How schools are managing the move to mobile
The rise of 1-to-1 programs has pushed a surge of mobile devices into schools, creating a whole new logistical challenge for district CIOs.
How the iPads, Androids, and other devices are managed depends on whether they are owned by the students or by the district. And while some districts both provide the devices and allow students to bring their own, CIOs are wise to deploy a mobile device management system to keep track of both the hardware and the data.
“Without a mobile device manager, we’d have everybody doing their own thing,” says Sal Costanzo, the director of technology resources at the New Albany Floyd County Consolidated School Corporation in Indiana.
“We could potentially have iPads out there on the network that had apps that were inappropriate or that could be security threats, and we wouldn’t be able to track any of this,” says Costanzo, whose district has just distributed 1,000 iPads to teachers and students. “Or, when somebody leaves the corporation, that iPad could leave with them.”
When it comes to district-owned hardware, CIOs can use mobile device management platforms to keep track of devices, and determine when they need to be repaired or replaced. These issues are not concerns when students own the tablets.
How the devices are used, however, is a challenge regardless of who owns them. Here, CIOs have to give students and teachers the software they need for class, make sure the devices are being used appropriately, and also control access to school networks and the internet.
“We are at a time when it is not going to become less intricate of a challenge—it’s going to become more so,” says Brian Lewis, CEO of ISTE. “As the technology becomes more and more accessible and the demand becomes greater, now is the time for folks to share best practices and do that planning ahead of investing in technology.”
Managing district hardware
Expense was a considerable challenge in implementing the 1-to-1 program at Central USD in Fresno, Calif. But the biggest hurdle was that 35 to 40 percent of the 15,000 students in the district, which is about one-third urban and two-thirds rural, did not have internet access at home, Superintendent Michael Berg says.
“Instead of talking about the achievement gap, we talk about an experience gap—what that means is our kids aren’t going to be on a level learning playing field if they don’t have access to the same world experiences as more affluent families do,” Berg says. “We identified that as our greatest challenge before even broaching expense, equipment, and content-protection concerns.”
The Fresno district gave ASUS tablets to 700 teachers this year. And before all students get the tablets next year, the district will work with AT&T to strengthen wireless signals that don’t yet reach some students’ rural homes. “Every household will have a robust 4G signal before next fall so students can have learning anywhere, anytime,” Berg says.
The concern about damaged or stolen district-owned devices may not be as critical as some think, Berg says. Research done by a group California school districts on 1-to-1 programs found 5 to 7 percent of the tablets are broken or stolen each year, compared to 20 to 30 percent of textbooks lost annually, Berg says.
Before handing tablets out this year, the New Albany Floyd County Consolidated School Corporation had to fortify its network to handle the sudden growth of mobile devices, says Costanzo. Fiber-optic cable was installed across the district of 16 schools and 11,000 students, and all buildings got Wi-Fi.
As for the iPads themselves, they can be equipped on the day they are purchased with all the necessary educational functionally and given to a teacher. The district also uses a database developed by MobileIron to keep track of every iPad.
“At the click of a mouse, I can find out everything I want to know about a particular iPad without having to go track down the iPads,” Costanzo says.
Districts can set strict policies for how their own devices are used, such as limiting the websites that can be visited or barring certain apps—such as games—from being downloaded. Districts also can block users from bypassing school networks or seeking more browsing freedom on local 3G or 4G networks.
Central USD is using AT&T AirWatch, which, among other functions, provides 24-hour monitoring of the tablets on and off school grounds, says Berg. Central USD has multiple security filters that control who can access its network and what content users can access.
But even if a user gets past security filters, AirWatch can identify inappropriate buzzwords or website domains and flag the device. “We have the capability to reach into any computer in the district, and take over the system and shut it down,” he says.
Districts have to decide who can do what on their networks, when they can do it, and what they can access. Mobile device management systems allow administrators to set such rules. For example, administrators and teachers will obviously have wider access to the school network than students, and a student might have more access than a guest, though a guest might have wider access to the internet.
A CIO can use a mobile device management platform to embed these policies on the network, rather than having to act as a gatekeeper 24 hours a day.
