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Scaling Small K–12 IT Teams Through People, Technology, Processes and Partners

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While IT departments provide essential day-to-day services, sometimes students, teachers and even other staff may not realize the huge feats these teams accomplish with a relatively small group.

They also may not know how these smaller teams are able to provide immediate help desk support and fast turnaround times for repairs on tens of thousands of mobile devices.

It’s not magic — it’s strategic. Districts such as Virginia Beach City Public Schools say they are successfully managing their mobile devices at scale through a mix of technology, processes and people.

Lori Hill leads a 36-person IT team that equips devices for some 63,000 students and 5,200 teachers across 86 VBCPS schools. Her team maintains 83,000 HP Chromebooks for students as part of a one-to-one initiative and about 20,000 Windows computers across the Virginia district, including 4,600 new HP notebooks for teachers.

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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.”

RELATED: What do K–12 admins need to know about federal funding?

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 DesktopGoogle MeetZoom 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.

MORE ON EDTECH: Easily deploy and manage new devices for K–12 districts.

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.

DIVE DEEPER: How can asset tagging save K–12 schools money?

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.

Matthew Willey

Asset management is critical for us to support a large number of devices with limited staff.”

Matthew Willey

CTO, Perry Township Schools

Similarly, VBCPS used to take inventory twice a year, but now Hill’s team monitors school inventory monthly. Specifically, the IT staff checks student enrollment on the SIS and compares it with the data in the asset management tool.

If there are discrepancies, the IT team uses a third tool: CDW’s Amplified IT Gopher Pack software, which provides data on each device’s use. If a device is missing, Hill’s staff uses the Gopher software to check the date of the last login and who was using the device, so they can try to recover it.

Fine-Tuning K–12 Device Management

Chippewa Valley Schools, which has 16,000 students and 2,000 employees in Clinton Township, Mich., launched its one-to-one initiative this year. A few months into it, Technology Director Sarah Monnier-White has several strategies for managing the fleet of devices.

The district increased the number of Dell and HP Windows 10 laptops from about 5,000 devices to 17,000 this year. It also furnished each teacher with a new Surface tablet.

Monnier-White increased her IT staff from 11 to 17 people, and they have been busy since school started in September, provisioning new computers and repairing existing devices. They also manage a desktop computer and interactive whiteboard in each of the district’s 800 classrooms as well as administrators’ desktops and laptops.

READ MORE: Interactive panels drive K–12 student engagement.

In addition, her team provides remote help desk support for virtual-only students. When needed, students call the help desk or submit online requests through a help desk ticketing system.

Her staff used Microsoft Intune to provision the new devices, which was a huge time saver, she says. “We literally got an Excel spreadsheet of serial numbers from the vendor. We uploaded it into Intune, and when we connected the computers to the internet, it automatically talked to our system, and uploaded our policies and the software we wanted installed,” she says.

She also augments her staff with library media clerks at each school, who’ve been trained on basic troubleshooting and will escalate issues to the eight-person help desk if needed.

The rest of her staff assists the help desk team when needed. When school started, for example, instructional trainers who typically focus on pedagogy helped with troubleshooting tasks. And when the help desk can’t solve issues, IT administrators step in to help.

Overall, Monnier-White is seeing what works and what doesn’t, and is fine-tuning her device management processes as she goes along. “We’re staying busy and working through it all,” she says.

Photography by Tyler Darden



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Free AI Writing Tools Can Write Essays in Minutes. What Does That Mean for Teachers?

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Stanford professors Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami, and Jeremy M. Weinstein are sounding the alarm on a new method for student cheating: AI-generated papers. 

AI writing tools have improved rapidly in recent years, and even months, and free programs are regularly advertised to students in targeted ads, making this an issue that might already have impacted many educators’ classrooms, whether they know it or not. 

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Tech & Learning Celebrates the 2022 Winners & Finalists of the Innovative Leader Awards at New Event

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On December 2, the Tech & Learning 2022 winners and finalists of the Tech & Learning Innovative Leader Awards (opens in new tab) were invited to the first Innovative District Leader Summit (opens in new tab) at the Liberty Science Center outside New York City. The event brought together some of the nation’s most innovative district leaders to collaborate on solutions to today’s challenges, including working in teams to plan the school of the future.

