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Consumer Technologies Enter Schools

Challenges for CIOs through BYOD, 4G, open networks and more.

Imagine access to your district’s email system on mobile devices tripled over two weeks. This is exactly what Deb Karcher, CIO of Miami Dade Public Schools and her team faced after Christmas 2012. “Santa Syndrome,” a term coined by Karcher, resulted in the 50,000 users accessing the email system on personal devices before winter break jumping to 150,000 when the schools reopened after the holidays. Fortunately, the district has plenty of bandwidth to support such an influx to their enterprise applications, including email. 

This trend of using consumer products to access a school’s cloud-based applications refers to the“consumerization” of IT. Also involved in the trend is the explosion of the BYOD in schools, forcing students to use personal devices on the school’s network. It’s revolutionizing the way teachers instruct, and requires more support from tech teams. 

As fighting this shift is futile, district CIOs are best served embracing the consumerization and preparing their schools accordingly. Teams must adapt their practices, networks, and understanding of their own jobs as this occurs. 

Preparing Networks

Karcher and her team saw this trend coming, but thought it would take more time: “About six or seven years ago, we expected that device prices would eventually go down and become available to more students,” Karcher says. 

The fourth largest district in the country, with 350,000 students, Miami-Dade is finding it diffcult to keep increasing internet bandwidth at the rate at which people are bringing devices into schools. “We cannot afford the bandwidth for every person to constantly be on on their device,” she says, noting it would cost $1 million a month. 

Therein lies the problem: Karcher and her team want to provide online access to all students. With an 86 percent free and reduced lunch rate, some students can only access the internet at school. The district is implementing a BYOD policy and installing Wi-Fi in all of its nearly 400 schools. However, district leaders do not currently have the filtering resources necessary to properly redirect bandwidth being used for non-academic reasons to classrooms.

“We are developing ways to better prioritize and monitor traffc,” Karcher says. And one way Karcher’s team is dealing with this influx is by watching traffic from a central offce and noting when traffc to a certain school is increasing. Her team can instantly increase bandwidth only in a particular area and only in certain situations because it costs more. For example, when testing is occurring in the school, the CIO offce can cut off network access to all areas except the testing location. The spare bandwidth is redirected and bolsters the connection for the testing area, according to Paul Smith, the director of technical services. 

Building a Partnership 

The IT team at Miami-Dade had worked with the accountability and testing teams under the chief business offcer for three years when the latter groups were told they were being moved under the umbrella of the chief academic offcer. Not wanting to break up the synergy and shared knowledge the three teams enjoyed, Karcher requested IT be moved over as well in the fall of 2012, and it was granted. 

She could not predict the benefits that would accompany this move. As the digital conversion occurs and more equipment needs to be purchased, the frequent contact with the academic offcer has been hugely beneficial. 

“It used to be that the CIO role was focused on the administrative side of things, ensuring that the infrastructure and apps were running smoothly,” she says. “Now I get to be involved in the academic conversations of the school. I now have a chance to understand the classroom needs and enable them.” 

Karcher’s top priority for all users in the schools is to have the best possible experience with their software. Under BYOD, however, teachers must approve the use of devices in their individual classrooms for lessons. 

Less than half the teachers at Miami- Dade choose to allow mobile devices in their classes. Those who already had been integrating technology, Karcher says, seem to be the ones approving personaldevices. To avoid collective bargaining issues, teachers who do not allow them cannot be forced to do so.

Occasionally, situations arise that result in resentment from the IT team toward academic departments. When administrators or teachers try to work autonomously outside what the IT team has already set up, problems can crop up years later. Therefore, Karcher believes it’s important to let teachers feel empowered and in control of the technology in their classrooms, but within the IT team’s network parameters. “When a group buys their own software and sets it up on an independent server, we have no information on it,” she says. “If there’s a change in staffng for whatever reason, however, we’re the ones who have to figure out what it is they bought and how to control it.”

Using Third-Party Applications

There are positive and negative results when it comes to using third-party appli-cations in schools for instruction and administrative purposes, Karcher notes. She adds there is no purpose in developing an internal application when there are third-party apps already in existence that fulfill the district’s needs. However, some functionality and automation can be lost.

“You lose a bit of personalization with third-party apps,” she says. “They’re very rigid in what you can do. We’re very process oriented in one of our internal evaluation programs and have not found an outside application that can accommodate exactly what we need.”

When an administrator or teacher wants to bring in an outside application, Karcher has one stringent requirement. “Apps that are moved into our district must be web-enabled, with a single signon,” she says. “They must be accessible from any device.”

