Ways to Prepare School IT for the Transition to Digital Learning

For many organizations, a digital transformation is a multi-year strategy. Yet, in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, school leaders are suddenly faced with the challenge of expediting this process to work within a matter of weeks.

And as the permanency of this new normal sets in, schools are having to plan and launch online or distance learning systems at record speed.

To help school and district leadership accelerate these efforts, we sat down with Andrew Grimes, the head of DevOps at Learning.com and former IT consultant for schools.

While this is an expedited process, Andrew encourages us to strike a balance between short-term solutions and the longer-term planning these can spur. With proper planning and investment, schools can enhance the deployment of online learning systems that will both support students now and sustain digital learning in the future.

You can read more from our interview below.

 

What should be the primary area of focus for school IT teams as they transition to online learning environments?

Security is the number one concern when it comes to implementing technologies. If a solution is not accessible to users, that’s impactful during the time the it is down. If a solution is breached and information is stolen, that information is now accessible forever.

There is no undo button to get that information back. The amount of time and money that goes into fixing a breach is startling. Protecting students’ data and ensuring that it is safe needs to be the number one concern.

And practicing good IT security practices is the best way to protect student privacy. For example, schools can enhance security efforts by ensuring systems are up to date, encrypting data when it is in transit, and installing a multifactor authentication system on any resources that have access to student data.

 

How can schools bolster their IT asset management as they work to get devices into the hands of students?

Allowing students to take home devices can be costly and difficult to manage. Thankfully, tools and resources to facilitate these programs have become much more accessible today. It’s not uncommon for schools of any size and demographics to get state and federal funding to help implement a take-home device program.

At one point in time, these funding programs contributed money to help start a program with little regard to the ongoing maintenance of the program. Thankfully, newer programs are much better at considering the need for continual investment into maintenance and replacement hardware create a more sustainable program.

Beyond funding, other strategies include:

Finding the right hardware that balances cheap-to-replace and robust-enough-to-not-break-easily.

Many schools find that Chromebooks have the right balance. There aren’t expensive licensing costs, and they are able to do much of what a full laptop is capable of doing. Watch out though, they do have some limitations.

Making the students and their parents sign for responsibility to manage and maintain the hardware.

If they break it, they pay for it. Find a good insurance program and allow the students to purchase it to cover any damage that happens to the machine.

Putting good processes in place to track hardware.

An excel sheet, a simple database, or an elaborate program to track hardware assignments all would work just fine, as long as schools have the proper processes in place to ensure they get updated. Appoint a specific person to be responsible for maintaining the information and make sure they understand what is required of them.

Using a remote assistant program.

There are both hardware and hosted solutions that are available to assist users when they encounter issues.

Developing a process for switching out equipment when there are issues.

This could mean establishing shipping protocols or having a location to make exchanges.

Leveraging a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI).

Many students have access to computers at home. VDI might allow students to gain access to resources they don’t have but without the issues involved in assigning and managing physical equipment. Public cloud providers also offer VDI infrastructure so machines can be spun up with a low initial capital expense.

Implementing a Mobile Device Management (MDM) software.

This could help in managing remote devices that are assigned to students.

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What are some strategies schools can consider for getting internet access into student homes?

Thankfully, most homes have basic connectivity to the internet. However, that’s not a solution that is fair and equitable to those who don’t have access. I suspect that there will be some great assistance programs that will come about to help solve this problem in the future. But we need solutions now. Here are some suggestions that might be an immediate fix:

  • Talk with the local Internet Service Provider (ISP) to see if they can assist.
  • Ask for donors who will help those in need get internet access for school.
  • Ask the ESD, local government, or state government for assistance.
  • Check wireless providers to see if cellular access points are an option.
  • Create a wireless bridge to the houses close to the school.

 

What are strategies for implementing digital learning tools?

There are a number of resources that are available to teachers to help manage digital learning.

To navigate these, here are some ideas.

Unifying solutions for standardization

One of the issues that I’ve seen is there isn’t standardization of these tools, which requires students and parents to consult many different solutions to find the answers they need. This is especially true in later grades when students are taught subjects by many different teachers who have different styles and tools. I recommend unifying the solutions that any given school district uses to make it easier on students and their parents.

Surveying teachers for what they already use

The number of solutions available varies greatly, and the amount of options can be overwhelming. However, there’s a good chance schools already have some teachers that have a great start providing solutions. Start by looking at what the adoption rate is of tools already working within the school district.

Connecting with an Educational Service District

An Educational Service District (ESD) can have some great tools and information that can help schools get started. A lot of times, they can even help implement solutions. Check with the ESD to see what resources are available.

Using video software for great engagement and structure

Using video conference solutions to support virtual work and learning environments provides a more engaging and interactive environment than audio only or recorded video.

Running video meetings on a set schedule can help increase participation and teach the participants ways to “raise a hand” and ask questions without speaking over each other.

Preparing for challenges

Obviously, making sure solutions are available to students is also very important. Students are there to learn and dealing with technology issues can detract from that. It’s important to have current backups, monitoring tools, and well thought out disaster recovery plans.

Should schools set up restrictions on take-home devices to help mitigate the risk of distraction or having students access inappropriate content?

There are many ways of implementing solutions which put restrictions on where and how assigned devices are used. Unfortunately, there are many tricks students use to get around these restrictions. I’ve found technology solutions are only a part of the solution and that it also takes some disciplinary action to ensure students are following the rules.

 

Where are some potential blind spots in schools when it comes to managing IT operations in this time?

In my experience, implementing new technology always takes longer than originally planned: always budget more time.

What most often gets overlooked is the training and ongoing maintenance that happens after the solution is implemented. A new technology will change processes, require training, and lead to many ongoing discussions on how to support the solution.

Without a clear plan and devoted resources to invest into a solution once it is implemented, it might not be a great solution.

 

Other Resources

Beyond Andrew’s advice, we also wanted to share other resources we are reading that can help schools ramp up digital learning operations safely, effectively, and quickly – or at least as best as possible.

Insights By

Andrew Grimes

Andrew has over 20 years of experience as a leader in the IT field and leads the DevOps, Customer Service, and internal helpdesk teams at Learning.com. His teams ensure Learning.com’s products are highly available, that its customers' data is safe and secure, and that users have the support they need to have a great experience. Prior to joining Learning.com, Andrew led the Infrastructure team at Concordia University, was an IT consultant for schools through Educational Service District 112, taught evening technology courses at Clark Colleges, and was a Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) Instructor for the United States Air Force. Andrew has a Masters in Computer Resource and Information Management from Webster University, a Bachelors in Workforce Education and Development from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, and an Associates in Instructor of Technology and Military Science from the Community College of the Air Force. He also has achieved many industry-standard certifications to include a Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP), a Microsoft Certified System Engineer (MCSE), and a VMware Certified Professional (VCP).

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