Resolved: ICCSD Experiencing Network/Internet Disruption

*UPDATE: 1:21 PM, 10/28/16*
Normal internet and network operation has now been restored district-wide.  We identified a network policy that was creating an inordinate amount of traffic.  That traffic flow has now been stopped, and other network indicators are now within normal ranges.  We appreciate your patience as we worked through this problem.   

8:00 AM: The ICCSD network is currently experiencing a networking / internet service disruption as of 8 AM on October 28th.  

speedtest_102816This can be seen in the image at the right; typically an early-morning speed test should show between 500Mb and 1000Mb down; currently I’m seeing 5Mb down from my test machine.  While the internet is still accessible, performance – especially for streaming applications – will be slow and/or unreliable until the problem is resolved.  

We believe that we have isolated the issue and are working to fix the problem.  I will provide an update here as soon as the problem is resolved.  We appreciate your patience in the meantime.  

What are Chromebooks?

Chromebooks have become ubiquitous in the education sector, but I’m often met with confusion when I mention a Chromebook to somebody outside of the school setting.  Here at the Iowa City Schools, we’ve deployed roughly 2,500 Chromebooks over the past year, with most of those deployments in the form of mobile carts that are now available in each of our schools.  Further, an upcoming 1:1 initiative and an increase in the number of devices available at the elementary level will result in upwards of 11,000 Chromebooks district-wide within the next few years.  Here’s a quick Chromebook overview:

What is a Chromebook?

Chromebook 02-16-16 (2)Simply put, a Chromebook is a laptop.  The form factor (in picture at right) is that of a traditional laptop, with a keyboard, screen, USB ports, and so forth.  Unlike other laptops that run Windows or OS X as operating systems, Chromebooks run Google’s Chrome OS.

What is Chrome OS?

Chrome OS is a cloud-based operating system that integrates with Google’s online services (Gmail, Google Drive, Google Calendar, etc.).  ICCSD students and staff can sign on to district-issued Chromebooks using their respective Iowa City Schools Google accounts, while one can sign in to non-district owned Chromebooks using any Google account, including ICCSD accounts.  Since storage and settings are in the cloud, anything that a user does on one Chromebook is available when they log in to a different Chromebook.

How is Chrome OS different?

Unlike a Windows or Mac computer, where the traditional paradigm is to have software installed directly on the device itself (think Microsoft Word, GarageBand, or Photoshop), Chromebooks are geared towards web-based applications and content.  Just about anything that you can do online can be done on a Chromebook.  Recent research shows that over 90% of current high school students’ computer use takes place within a web browser, which makes Chromebooks a potentially perfect fit for modern computer usage patterns.

So a Chromebook can’t run regular software? 

Yes and no.  You cannot install Windows or Mac versions of software directly on a Chromebook, but you can run online versions of the software.  Office 365, Google Drive, YouTube, Photoshop Online, and WeVideo, for instance, offer online equivalents to traditional desktop software.  Chrome OS does support a number of apps, such as Evernote, Gmail offline, calculator, Any.do, and PDF Viewer that are installed to the device and will work whether the Chromebook is connected to the internet or not.

AutoDesk Inventor on a Chromebook

AutoDesk Inventor on a Chromebook

Beyond those options, ICCSD is also piloting Citrix XenApp and VMWare Fusion, both of which allow  full Windows versions of software – including resource-intensive software such as Autodesk Innovator (pictured at right, from a Chromebook) – to be made available to Chromebooks.  The software itself is delivered virtually to the Chromebook while running on a server.  This provides the benefit of running full version, specialty software on Chromebooks, while also delivering substantially better performance for resource-intensive applications than could be achieved on most regular laptops.  The latter benefit is the result of running the application on a server that is far more powerful than any affordable laptop.

Does a Chromebook need to have an internet connection to work? 

No, although an internet connection is important for maximizing the benefit of the Chromebook.  You can still create and edit files, view pictures, take notes, and other functions without an internet connection, but you wouldn’t have access to virtualized applications, your full Google Drive directory, or to other internet resources.

Here at ICCSD, all buildings in the districts have wireless coverage, and we’re working to eliminate dead zones and to develop our infrastructure to improve network performance.

What does a Chromebook cost? 