Single sign-on, which allows a student to access every available application, is key for getting teacher buy-in. It would take away from teaching time if students had to manage a myriad of passwords, Karcher insists. Teachers would have to stop instructing to assist students with resetting inevitably forgotten passwords.

Making Safety a Priority

Miami-Dade is focused on having a safeenvironment for children; its filter does not block controversial sites that include such subjects as abortion, but does block sites with information considered dangerous, like “how to make a bomb.” To control what students can access on school grounds, students must log onto the school’s wireless network, even if their device has data capability. Enforcing this seems tricky, but Karcher explains why they chose to have such a policy: “It’s our philosophy that the policy teaches responsible use. If a student is caught using 4G, the same disciplinary measures are taken as when a student passes a note in class.”

However, what is blocked is not absolute. Teachers can request that specific applications and websites be unlocked at any given time. Miami-Dade has a ticketing system; 95-98 percent of requests are approved without needing to follow up with the teacher within 24 hours. If the IT team questions the content, they forward the request to the relevant instructional area director or department head, who must give unblocking approval. Requests can be granted within an hour in certain situations, as well.

Worries for the Future

A rising challenge, Smith notes, is the inability to examine the specific content that students are accessing on their devices. “In the past, I was able to stop certain data streams because what was instructional and what wasn’t was clear,” he says. “I could block torrents or video sharing between two devices.” However, today, these bandwidth-eating, potentially inappropriate exchanges are integrated onto a regular web page. Miami-Dade’s filter is not sophisticated enough to discern the different types of traffc coming into the system; and the IT team is shopping for a more complex filter with these capabilities.

With bandwidth costs high, a more granular filter that will help Smith and Karcher detect academic content more clearly and make informed choices about what traffc to prioritize is paramount. Specifically, they are searching for a filter that teachers can control. They also desire a filter that gives different permissions depending on the user’s grade level.

Differentiated Networks

With a 1:1 initiative in place that started in fall 2011, the team at the Quakertown (Pa.) Community School District decided that a differentiated approach to their networks made the most sense.

“We have two separate networks,” says Tom Murray, the director of technology and cyber education for Quakertown schools. “One is completely secure and houses student and staff information and district financial records. The other is very open, for student and staff device use.”

The networks are V-LANs, set up with Access Control Lists (ACLs). The ACLs specify that students can access the open V-LAN, whereas teachers and administrators can access the one with private information. Devices that students bring in cannot  ocate the closed network, keeping security high. Murray says using enterprise class switches minimizes the cost of running two networks.

Think Open

At Quakertown, the only blocked websites are those with zero educational value (including non-CIPA-compliant sites). The filter LightSpeed categorizes websites and grants access based on user type. Pornographic websites are blocked for all users. However, non-educational “forums” will be blocked for students, but not for teachers. Specific websites can also be blocked.

“We leave Twitter and YouTube open,” Murray says. “If there’s a tool staff members feel they need for learning, they get it. We say ‘no’ to very little.”

By having a primarily open network, students can access the resources they need. Murray feels it is important to not design policies on the small numbers of students who try to access inappropriate websites. To preserve an open network, he recommends, communicate use expectations to parents and students. Most will act appropriately. “We want students to have the freedom of choice in their learning tool,” he says. “That’s what they’re used to. That’s how real life works.”

Some third-party applications have proved indispensable to Quakertown, including Google Apps for Education, which is a cloud-based application that Quakertown uses for presentations, spreadsheets, and student email accounts. Like Karcher, Murray does not believe in developing in-house applications when there are quality third-party ones.

Working with Teachers

Technology teams must work with teachers and give them the resources necessary for instruction, and not to set up roadblocks, Murray urges. “I’ve heard time and time again from teachers who feel that the tech team gets in the way of their teaching,” he says.

Murray views his department as a customer service organization, to support learning and encourage resource usage. Technology staff members should stop being digital police offcers and start supporting innovation in the classroom, ensure work orders such as unblocking requests are handled in a timely manner, and ensure that staff members receive frequent communication regarding the status of their work orders.

Embracing Change

Educators should make an impact on technology trends, Murray says. “Education always takes years to catch up, technology wise,” he says. “I want to flip this so we’re at the forefront of innovation.”

Murray notes that regardless of whether a school allows BYOD, it is happening. The consumerization of IT is forcing needed change. CIOs need to think of themselves first as educators of forward thinking and as technology directors second, he adds. “Students will bring their devices to school no matter what,” he says. “We shouldn’t inhibit the practice, but take advantage of what these devices can do.”

Kylie Lacey is special projects editor. Thomas Murray can be reached on Twitter at @thomascmurray.