“It can get complicated—if you look at YouTube, YouTube might be a problem and you might want to restrict it,” says Robert Nilsson, director of solutions marketing for Extreme Networks, which recently acquired network management platform provider Enterasys. “Then again, a lot of teachers use YouTube, so you might say YouTube is OK at certain times in a certain class.”
In New Albany, the district plans to use Cisco’s identity service engine, or ISE, to determine what permissions the users will have when they use their own devices at school. “It will determine whether or not something the student is trying to do is legitimate for that student to do, and if not, it won’t let them do it,” Costanzo says.
With mobile device management platforms, district CIOs also can set rules for specific users or specific types of devices if, for instance, students using one brand of devices were the ones most often abusing district policy, adds Mike Leibovitz, Extreme Networks’ director of mobility and application solutions. “Schools can be very, very granular in their approach,” he says.
Districts can have a lot of control over how those privately-owned devices are used, especially when they are being used on the school’s network.
BYOD districts should look for mobile device management programs that establish virtual “containers” to designate how devices are used. These containers, often located in a cloud-type environment, can protect district networks from viruses or other potentially harmful content that are already on the personal devices.
But districts also have to make sure personal data isn’t damaged or erased if, for instance, the school is loading educational apps for classroom work onto a privately-owned tablet, says Jonathan Foulkes, vice president of mobile product management for Kaseya, a provider of mobile device management technology.
“These containers can provide secure, centrally-managed access to personally-owned devices that are not at all controlled by the school itself,” Foulkes says, “yet the school has full, central control over what students have access to and can revoke access with no fear of contaminating personal space.”
Educators also may need access to private devices to track if students are following lessons on their own devices, says Sundhar Annamalai, executive director of product marketing management for advanced mobility solutions for AT&T Business Solutions, which offers several mobile device management products.
“If the teacher is going through a lesson of some kind and she has control of the lesson, and she’s changing content on students’ devices, the teacher has visibility into who’s looking at the lesson and who’s deciding not to pay attention,” Annamalai says.
Districts can also use “geo-fencing” technology that can prevent certain apps from being opened at school, says PJ Gupta, CEO of Amtel, another provider of mobile device management solutions.
A school, for instance, may not want visitors to take photos of students. “Let’s say you have a camera on your device and you are in a secure, sensitive place where the district doesn’t want users to be taking pictures,” Gupta says. “The camera icon will disappear as it enters the institution and reappear when you exit.”
Districts don’t have to worry much when students break their own iPads or tablets; nor do they have to keep track of privately-owned devices. A district’s biggest concern on that score may be providing places for students to recharge their devices, says Kecia Ray, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools’ executive director of learning technologies and also president of ISTE.
Her district has put charging stations in all of its libraries. There also is an app that informs students as to where outdoor outlets are located on school grounds.
Letting technology flow
Teachers and students in Nashville schools have a choice between bringing in their own devices or using district-owned laptops. The key is connecting the devices to the Blackboard learning management system the district uses. “We don’t standardize around the device, we standardize around the learning platform, and that learning platform is what everybody needs to get access to,” Ray says.
Teachers, students, and parents have had some say in how the district uses mobile devices and the rules that are made. This kind of buy-in should prevent users from violating district usage policies, Ray says.
“As long as you have a menu of choices and policies that are clear, and you are a support department rather than a compliance department, then I think you can have a lot of success,” she says.
Ultimately, Ray advises districts not to over-control technology. “It’s kind of like water—when you’ve got a water leak, it’s going to find the most obvious opening no matter how much caulk you put in the hole,” she says. “Technology is going to find it’s way into school just by virtue of it being in the hands of kids. … If you have the disposition of wanting to control and micro-manage everything, it will just exhaust you as a district administrator.”
Leibovitz, of Enterasys, says the most important step district leaders can take is making a mobile device management plan before buying the devices or inviting students to bring thousands of tablets to school.
“You want to have those discussions before you go out and buy 10,000 new Android devices,” he said. “The most common mistake is buying first and asking questions later.”