Technology Annual Report

Each year, I provide a report to the board that provides a high-level view of our technology program, through the lens of particular projects completed, underway, or planned.  This will certainly not be the most riveting content I’ve posted to the blog, but for those of you who are interested, I’m posting a summary of that report here.  

The 2016-17 school year was one of transition in the Iowa City Community School District’s Office of Technology & Innovation.  As we move into winter of 2017-18, we have completed a number of major projects and still have significant initiatives underway or in planning stages.  Our departmental performance metrics have generally improved slightly, though I’m excited to see how our work in terms of specific initiatives and in targeted locations will manifest itself in the coming year’s technology program evaluation.  

Major Projects: Completed

As previously mentioned, the 2016-2017 school year saw our department address a number of necessary classroom technology, infrastructure, and support-related projects.  Summaries of some of the key projects are below.

1:1 rollout (grades 9-12)

This fall, we deployed over 4,000 Chromebooks to students in all four of our high school buildings.  The deployment process was fairly smooth, and reaction has been generally very positive from students, teachers, and parents.  Repair and loss rates have been within our expected range, and we expect those incidence rates to decrease after a surge at the start of the year.  

Along with our 1:1 initiative, we deployed Securly for offsite content filtering.  This deployment has been smooth from a technical perspective, though we continue to tweak settings to walk the line between safety & security and academic freedom.  We had some parent and student concerns with regards to privacy and security, and have worked to address all of those on a case-by-case basis.  High school students who do not have internet access at home are making use of cellular hotspots obtained through a grant awarded to ICCSD by Sprint (the 1million Project); we have – to this point – deployed about 150 of those devices.   

Classroom technology standard update

We updated our classroom technology standard suite to include interactive projectors, document cameras, classroom audio with voice amplification, wireless video, and 5’ vertical white boards (as a projection and writing surface).  This suite has been deployed at Liberty HS and the new Hoover ES, and is in the process of being deployed at Hills ES and Twain ES (this delay has been due to scheduling for electrical work to support the new suite in these classrooms).  The implementation has largely been successful, though we continue to work through issues related to wireless video disconnects at Liberty HS, likely due to network roaming due to the number of 1:1 devices on the building’s wireless network.  We are optimistic that we’ve narrowed down this issue and will have a fix in place soon.  

Device upgrade cycle revision

This was the first summer that we implemented our new device upgrade cycle.  Under the old cycle, 1/3 of the technology in each building was replaced every other year.  This resulted in version skew within buildings, and a huge summer workload for my department’s staff.  The new cycle moves buildings to a full-building, four-year upgrade cycle, and gives elementary schools discretion regarding device type and deployment type within their respective buildings.  We implemented the new cycle at Liberty HS, new Hoover ES, Twain ES, and Hills ES this year, and will be bringing on more buildings each summer as we move forward.  Our summer workload will drop dramatically as we move away from having some buildings on the old six-year cycle.  

Canvas LMS

We implemented Canvas LMS – an online platform for our courses – at all of the high schools this year, with a soft deployment in our junior highs.  There were some growing pains as our data synchronization with PowerSchool was shown to have errors once we began the school year and saw heavy demand on the system.  Those issues have since been resolved, and we are working on furthering our integration materials available for teachers to be able to easily make use of Canvas in their classrooms.  

Identity management system implementation

Last winter, we implemented the UMRA identity management system, meaning that we have now almost completely automated the user account creation and maintenance process.  Whereas user accounts were previously created manually upon request – resulting in a built-in delay between when a new student or staff member arrived in the district and when they’d have technology access – that process is now automatic, using PowerSchool (for students) and our HR system (for staff) as authoritative data sources.  Further, we’ve been able to securely provide librarians with the ability to reset student account passwords, significantly reducing demand on both in-building staff and our helpdesk staff.

Network core upgrade

We successfully upgraded our internal network infrastructure – making use of existing fiber between and within buildings – to support a 40-fold bandwidth increase between our core sites, and a 10-fold increase to our edge sites.  Our bandwidth last year was the cause of serious inefficiencies and loss of productivity last year, and we have already seen substantial performance benefits for students and teachers, and increased ability to deploy updates and engage in remote management from an IT perspective.  In addition to our core upgrades, we upgraded wireless in a number of buildings, and modified our wireless network configuration district-wide to dramatically increase performance.  

Server infrastructure upgrade

We replaced our aging virtual server infrastructure over the summer, allowing for better performance in delivery of existing services, and providing us with the ability to offer new services such as the virtual application offering detailed below.  The new infrastructure also provides a substantial improvement in terms of data and processing redundancy, protecting the district in the event of a system or storage failure.  The new hardware and settings were implemented with little to no downtime.  

