Among her staff are 11 field technicians who provide onsite support at the schools and three hardware repair technicians who make about 17,000 repairs on devices annually.
“Our team is efficient and does an amazing job,” says Hill, the district’s coordinator for technical applications. “And yet I can’t imagine managing this many devices without the tools we have in place.”
Relatively small IT teams are not unusual for K–12 districts, but today’s IT staff are managing more mobile devices than ever. For many districts, the pandemic drove a massive influx of Chromebooks and laptops, forcing districts to deploy one-to-one computing for remote learning.
“It’s been an explosion of devices and applications,” confirms Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking. “We’ve seen a huge infusion of money for devices and hotspots through the Federal Communications Commission’s $7 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund. It puts enormous pressure on IT divisions.”
In Virginia Beach, Hill and her team rely on software such as asset management tools to keep track of devices, remote administration tools for remote troubleshooting, mobile device management software to configure and update devices, and IT service desk software to manage help desk tickets.
Some districts also augment their IT staff with school staff — and in some cases, students — who assist with support and repairs. Students at one high school in Perry Township Schools in Indiana receive course credit for repairing Chromebooks.
For Omdia Analyst Adam Holtby, these are best practices. “People practices, technology, processes and partners will all be vital in helping educational institutions overcome the challenges associated with enabling and empowering a more mobile-first digital learning environment,” he says.
IT Staff Tackles Troubleshooting and Problem Solving
At VBCPS, Hill says her small team is able to manage thousands of devices thanks to a teamwork ethic and because they take an all-hands-on-deck approach.
When COVID-19 forced schools to transition to remote learning, students and parents who had Chromebook problems bombarded the district with frantic calls. Hill quickly augmented the district’s customer support call center with her six-person field services team so they could fix issues immediately. They used a variety of remote tools, including Chromebook Remote Desktop, Google Meet, Zoom and Windows Quick Assist, to remotely access and troubleshoot students’ devices.
“The team stepped up and assisted with those calls to make sure instruction wasn’t impacted,” she says. “We wanted to ensure first-call resolution.”
The IT staff uses multiple technology tools to simplify management and improve efficiency. Last fall, as students returned to in-person learning, her team provisioned 9,000 new Chromebooks. To speed the process, they plugged in an Arduino controller that runs a script, and it automatically enrolled the devices.
For Windows laptops, they use cloud-based Microsoft Intune, a mobile device and application management tool. Hill’s team can remotely configure the devices and upload applications and software updates to teachers’ laptops, she says. The district also recently began using Salesforce Service Cloud for help desk ticketing.
Hill also has another source of support. Since the launch of its one-to-one initiative in 2017, the district has supplemented the IT staff with a school staff member who provides first-tier tech support at each school. When these technology support technicians can’t solve a problem, they escalate it to Hill’s field technicians, she says.
Screens and keyboards are the two parts that get damaged the most. For the current school year, Hill has fully stocked her shelves with 3,000 spare screens, 3,000 spare keyboards, and extra batteries, charging ports and headphone jacks.
VBCPS’ three-person hardware repair staff fixes devices in three days, on average, which is more than three times faster than an outside vendor who did it for a year, she says.
“Now I have more control over how things are done, who does what and when they do it,” Hill says.
They use an asset management tool to track workflow. When Chromebooks need repair, the technology support technicians at each school provide loaners while they make the repairs.
Asset Management Is Key to Maintaining Staff and Student Devices
“Asset management is critical for us to support a large number of devices with limited staff. In order to quickly support devices, it is imperative that we know where they are and what their history is,” says Perry Township Schools CTO Matthew Willey.
The Marion County, Ind., district furnishes 16,400 students and 1,000 teachers with Chromebooks and has several thousand spares. As part of the management process, Willey and his team of 20 proactively track down lost or stolen Chromebooks. Last year, because students learned remotely, they did not return the Chromebooks when the school year ended. When students returned to in-person learning last fall, nearly 1,000 devices were missing.
Willey and his team regularly check the student information system (SIS) to see which students have withdrawn from the district. They use the Securly app to track the GPS coordinates and remotely shut the devices off. When people try to turn on the devices, “it locks the devices. They can’t do anything,” Willey says.
Their efforts worked in the fall. They learned some missing Chromebooks were sold to pawn shops; others were found near apartment building dumpsters.