-1 computing, he expects that the district will soon need to upgrade. The district has been 1-to-1 in third through sixths grades since last December and is planning to take the initiative districtwide. To accommodate all those new devices, Schwab said, “We are going straight to 10 gigs. I would rather plan to have too much now than try to go back later asking for funding for more. There are always challenges around funding.”

Schwab also suggested that districts should think about upgrading all their infrastructure, not just the speed of the network. “What I do is walk the campuses, open equipment closets and see what they look like, and think about troubleshooting,” he explained. “You can’t just throw in access points and think everything will be good. You have to build on a solid foundation.”

Continuing on the infrastructure theme, Schwab said his strategy is to move as much as he can to cloud-based services and therefore be able to turn off servers wherever he can. “If there is a failure in the cloud, someone else will be fixing it, and they can do it faster than we can.”

Craven added that as with bandwidth, the expectations about WiFi coverage change over time. Board members mentioned to him recently that they were not able to get online in the outdoor quad and wanted to know what IT was doing about that. “Basically they want us to ensure students have gate-to-gate access as soon as they arrive on campus,” he said.

In choosing a WiFi network vendor, Schwab said he is looking for is ease of use. “We want something that is easy to manage and gives us visibility.”

Supporting a Range of Devices

When it comes to device support, Schwab said that his department is willing to work with multiple devices to fit specific use cases. “We support Windows laptops and Android tablets and iPads,” he said. “We start with what teachers want to do and find the platform to fit that. We love standardization, because it makes support easier,” he said, but it is worth supporting multiple devices to meet teachers’ and students’ needs.
Craven said that one of the first things he had to do when he arrived in Tustin was replacing $6 million worth of laptops because their battery life was only three hours. After a market re-evaluation, the district found a laptop with a 10-hour battery life. Now students can charge them every other day, he said, and battery life is not an issue anymore. He and other panelists also agreed on the importance of finding good iPad cases to avoid screen breakage, which can be an expensive headache.

Changing Learning Spaces

Another unexpected consequence of successful 1-to-1 deployments is a change in the design and location of learning spaces. Schwab said, “We are trying to build out areas and opportunities for collaboration and adding whiteboards. We are looking at movable furniture and ways for students to connect their devices for impromptu collaborations and presentations.” To prepare for these changes, he recommended that districts just starting 1-to-1 projects might want to think about their furniture budgets. 

Craven agreed that in some cases the classroom spaces are not working for teachers anymore. “In the next five years all our furniture will be turned over, and all geared toward flexible learning spaces,” he said. Teachers are saying they need monitors in the back of class now. So the district is fitting out 30 classrooms with dual monitors in the back of the classroom. Also, he said, his computer labs are not being used anymore. “We have pulled all the furniture out of three labs,” Craven said, and instead put in green screens, whiteboards, tables and monitors. “We want to extend the learning environment to commons areas, even outdoors.”

PD Is Key

Craven concluded that he has learned to implement a professional development strategy rather than just a training regime for teachers. “We have found a huge difference between training and professional development. Training doesn’t work. You get no systematic change,” he said. “In Tustin, we went with a model of professional development where we have digital literacy coaches working with seven to 10 teachers each.” Coaches meet with teachers and talk about what they want to work on. The coach finds technologies for the teachers to try and gives them feedback. After a year, Craven said, the teachers feel empowered.

About the Author

David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for several IT publications, including Healthcare Innovation and Government Technology.