As a general rule, schools don’t have the financial resources to pay for extravagant technology offerings.  The price of Chromebooks – about $200 – $300 per device – is one of the primary factors driving their adoption in schools.  By comparison, an iPad typically costs around $400, and a Windows or Mac laptop/desktop around $1,000.

Are Chromebooks easy to support? 

Sometimes, the initial cost of a product can be misleading, due to substantial costs related to supporting the product in an enterprise environment.  Chromebooks, however, offer savings on both fronts.  Schools can purchase management licenses for about $25 per device, which allow the district to manage printers, access rules, and other device and user settings.  Since the devices use our Google accounts for logins – and these accounts are linked to our on-campus Active Directory servers – technology staff do not need to manage accounts for specific users.  Further, the fact that the devices do not require software to be installed means that we can configure a new Chromebook for deployment in the amount of time it takes to join the device to the district’s wireless network, or about 3 minutes.  If a device has a problem – a corrupted operating system, for instance – we can restore the device to its original configuration in under 15 minutes.

Are the devices durable? 

School districts have had mixed experiences with regard to durability.  In general, we’ve found – as have other districts – that the Chromebooks are no more or less durable than our other laptops.  Especially with a 1:1 program under development, durability is a key factor that we consider in evaluation of potential models for purchase.  

Is a Chromebook a good choice for home, or for a college student? 

I get questions about computers for home and for students headed off to college all the time.  In short, a Chromebook is going to be somewhat limited for home and student use, especially if there is any need for specialty software (engineering, music composition, GIS, advanced video/photo editing, etc.)  That said, the majority of users just need a computer in order to browse the internet, check email, and compose an occasional document, spreadsheet, or presentation.  If you have wireless internet at home/school and you’re comfortable working with Google Drive, Google Docs, and Gmail, a Chromebook can be a perfect computer for home use.  Not only is it tremendously cost-effective, but it is also easier to use and to maintain than Windows or OS X computers.

If I were to buy a Chromebook, where can I get one?  

Almost all computer resellers – with the exception of the Apple and Microsoft stores – now sell Chromebooks.  You can often find good deals on Chromebooks at Best Buy and office stores, or online through Amazon.com or Newegg.com.  When you choose a Chromebook, you’ll have some of the same choices that you have when purchasing any laptop: screen size, storage capacity, RAM, processor, and wireless.  Technical specifications are not as important for Chromebooks as for other computers, but I generally recommend:

  • at least an 11.5″ display, at least 1366×768 resolution
  • storage capacity isn’t generally important; most Chromebooks have SD card slots for photos from a camera
  • I recommend 4GB of RAM, but 2GB is sufficient.  4GB will result in a smoother experience for most users
  • Processor is generally unimportant; you’ll get better performance from a Chromebook with an Intel Core i3/i5 than you will from some other options (Celeron, Atom, Rockchip, Tegra, Exynos, etc.)
  • Support for wireless 802.11ac has the potential to improve streaming and web application performance.

 

ICCSD Seeking Network Administrator

If you or someone you know has experience with network administration and support and is interested in joining our team, check out the following link to view our open network administrator position: http://bit.ly/2erQrcb 

This is a full-time, year-round position within our technology & innovation department.  The application period closes on November 1st.  If you have any questions, please contact Adam Kurth.

Gmail Service Disruption Resolved

The issue reported previously relating to a Gmail service disruption has now been resolved.

We’ll continue to keep you up-to-date on the status of critical applications used within the Iowa City Schools.

Thoughts from ITEC

ITECOne of the annual events that I look forward to in the world of educational technology each year is the ITEC – the Iowa Technology & Education Connection – conference in Des Moines.  This two day conference touches on all aspects of  educational technology, including IT support and management, curricular technology resources, the intersection of technology and instruction, and so forth.  Perhaps even more valuable than the sessions are the opportunities to talk and debate with others from Iowa’s ed tech community; being able to learn from the perspectives of teachers, students, administrators, and technology professionals from districts large and small is exhilarating.