Taking Risks and Failing Forward 

Innovative Leader Awards

(Image credit: Future)

The Tech & Learning Innovation Summit took place at an ideal space for the event’s theme: the Liberty Science Center (opens in new tab), a 300,000-square-foot learning center located in Liberty State Park on the Jersey City bank of the Hudson near the Statue of Liberty. The Science Center houses 12 museum exhibition halls, a live animal collection with 110 species, giant aquariums, a 3D theater, live simulcast surgeries, hurricane- and tornado-force wind simulators, K-12 classrooms and labs, teacher-development programs, and the Western Hemisphere’s biggest planetarium. 

The day kicked off with a keynote from educator, author, and international speaker Carl Hooker (opens in new tab), who discussed how risk-taking and celebrating failure are key building blocks to drive innovation. During this interactive session, Hooker led attendees through a series of improv activities designed to help activate the creative side of their brains.  

Innovative Leader Awards

(Image credit: Future)

Attendees next broke into working groups to review different scenarios that could impact their districts, collaboratively discussing solutions to these challenges. During each topic discussion, attendees were asked to consider the following questions: 

  • Where have you “failed” as it relates to this topic?
  • How did this “failure” impact this topic? 
  • How did this experience make a positive impact related to this topic?  
  • What risks have you taken to impact this topic? 
  • What risks might you take to impact this topic? 
  • In what other ways might you overcome resistance to change in your district related to this topic?

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Why K–12 Schools Shouldn’t Overlook Switches and Routers

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If you plug in a network switch or an internet router from your local big-box store, most of the time it just works. And while enterprise-grade gear requires a bit more effort, the minimum configuration usually isn’t complex. Vendors want the device to work for you.

That’s wonderful, right? Well, sort of. The downside of a network device “just working” is that it’s only minimally secured. Poorly secured network devices are risky. Compromised network devices can impact network stability and data privacy, and they can prevent a classroom from functioning smoothly. Here’s what school IT teams should know about banning risky practices to protect crucial network hardware.

WATCH NOW: Use these cybersecurity tips to protect school systems.

Firewalls Help but Don’t Address Internal Vulnerabilities

well-configured internet firewall will keep some risks out, but attacks from within your school’s network can easily exploit vulnerable network devices.

Common vulnerabilities and exposures (CVEs) include denial of service, which prevents the device from functioning properly; privilege escalation, which occurs when an attacker gains improper access to the network device; and remote code execution, which an attacker can use to turn your network device into a platform for launching attacks.

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Regularly Assess Your Network to Determine Risk

The key to discovering your active CVEs is to scan your network with a vulnerability assessment tool. Armed with a CVE report, you can assess risk and begin patching. Your network vendor will recommend software versions that have resolved the CVEs.

Alternatively, bring in a security consultant who can assess the network, rank CVEs by their level of severity and recommend a mitigation strategy.

Prioritize Patching Network Devices with the Most Risk

New CVEs are discovered constantly, so much so that even dedicated security professionals can’t keep up.

However, not all CVEs represent the same level of risk. Some are critical, while others are ranked high, medium or low. Critical CVEs represent serious risk and should be patched immediately. The others should be considered progressively less risky. Judging CVE risk is the job of an IT professional who understands your school’s network well.

RELATED: What should IT leaders know about disaster recovery configurations?

Additional Configuration Steps Help Network Gear Survive Attacks

No amount of scanning and patching can replace proper configuration. However, school IT teams should ensure they are using authentication, authorization and accounting schemes to limit and log what administrators do. Vendor security hardening guides can help make a device resistant to attacks.

Monitoring network devices and collecting their logs can help admins detect unusual behavior that might indicate an attack. Periodic auditing of a device’s configuration and operating state can help ensure it is functioning in compliance with school policy.

DISCOVER: Build in an extra layer of network security with these tips.

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URGENT: CYBER SECURITY UPDATE