Technology in the classroom, part 1: Learning about your school’s IT needs

digtal learningMore than 50 million students throughout the U.S. returned to school this fall. Across the nation, results-driven curriculums and Common Core standards, though controversial, measure student progress, track teacher success, administer computer testing, and push digital learning initiatives to a higher threshold in 98,500 public schools.

IT should take a similar results-driven approach. How is your school’s IT environment performing this year? Does your school or district have enough laptops, desktops, or tablets? Does it have the bandwidth and wireless network capabilities to add more devices? What’s on the IT plan for next year?

As IT administrators in school districts plan for future initiatives and apply for E-Rate funding, they must take a holistic look at their current IT assets and how they’ll respond to future changes. Here at SHI, we provide guidance in five key areas of IT that all schools should consider on their journey to true digital learning: Environment, Platform, Infrastructure, Protection, and Implementation. While school districts often tackle the data center first, it can be helpful to examine your current IT environment and the platforms you’re running to see where you can make improvements to stave off costly infrastructure changes.

Environment

The devices in your IT environment are likely comingled in the classroom – laptops, tablets, smartphones, and desktops are probably all used by students and teachers throughout the day. That’s why network administrators should do a hardware census with teachers and administrators to ensure adequate student coverage. Questions that IT should ask include:

  • How many devices exist today in the school/district? How many can you expect to add next year?
  • How, and where, are teachers and students using these devices? How often are they used? Are there circumstances where students could use these devices more?
  • Which form factors (tablets, desktops, laptops, all-in-ones) are being distributed at each grade level? Are personal devices being used in the classroom, and how?
  • Do current devices align with the curriculum goals of your district?
  • How agile is the hardware? How will device usage change as teaching methods evolve?

We see four ways to bring digital learning to a student’s fingertips. The first is truly hands-on learning: one student, one device. This is all-the-time digital learning, as students with a school-issued mobile device or laptop can take exams, collaborate with their peers, and complete classroom assignments and research. In the case of 1:1, devices are typically purchased, managed, and secured by the school, but the responsibility often falls on the student if a device is lost or damaged.

Schools may instead opt to beef up their computer labs or shared computers for multiple classrooms. Shared computers give schools the ability to assert more controls and security on the devices, and extended warranties or service plans will protect and boost their lifespan. End-user computing, such as virtualization and digital portals, is another option, allowing students and teachers access to classwork and homework on the school’s servers from any device. This is a good strategy for districts that don’t have the budget to equip all their pupils or whose students don’t have computers of their own.

Last is a policy of “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD), where students use their own digital device for schoolwork. While a BYOD policy might appear to make sense, it isn’t void of challenges and drawbacks. Due to financial hardships, it may be unreasonable to expect every student to bring a laptop or other mobile device to school. BYOD creates security challenges, and may require encrypted portals through which students would connect to the Internet and school intranet. However, when BYOD is combined with a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) environment, it enables students and educators to have a consistent desktop user experience.

How your devices integrate with different operating systems and older generations for interoperability will affect the choice of which platform to run in the future.

Platform

The devices being used in the classroom will impact the district’s decisions on selecting platforms such as Windows or iOS, especially as more mobile devices and laptops are deployed. Challenges of interoperability, security, and compliance follow suit as a result of this sometimes fragmented environment.

As a result, IT administrators should consider these critical questions as they build out your IT environment:

  • Do you have a standard OS platform? Do you plan on changing it in the future?
  • What free resources are you leveraging from your OS provider?
  • What curriculum provider and classroom management software do you use today? How well does it operate with your current environment? Do you see a change in the future?
  • Is personalized learning a goal of your district? If so, how will your current platform fit in?
  • How is your environment developed to meet Common Core mandates?
  • Does student hardware communicate with devices that teachers and administrators use? If not, do you have a plan to solve the problem?
  • Does school policy consider BYOD and student-owned peripheral devices, such as thumb drives or external hard drives?
  • Does your hardware support all of the software or tools used by teachers and students? In the case of BYOD, is there a list of recommended hardware that is compatible with school hardware?

Microsoft, Apple, and Google have emerged as the three platform giants. Each platform provider comes with a host of services — Microsoft’s Kahn Academy, Microsoft Educator Network, and YouthSpark Hub; Apple’s iTunes U and huge app store; and the Google Apps for Education ecosystem — of which an IT director must weigh the pros or cons. Cost will be another limiting factor in selecting a platform and its many tools and services.

What’s next?

In our next post, we’ll review how a school’s network is set up and managed, as well as what security components must be considered.

What questions do you have about digital learning? Leave us a comment below, or reach out to your SHI account representative.

Andrew Einhorn contributed to this post.

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