Here are some of my thoughts and takeaways from this year’s conference:

Technology is ubiquitous: one of the recurring discussions in sessions with other technology directors was that of service continuity, or making sure that the network and our data stay accessible no matter what.  The fact that this is such a hot topic drives home the fact that we are increasingly dependent upon technology – wireless networks, cloud services, student information systems, file synchronization, etc. – such that outages can substantially impact learning.  In this vein, service continuity is a big focus for us right now in the Iowa City schools, with discussions ranging from cross-training support personnel to the addition of a second data center for failover and load balancing purposes.

We have outstanding staff members in the district: prior to the beginning of the keynote presentation on the first day of ITEC, I was reminded about how innovative and forward-thinking our staff can be.  Along with several other items to kick off the conference, I got to see Garner principal Nick Proud honored with ITEC’s Outstanding Administrator award.  Throughout the conference, I saw ICCSD staff presenting at sessions, ICCSD students coordinating and creating podcasts, and was never at a loss for pride in the district I serve.

We have to reach students where they live: in technology terms, it’s easy for me to default to technology solutions and communication methods that I use.  As an administrator, I have to push myself to innovate and learn such that my limitations don’t result in barriers to students’ effective use of technology.

There are tremendous benefits to a growth mindset in educational technology.  Rather than fighting changes in communication technologies, we as educators need to work to stay ahead of those changes.  Our kids live in today’s world; let’s teach them there.

Failure is fine, but it isn’t a goal: Among the other valuable messages from George Couros’ keynote was this one, which resonated with me: failure is part of learning, but isn’t the end of learning.  While we need to encourage risk-taking and acknowledge the messy ups and downs of progress, we ultimately must work to build a mindset where failure isn’t the end, it’s just a part of the process from which we grow towards success.

I need to get in the classroom more: While I’m not usually a big fan of self-focused statements, I want to own up to this one.  Since I started in the district in July, I’ve spent relatively little time in the classroom.  This has to change, and I’m excited about making it happen.  While administrative responsibilities are time-consuming and can seem to monopolize availability, it’s impossible to serve our students and teachers if I am not closely connected with their experiences in our classrooms.

Sometimes, the nuts and bolts can be innovative too: the Nevada School District, near Ames, has been implementing virtual applications to support their Chromebook 1:1 initiative for the past year.  Attending a session presented by their Director of Technology Joe Wakeman affirmed our approach to offer specialized software through a virtual platform, such that students can access the software they need at any time, from anywhere.  While, on one hand, this solves a very mundane problem of needing to run Windows software on a Chromebook, it has the potential to dramatically change how and when students work, and how teachers are able to deliver instruction.  The next step is ensuring that all of our students have access to internet no matter whether they’re on or off-campus.

 

1:1 Initiative Coming in 2017, 2018

In Fall, 2017, the Iowa City Schools will be deploying a Chromebook 1:1 initiative in all high school grade levels (9th – 12th).  The following year, the initiative will be extended to include grades 7 and 8 district-wide.

district-profile-gilrs-at-compuersWhile the concept of a 1:1 initiative is not new, it may not be a familiar one for students, staff, and community members within the district.  Essentially, the definition of a 1:1 initiative is a technology deployment where a device is available for each student.  Within that broad definition, there are many different deployment models that have been implemented by districts that already have 1:1 in place.  Below, I’ve provided the most current answers to a handful of the frequently asked questions concerning 1:1, which address many of the details of our upcoming deployment.  That said, it is important to note that these details, while accurate at the time of posting, may be subject to change based upon community input, funding changes, and other mediating factors.

What is the purpose of the 1:1 initiative? Ultimately, the goal of the program is to positively impact the educational outcomes for and opportunities available to our students.  As you might expect, there is a substantial amount of research conducted over the past two decades relating to the impact of 1:1 device initiatives in schools.  Without going too deeply into the digitaldivideexisting research – I’ll save that for a later series of posts – specific impacts that we can expect to see include increases in student engagement, improved equity of access resulting in a decrease in the digital divide, use of anytime/anywhere technology access to facilitate implementation of new and innovative pedagogical approaches (such as this, this, and this), and improved attendance, among a number of other factors.

Will students be able to take devices home, and at what grade levels? Students at all of the district’s comprehensive high schools and junior highs will be assigned devices that they can take home.

