How Virtualization and BYOD Help Students Learn Anywhere, Anytime

For more than two decades, Douglas Meade has been director of information Technology at York County School Division (VA), which serves nearly 13,000 K-12 students. In the fall of 2009, the division began a two-year process of implementing a desktop virtualization initiative to enhance mobility for students and teachers — and, as an added benefit, to pave the way for BYOD as an alternative to 1-to-1.

My Top 3 Tech Trends that Prepare Students for College or the Workforce

Access to networks: Students will always be connected, and with that connectivity comes responsibility. The way connectivity is used for social or entertainment purposes is different from the way connectivity is used for work, whether school or career. There is a place and time for everything, and just because you can connect with friends 24/7 doesn’t mean you should.

Access to devices: Students have a variety of devices at their disposal for various purposes: from a quick Web lookup, reading email, keeping schedules/calendars and taking photographs, to research, preparing complex email messages and running minor business apps, to composing complex documents/spreadsheets/presentations or running production business applications. Stop calling BYOD an initiative. It is no more of an initiative than paper and pencil is an initiative.

Access to applications: The mission-critical applications used by schools and employers are available all of the time and on any device. No longer will a Windows environment be limited to a Windows computer. Students will move seamlessly between locally installed apps on iPads, iPhones, Android devices, etc., to hosted applications and/or virtual Windows desktops — whatever is the right tool to get work done.

THE Journal: What led you to decide to go in this direction?
Douglas Meade: Around 2008 we were hearing complaints from teachers that were legitimate, and what they boiled down to was: We want access to our stuff. They weren't using that language, but that was what they were saying. Every classroom had something called an I-station that was hooked up to the LCD projector in the ceiling. It had a VCR, a document camera, an “ink link” where they could write something that showed up on the screen and save it, and they could walk into the classroom and put their notebook computer on that docking station that was connected to all of these devices and the projector. They could teach, take the computer off the docking station and take it home with them. However, for security purposes we didn’t allow them to connect to an outside network. You couldn't just randomly install software on it because we'd end up with viruses or software conflicts and corruptions. So they could just use it in a standalone mode away from school with whatever it was that was installed on it. Teachers were complaining that they wanted to be able to do more on this notebook computer. What they really wanted was access — to be able to work at home just like they could work at school. We had had our finger on the pulse of some of the early virtualized desktops for quite some time, so we started looking more closely to see if that technology had gotten to where we thought it needed to be to serve the classroom.

THE Journal: What were your concerns?
Meade: The two biggest were first, would it stream video well, because streaming video is something that is a necessity in K-12; and second, there are a lot of instructional applications that are not well written, and trying to get those to work virtualized, streamed or hosted was a bit of a challenge. But we looked at it and decided that the Citrix HDX technology had gotten to where it needed to be. And that became a game-changer for us.

THE Journal: How so?
Meade: If you think about it, in the classroom environment prior to technology, students could, at the end of the day, put papers, worksheets and books in their backpacks. Teachers could take home their grade-books and calculators. Neither was tied to the classroom. When we brought in technology, teachers had to be in their classroom to get to their electronic grade-book or to incorporate certain applications into their lesson plans. Students had to be in school to use applications we were making available to them. In many cases they had to be in a certain lab at a certain time. If you were taking Photoshop, you had to be in the Photoshop lab to do any work. Now, on the other hand, there’s nothing done with technology in the school that can’t be done from anywhere and on any device. This has given students and teachers total mobility.

THE Journal: How does virtualization make BYOD a more viable alternative to 1-to-1?
Meade: If you have a 1-to-1 initiative, you've given students a computer, and when you allow them on your network, you’re going to have all the risks associated with that: corruptions, viruses and other problems that you have to support. As with teachers, it would have been a big challenge to let students take the technology home, put it on an outside network, and install any applications they wanted. When our instructional department started talking about BYOD, we were trying to figure out how we were going to secure things. Then we thought, why don't we treat the entire wireless environment as open? Anybody can get on our network, but you have to go through our content-filtered Internet connection. You bring your device, log in with credentials, and now we will run a virtual desktop and you will have, in a secure environment, access to your applications, your files and our network printers, just like if all that had been locally installed on a notebook computer that you had gotten off of a cart. It made our life a lot simpler. So the desktop virtualization and the access from anywhere, any time, any device … that was our driving force. The ability to do BYOD was gravy, something we realized after the fact.

THE Journal: What keeps you excited about your work after 22 years?
Meade: I'm a technology guy, not a former teacher like many people in my position. And when I came here I said I wanted to build something. We didn't have the first network switch here, just a bunch of stand-alone computers with a local attached printer and everybody running WordPerfect. To me, the beauty of technology is that it never gets old. It's always changing and evolving, and you've always got something new to do. My job is never boring.

About the Author

Dan Gordon is a freelance writer based in Agoura Hills, CA.