Progress is Messy!

As Labor Day passes, we’re beginning the third week of the school year in Iowa City and really starting to roll towards 2018.  While this time of year is always ridiculously busy for the Technology & Innovation office – it’s not uncommon in our district and others to see support requests come in at five to six times the normal rate during the first month or so of the school year – this year has been our craziest yet.  

What has Gone Well

Most of this article is going to focus on things that aren’t going well (and what we’re doing to resolve them), but I do want to start with some celebrations: 

  • We’ve deployed almost 8,000 new computers since May
  • We’ve reprepped over 6,000 existing computers since June 
  • Two completely new buildings – Liberty High School and the new Hoover Elementary – are up and running with working data networks, voice service, Wi-Fi, student computers, digital signage, classroom technology, and technology support
  • Our 1:1 Chromebook program has launched in our high schools with few glitches or deployment issues
  • Offsite filtering of 1:1 devices with parent portal access using Securly appears to be going well in its first weeks
  • We’ve successfully launched a virtual application service that allows Chromebook users – primarily students with 1:1 Chromebooks – to use Windows applications.  Two weeks after launch, we already have over 35 applications available to students, including MS Office 2016, Adobe PhotoShop, Adobe Acrobat, Adobe Premiere, and Autodesk Inventor 2017. 
  • Our network was substantially upgraded over the summer to support 40Gb bandwidth from our core data center to our distribution hubs at the three junior highs and the physical plant, a 40-fold increase from last year.  Our bandwidth to edge sites (including all elementary and high schools) was increased from 1Gb to 10Gb.  
  • We implemented new wireless networks at our high schools, and at this point have heard very few reports of problems.  

A ton of work went into these successful projects, and for that I offer a ton of thanks to my team here in the Technology & Innovation department for their tireless efforts throughout the summer and here at the start of the school year. 

Best Laid Plans … 

So what isn’t going well?  While our goal is to hit a homerun with every project, the reality is that sometimes we’ll end up with a swinging bunt for a hit or even a strikeout.  While the status quo is easy, innovation requires risks, of which we took a great many heading into this school year.  At this point, I’m happy with the risks that we took and the results we’ve seen – and I’d do it again – but despite our best efforts and certainly best intentions, there are some problem areas that we’ve seen here at the start of the school year. 

Classroom Technology

I hesitate a bit to include this here because I think our new classroom suite deployment has been relatively successful, though there are enough hiccups and delays to warrant attention.  In a nutshell, we needed to implement classroom technology at our new buildings, and wanted to begin the process of making needed upgrades at existing buildings (Hills and Twain in year one).   Our updated classroom tech suite includes a document camera, an interactive projector, a wireless video device, and a classroom audio solution with voice amplification.  

While the technology was almost completely installed and ready prior to the start of the school year at Liberty and New Hoover, the same cannot be said for the existing buildings (Hills and Twain).  Delays in terms of some of the infrastructure work required to support the new suite – which requires power above the board rather than below, as with our existing setup – have tabled our classroom suite implementation until the infrastructure is in place.  While I’m disappointed that we weren’t ready to hit the ground running in these buildings, I am glad that we did not preemptively remove the technology that was already in those rooms.  As such, we’ll get the new technology in place as soon as possible, knowing that Hills and Twain will have our previous district standard in place until then.  

As far as the technology itself, it has been largely effective.  Of our four suite components, three involved some element of risk.  While several more months of use, support, and experience will solidify these impressions in one way or another, here’s what we think so far: 

Interactive Whiteboards: this wasn’t really a huge risk for us.  We deployed Epson’s BrightLink 600-series interactive ultra-short throw projectors, which have been used in schools and very well-reviewed for more than five years.  The technology that these replaced was SMART Board technology, though we’ve opted to continue using SMART Notebook as our interactive whiteboard software platform.  We’ve had a few issues with the touch functionality of individual projectors thus far, but nothing systematic. 

Classroom Audio with Voice Amplification: This solution has similarly been going fairly smoothly.  We did not push this one hard upon launch – many teachers are likely not yet using the voice amplification feature – but those who are with whom I’ve visited have been pleased.  

Wireless Video: This was our biggest risk.  We deployed Actiontec ScreenBeam 960 devices in order to support wireless projection from our teacher laptops.  We’ve seen some issues with latency (delay between computer screen and projected image), frame rates (especially for video), dropped connections / difficulty connecting, and other areas, but have identified solutions or potential solutions in each of these cases.  We’re working to update our existing fleet of devices with current firmware, which may result some of the issue.  In the realm of lessons learned, it is now apparent that in future building remodels and new building construction projects we must include data cabling for the wireless video device.  In the meantime, we’re working on supporting these as effectively as we can.  

Hills Network Upgrade

This one can go into that “best laid plans” category.  We began planning for a network upgrade to Hills Elementary – which is currently served solely through a radio connection back to the ESC – as early as September, 2016.  We looked at options for built fiber, leased fiber, and wireless, and settled on a wireless solution.  After ordering components and moving into what we thought would be the execution phase of that project during the spring, the vendor we were working with determined that the initial plan was unworkable.  We worked with the vendor to establish an alternative, but received notice from them late this summer that they didn’t believe there was a workable alternative.  

At this point, we began to work on an alternative plan.  We have since identified an available service that will address our needs, but are in our required 28-day bid period for E-Rate prior to being able to launch the service.  In the meantime, Hills Elementary has experienced connectivity issues for wireless devices and voice issues using our VoIP phone system.  We’ve been working to prioritize traffic and implement packet-shaping as possible and appropriate, along with other network use restrictions, but can only report limited progress.  We continue to work on this, and to look forward to the date when we can switch to the new service and put these issues behind us.  

Canvas

One of the new services that we launched at the start of the year is Canvas LMS, which serves as the online platform for all of our high school courses.  This system is similar to others with which parents, teachers, and students might be familiar – such as EdModo, Schoology, and Hapara – and is identical to the ICON system at The University of Iowa, which is a rebranded version of Canvas.  

One of the features of Canvas that we found appealing is the ability to synchronize data between PowerSchool – our student information system – and Canvas, including courses, rosters, assignments, assessments, and grades.  When we launched the synchronization during the summer, all appeared well; we saw thousands of students and courses and hundreds of teachers appear in the system.  As the school year began, though, it was evident that about 10-15% of students and teachers were not synchronized properly.  We’ve been working with Canvas and Grant Wood AEA – our PowerSchool host and provider – to resolve these issues.  Progress has undoubtedly been made – enrollment issues are far more infrequent than they had been – but the data is still not perfectly synchronized, which means that there is still work to be done.  

Even more concerning to me is that neither Grant Wood nor Canvas have been able to identify the root of the problem with our domain, and we see other districts, such as Cedar Rapids, utilize the same type of synchronization between PowerSchool and Canvas with no problems. Further, our grade passback functionality – whereby teachers can grade an assignment in Canvas and those grades are automatically synchronized to PowerSchool – is also still not working as expected.  It probably goes without saying, but we will be continuing our near-daily calls with Canvas and Grant Wood in order to work towards a solution to the problems affecting this project.  

Moving Forward

There are always going to be bumps in the road when taking the road less traveled, and it’s our job to respond to issues as they occur and to anticipate and proactively avoid future trouble.  I encourage ICCSD staff to continue to report issues to the Help Desk or to reach out to the appropriate people on my team to make sure that we know about issues that need to be resolved.  We’ve been working like crazy all summer, and we’re committed to continuing to do so.