Will students be required to have internet at home?  While internet in the home is not a requirement, there is no doubt that home internet access allows students to utilize the devices made available to them as fully as possible, both within and outside of school.  That said, the district is currently exploring possibilities for providing inexpensive or free internet to ICCSD families, such as this arrangement that the Cedar Falls Schools worked out with a wireless provider.

cipaWill the district filter internet content?  Per federal law, the district will filter internet content on district-issued devices, both at school and at home.  While off-campus, all internet traffic will still be routed through district-controlled content filters in order to prevent access to inappropriate materials.  While no content filter is perfect, this step will ensure a very high level of protection off-campus, identical to that currently provided within ICCSD.

What device will be given to students?  The district has not yet made decisions with regard to a specific make and model, but we know that the district will be issuing c04808653Chromebooks to students.  These devices – which utilize a largely cloud-based operating system – offer an ideal combination of capability and affordability to school districts, and address the reality that the vast majority of students’ computer activities occurs within a web browser.  Further, management of Chromebooks is easy and cost-effective, creating relatively little overhead for district IT staff in comparison to Windows or Apple options.

How will students access software that can’t be run on a Chromebook?  It is true that the majority of the work our students do is conducted within a web browser, but there are many important exceptions.  Some of the Windows-based titles that our engineering, computer science, art, and other courses require include: the Autodesk suite, Android Studio, Photoshop, Geometer’s Sketchpad, and Finale, to name a few.  1402604213896In order to address these needs and offer anytime, anywhere access to these specialty titles, the district is implementing virtualized application delivery, using either the Citrix or VMWare platforms.  With these server-based software platforms, ICCSD will be able to deliver any of these specialty Windows software titles to student-issued Chromebooks – or any device with an internet connection – no matter where students are.  This means that students will no longer need to be in a CAD lab to work on engineering coursework; they can be in a study hall, library, coffee shop, or at home and still have the access they need.

How will the district deal with broken or lost devices?  While a specific policy is still being developed, any policy that the district issues will be crafted with the reality that an initiative that is part of our base educational resources should not create a substantial financial liability for families.  As with any technology deployment, some damage will be incurred.  The district will plan for incidental damage based upon input received from districts that have implemented 1:1 initiatives over long periods of time, while working to craft policies that appropriately address willful damage or theft.

Will the 1:1 initiative be hugely expensive?  Thankfully, no.  The combination of Chromebooks – which cost a fraction of a Windows or Apple device – and virtual application delivery – which will allow the district to substantially reduce the number of lab computers that are needed in the secondary buildings – ultimately results in a program that is close to being cost-neutral compared to the district’s current deployment.  This is the case despite the fact that the student-issued Chromebooks will be on a three-year replacement cycle, as opposed to the six-year cycle that had been in place for lab computers.

How often will the devices be replaced, and will each student get a brand new device?  Student-issued Chromebooks will be replaced every three years, but students are not guaranteed to be issued a brand new Chromebook initially.  Students in 7th and 10th grades will receive priority for brand new devices, as deployment of devices at these grade levels – combined with a three-year replacement cycle – results in fewer redeployments over the course of students’ careers.  That said, the initial deployment – along with changes in numbers of students from year-to-year – will result in some students receiving one or two-year old devices during initial deployment.  These devices will still be replaced after the device has been in service for three years, however, so no student will be expected to use a device that is greater than three years of age.

Why the three-year replacement cycle?  In researching replacement cycles for 1:1 Chromebook initiatives, this was by far the most common cycle implemented by other school districts.  Further, many of the districts that implemented four or five-year cycles reported that decision to be one that they would have made differently if given the opportunity.  Further, this replacement cycle ensures that Chrome devices purchased by the district are still supported by the manufacturer throughout the duration of the devices’ use in the district.

Will teachers get devices as well?  Teachers within the ICCSD are already issued Windows laptops, and that practice will continue.  The district is exploring whether there is a need to provide teachers with Chromebooks as well; this is contingent upon changes that Google may make in the coming year to merge the Android and Chrome operating systems, and to restrict the use of Chrome apps to Chromebooks (as opposed to being accessible from within a Chrome browser on any computer).

cisco-3560Will the district’s network infrastructure support the 1:1 initiative?  In our current state, our infrastructure – in terms of wireless networks, building-to-building connections, firewall, and internet bandwidth – is probably not sufficient to support the addition of over 7,000 student-issued devices.  That said, we are already working to implement cost-effective (or free) changes that will dramatically improve our ability to support 1:1, along with all other network traffic within the district.  Further, our current contract with our internet service provider – the Iowa Communications Network – expires at the end of this fiscal year, and we have been assured that rates will drop substantially when we are provided with figures for a new contract.  This, along with a competitive bidding process, should allow ICCSD to significantly expand our internet bandwidth while keeping costs steady.