Virtual application infrastructure

Enabled by our server infrastructure upgrade, we’ve launched a Citrix virtual application service that allows students and teachers using any device – such as Chromebooks – to run full Windows software.  This allows a student using a Chromebook to run a full version of Autodesk CAD software, for instance, or the desktop version of Microsoft Office.  We’ve been working to expand our virtualized application inventory as we receive requests, and have ironed out some initial issues with the system.  Our current project is to expand availability of Google Drive as a default save location for all applications, which will allow students to move seamlessly between the virtualized interface and Google Drive.

Technology Support Reorganization

In order to provide adequate support to our high schools with 1:1 initiatives, we have assigned a technician full-time to each comprehensive high school.  This allows them to respond quickly and in-person to requests in the classroom and to address student device problems.  Further, they are working with building librarians to facilitate a student technician internship program in each school.  In an effort to improve efficiency and maximize our use of the Specialty Underwriters break-fix insurance program in which the district was already participating, we created a hardware technician position that has proven to increase the capacity of the rest of our technician team.  

Major Projects: In Progress and Upcoming

Technology is never stagnant, and as we celebrate the completion of a number of major projects, we are simultaneously working on and planning for future projects.  Here are quick rundowns of some of our upcoming work.  

1:1 rollout (grades 7-8)

As previously-announced, we will be expanding our 1:1 Chromebook initiative to the junior high schools in Fall of 2018.  After a successful high school deployment, we are looking to replicate those practices with incorporation of lessons learned to make for a smooth transition next fall.  

Classroom technology evaluation and ongoing implementation

While it is important that we standardize our implementations district-wide, our relatively small rollout of our new classroom technology suite last summer allows us to engage critically with the suite.  We are generally happy with our current suite, we want to evaluate our offerings as we get further into the year and iron out some of the initial deployment issues to make an informed determination regarding the need for any changes going forward.

Firewall migration

This in-progress project involves a switch from a locally-hosted Palo Alto firewall to an ICN-provided managed firewall service using a Fortinet device.  This change was necessitated by a much-needed expansion of our internet bandwidth (from 1Gb to 3Gb), which has now been completed.  We made the switch to the new firewall in mid-October, and are engaging in some expected tweaks and modifications as we move forward.  Our level of service and response times from the ICN (contracted to Lightedge) have not been adequate during the roll out, and the district has been actively involved in discussions with involved parties to improve responsiveness and resolve some of our initial deployment problems.  This work will continue until we have matched or exceeded the service level we provided with our previous firewall.  

Digital privacy, safety, and security program evaluation

The district will be leveraging a free service provided through Grant Wood AEA to make use of BrightBytes’ digital privacy, safety, and security program evaluation tool.  This service is a tremendous value to the district, and comes from a well-respected company that has also provided our technology program evaluation instrument for a number of years.  We have completed an initial assessment, and are excited about the fact that this tool includes both a status evaluation along with recommended remediation steps to address deficiencies.  

Data warehousing, reporting, and visualization development

We are in the very early stages of identifying needs for and platforms that can support the development of a data warehouse, along with advanced reporting, visualization, and dashboarding tools.  Initial work has included discussions with the teaching and learning directors, along with review of sample dashboards and compatibility assessments for a number of systems.  We are exploring the possibility of leveraging the Ed-Fi educational data interoperability framework to streamline the development of resources that could make it far easier to leverage real-time data from different systems within our environment.  

Enterprise resource planning

We are just beginning to explore options for business management software that would allow us to consolidate functions that are currently served by multiple systems into one (or fewer) platforms.  This work has implications in terms of efficiency improvements and improved data accuracy through elimination of redundant entry, along with potential improvements in terms of ease of data use and system integration.  

Clarity Technology Program Evaluation

I’ve included detailed reports along with this update, but for the fourth year in a row we used the BrightBytes Clarity technology program evaluation tool – provided at no cost through Grant Wood AEA – to gain insights from our students, teachers, and parents with regard to our technology program.  This survey was implemented during winter of 2016-17.  

In terms of the overall rating, our district score increased for a second consecutive year, and is now in the middle of the “proficient” category.  Our score matches the average for Grant Wood AEA districts, although we do see substantial variation from a high of 1127 (“Advanced”) at Tate HS to a low of 1035 (still “Proficient”) at Alexander ES.  In terms of subcategories, we saw record high scores in the overall, classroom, skills, and environment categories.  The only category we didn’t see a high score was access.

Since this survey was conducted before completion of almost any of the major projects listed above, I’m looking forward to seeing the results of this year’s Clarity survey, which should at least begin to reflect the impacts – positive, negative, or nonexistent – of some of our district-wide and targeted initiatives.