What about tech support capacity?  While we will be adding 1:1 devices, we will be offsetting this addition with the removal of a substantial number of Windows lab computers, which are much more resource-intensive in terms of maintenance.  That said, the technology & innovation office is already working on plans to maximize our capacity and efficiency as it relates to hardware support and service.  In addition, we hope to add student tech teams within each of the high schools (at the outset, with potential additions of junior highs at a later date) to deal with some first-level tech support.  It is important to note that the initial purpose of these programs is to offer opportunities for students to learn about and become involved with information technology, and any such programming will include opportunities beyond hardware repair, such as technical certification opportunities.

I had heard that 1:1 would begin in 7th and 10th grades in year one; what’s the reason for the change?  One of the early deployment plans was to deploy the devices to 7th and 10th graders in 2017, and then again in 2018 and 2019 until all 7th – 12th graders were assigned devices.  This would have resulted in the high schools being 1:1 by 2019, and the junior highs by 2018.  The primary reason for the new HS -> JH deployment model that we’re using is the opening of Liberty High, the district’s new comprehensive high school, in 2017.  Whereas our existing buildings are already outfitted with computer labs, mobile device sets, and classroom-assigned devices, Liberty is currently under construction and does not have preexisting equipment.  With the implementation of virtual applications (mentioned above), a 1:1 implementation will dramatically reduce the amount of equipment that the district will need to purchase in order to outfit Liberty when it opens in 2017, since there will be less need for standalone computer labs and device sets.  This timeline will allow us to save a substantial amount of money – between $100,000 and $200,000 – which allows us to expedite the deployment timeline such that all 7th – 12th grade students will be assigned devices by 2018, a year earlier than originally scheduled.

ICCSD Implementing Directory Synchronization

With over 14,000 students and over 2,000 staff members, user account management is a challenging task in any event.  Most people would likely be surprised to learn, then, that creation of new accounts for new staff members and students who enroll mid-year has been handled manually.  As you might imagine, this can result in substantial delays for newcomers to our district to receive accounts that they can use to log in to district computers, and to use the communication tools that we provide.

aaeaaqaaaaaaaalhaaaajdy1zgzlmwjjltizogytnddjns05nzywlthlzgyzzdmwndfjywIn order to address this inefficiency, and ultimately improve access for our students and staff, the district is implementing the User Management Resource Administrator (UMRA), which will allow for automatic synchronization of student and staff information between our student/staff databases and network services, such as Active Directory, which handles logins to computers on our network, our Google Apps domain, Office 365, Follett Destiny (library catalog software), and Microsoft Exchange.   Continue reading ICCSD Implementing Directory Synchronization

Classroom Technology Suite Update

The Iowa City Schools launched the Every Classroom campaign – with a goal of outfitting all of our rooms with a standard suite of classroom technology – in 2012, with tremendous support from the community and the Iowa City Schools Foundation.  This groundbreaking program allowed the district to bring all of our classrooms up to a basic standard for the 21st century, which included integrated projectors, an interactive whiteboard, and a document camera.

The pace of technology evolution is rapid, and in order to ensure that our students and teachers have access to technologies that will support innovation on the part of our outstanding teachers, the district is revising the classroom standard.

The current standard suite, with approximate costs, includes:

current_standard_suite

The newly-proposed standard suite, with additions highlighted, will update our classroom technology to include:

proposed_standard_suite

In addition to a cost decrease, achieved largely through deployment of projectors that have the interactive whiteboard functionality of a SMART Board built in (but at a fraction of the cost), the new standard introduces several new technologies to our classrooms, including audio systems that make it easier for students to understand teachers, and wireless video features that un-tether our teachers from a fixed location at the front of the room while technology is being used.

In the sections below, I’ve written a bit about each of the components of the proposed suite.

Interactive Projectors

Interactive whiteboards are a game changer in some classrooms, allowing teachers to engage more directly with interactive content, seamlessly move between digital resources and written annotation, providing a resource for recording or sharing board notes and lessons digitally, and ultimately increasing student engagement.  The most substantial drawback to the technology is the cost, as interactive whiteboards – such as SMART Boards – are almost always the most expensive piece of technology within a given classroom.

As anybody with a laptop or tablet knows, every generation of technology tends to offer more power in a smaller package.  Following this trend, interactive projectors – digital projectors that offered the same functionality as an interactive whiteboard – were released several years ago, and have been refined ever since.  The current generation of interactive projectors offer a user experience that is nearly identical to that of a dedicated interactive whiteboard, but can be projected on almost any flat surface, including a standard marker board, a flat wall, or even on the surface of a table.  In addition to offering largely the same physical capabilities as a SMART Board, Epson and SMART have also partnered to support SMART Notebook software, allowing our teachers to continue to use the same software that they’re used to, and ensuring that any lesson resources that have already been created will work the same with the new interactive projectors.

The new classroom suite proposal includes Epson BrightLink interactive projectors.  Check out more information here, or view the video below.  Another attractive component of these projectors is the substantial price discount that schools receive through Epson’s Brighter Futures program.

Classroom Audio with Voice Lift

While we have not yet settled on a particular make/model, we will be implementing a standardized classroom audio solution that uses a wireless pendant mic to subtly amplify the teacher’s voice.  There is a substantial volume of research that shows that students benefit from voice lift in the classroom.  As many as 40% of students suffer from at least temporary minor hearing loss, and students in lower grade levels have a hard time using context to reconstruct missing sounds, resulting in decreased understanding.  Focus suffers as students get frustrated that they can’t follow what a teacher is saying, and student/teacher dynamics in the classroom suffer if the teacher is constantly using “teacher voice”, which often falls somewhere between talking and yelling.  By implementing voice lift technology throughout our classrooms, we can address each of these issues in a package that’s simple enough to use that it generally requires no specific training.

Document Camera

lumens_dc265_p2_xlWhile document cameras are not often the most exciting piece of technology in the classroom, they are used daily in hundreds of classrooms throughout our district.  For those of you not familiar with a document camera, think of a modern version of an overhead projector, with a digital camera that captures high-definition, full-color images of documents, objects, and notes.  The capabilities of modern document cameras far exceed those of the overhead projectors that were ubiquitous in classrooms when I was in school.  These devices can record video and audio that can then be shared with students or posted online, offer high-level optical zoom that can magnify tiny details of art, plant material, or circuit boards, and can work directly with software on the computer to allow a combination of manual (with a pen) and digital (with a computer) interaction with documents.

Wireless Display

An exciting piece of new technology that we’re including in the new classroom suite is wireless video.  While all of our classrooms – including new construction – will continue to have in-wall audio/video cabling, each room will be outfitted with equipment to allow teachers to project their screens and audio over a wireless connection.

widi_teacherThis technology has the potential to substantially change the classroom dynamic, allowing teachers to move freely while using technology rather than being tethered to a single point in the room.  Student engagement and focus – and ultimately achievement – are improved when teachers interact directly with students in a dynamic environment that decentralizes the classroom.  Further, students are empowered to project directly from their devices – as allowed by teachers – Wireless video technology is an important step in creating learning spaces within our buildings that are flexible, and that can be structured to meet the constantly-evolving needs of our learners.

Whiteboard Size

One of the standards that we are implementing is a 5′ vertical whiteboard, which will replace the SMART Boards that we had in place prior to introduction of interactive projectors.  While it’s hard to say that a whiteboard is technology, per se, we will see two substantial benefits.  First, the whiteboards can be used as whiteboards, reclaiming markerboard space that SMART Boards previously monopolized.  100-in_diagonalSecond, the increased vertical size of the board allows us to project a larger image.  While we can’t use the full 5′ (due to limitations of the ultra-short throw projectors), we can project a 100″ diagonal image, which is 43% larger than we could project onto the SMART Boards that we previously deployed in most classrooms.