In early April, Client Services Manager Josh Reynolds and I presented a session at ITEC – Iowa’s education technology conference – on IT service delivery. After reflecting on the session and some of the follow-up questions I’ve received from those in attendance, it occurred to me that an in-depth overview of what our technology support program looks like and how we got there could be a useful story to share with our broader district community.
This series of articles provides a history of our technology support program in the Iowa City Community School District, and documents many of the deliberate changes we’ve made over the years with a goal of improving the service we’re providing to our students, staff, and community. Program evaluation and improvement is never finished, so this is a story without a finite end point, but one that I hope will be interesting and potentially useful to our district community, as well as to other school districts grappling with challenges similar to those we’ve faced and continue to face at ICCSD.
There’s a lot to this story; so much, in fact, that I’ve split the content into a multi-part series. The links below will be updated as additional pieces are published.
- Part One: Introduction and Empowering End Users (Current Article)
- District and Departmental Overview
- ICCSD Technology & Innovation Timeline
- Key Challenges
- Empowering End Users
- Part Two: Establishing Effective Standards
- Right-Sizing Responsibility (Coming Soon)
- Responding to Data (Coming Soon)
- Establishing a Culture of Communication (Coming Soon)
- Looking to the Future (Coming Soon)
The Iowa City Community School District is one of the largest districts in the state of Iowa, with approximately 15,000 students and well over 2,000 staff members. The Office of Technology & Innovation supports the entire district, including students at 28 buildings plus our online school, resulting in about 20,000 formal support requests per year. Our department is organized into three groups:
- Client Services provides end-user support to staff, students, and families, including support for computers, classroom technology, accounts/logins, and other areas.
- Enterprise Services handles our network, server-based systems, and cloud-based systems, and generally works behind the scenes to make sure that the technology infrastructure is there to support the academic mission of our district.
- Data & Research Services manages our student information system, provides training related to registration, scheduling and enrollments, develops and maintains data visualizations and reports that are critical to district operations, and collaborates with other departments to design and implement data analysis and research projects.
In addition to these three groups, the department also collaborates with our district Teaching & Learning team, along with our Instructional Design: Innovation team to advance technology integration efforts throughout the district, including one-on-one coaching, development of training resources, and large-scale trainings.
As with basically all institutions, the COVID-19 pandemic dominates our timeline over the past few years, with a couple of clearly-identifiable, pandemic-triggered program implementations around that time. That said, our current reality is based upon a transition that has really been underway over the past 5+ years, with a goal of improving efficiencies in order to allow our department to more nimbly and effectively meet the needs of our students and staff.
While there’s a lot going on on this timeline, there are a few transition points that stand out in my mind as I think about where we are today. I started in the district in the fall of 2016, and spring of 2017 brought with it some critical changes that have informed our direction ever since, including implementation of a 1:1 Chromebook program for grades 9-12, a switch to Google Drive/Gmail for digital communications, implementation of a classroom technology standard, and a move to implement a single generation of staff devices. Even though the level of change that our staff, in particular, dealt with during the spring of 2017 probably bordered on too-high, each of these initiatives has proved to be durable, and in each case, we’ve expanded upon these four initiatives in the five years since their implementation.
The COVID-19 pandemic officially hit – and shut down school for a period of time – in March of 2020, but our department began planning for the possibility of this occurring when the severity and transmissibility of the virus started to be known in January of that year. Prior to March, we formed an internal committee to plan for expansion of our 1:1 Chromebook program – which at that point only included grades 6-12 – along with provision of home internet service, expansion of our learning management platforms to include all grades, and even discussion of pivoting to fully-online instruction.
With the school shutdown on March 13, 2020, we immediately began work to provide computers and home internet access to all students who needed them. Technology & Innovation staff collected devices that had been in carts or classrooms throughout the district, processed them, and handed them out to families during lunch pickups, from the loading bay at our Educational Services Center, by appointment as needed, and we even shifted to mailing devices out during the peak periods of the pandemic. During that spring and summer, we provided devices by request to over 5,000 elementary students, and provided home internet access to over 1,500 families. In order to support this new reality, we also pivoted our technology help desk, which had always been directly accessible to ICCSD staff only, to support students and families directly. In addition to troubleshooting common problems faced here in the district, our staff were also trying to help families and staff work through the intricacies of home wireless setups, access to online coursework, digital learning platforms, and Zoom, and providing remote hardware break/fix support.
The 2021-2022 school year offered a mix of fully-online learning for all students, hybrid learning (half time onsite, half-time online), fully-onsite learning, and a fully-online option throughout the year for the roughly-6,000 students who opted into it. Through it all, we continued to provide direct support to students and families, and worked to enhance our ability to support remote learning. The 2022-2023 school year has transitioned to a more traditional environment, albeit with the addition of our permanent K-12 online school.
Through all of this, we’ve engaged in two minor departmental restructurings over the past three years, engaged in a major shift to a single-generation device deployment in 2021, and – as you’ll read below – dramatically improved support response and resolution metrics.
With the timeline now articulated, I’ll begin the story with the challenges that we faced in the department from the beginning. First, while I’ve chosen to highlight three critical challenges, that’s not to say that these are the only issues we’ve grappled with. With that said, though, these challenges are representative of many others, and relate to deficiencies in our program that transcend individual performance or temporary headaches. These challenges are not unique to Iowa City – in fact, they’re probably very familiar to anyone who works in or with educational IT – and serve as critical impediments to effective and efficient IT service delivery.
First Challenge: Response and resolution times were measured in days and weeks
In the fall of 2016, a staff member submitting a technology request could generally expect to hear back within a week, and to have a typical issue resolved within two weeks. Having to wait 1-2 weeks for basic technology support is unacceptable in and of itself, but more unacceptable is that in April of 2017, we had 103 open support requests that were more than 30 days old (with an average age of 99 days), and 137 requests that were more than 15 days old (with an average age of 80 days).
It will always be true in educational IT – or any sector, really – that some tickets will take a very long time to be resolved. Given our current supply-chain issues, for example, we have requests for projector installations that have been on hold for months as we wait for our supplier to deliver projectors that were ordered promptly after the requests were received. Those should be the exception, though, and the vast majority of requests should be resolved within a reasonable service level agreement (SLA) timeframe. In the Iowa City CSD, our SLA for a response is 24 hours (including non-business hours), and SLA for resolution is 96 hours. As you’ll see below, we’ve worked over time to meet and – at this point – far exceed those service standards.
Second Challenge: Major projects consistently took a back seat to daily fires
This issue is not exclusive to technology, and can be a problem across school districts and organizations of all types. In order to respond to emergent problems, it can feel as though the only option is to drop everything and pivot to addressing those day-to-day issues, at the expense of larger-scale or longer-developing projects that seem less urgent, if no less important. In fact, when you have some time without an urgent matter to attend to, it can be difficult to dive into a project that you know will require hours of attention if there’s a sense that the work will be disrupted by the inevitable emergency before it can be completed.
The list of projects within an educational technology department that can be routinely sacrificed to more urgent matters is lengthy; disaster recovery exercises, professional learning resource development, account and permissions audits, policy reviews, internal staff training, and infrastructure updates are just a small selection of the critical tasks that can be neglected, sometimes for years, without capacity and safeguards to ensure that they’ll be addressed on a timely basis.
While I would love to say that we have fully addressed this challenge, this is one that requires careful attention and ongoing maintenance to ensure that important functions are receiving the attention that they need. That said, some of our solutions in this area – including right-sizing staffing responsibility, reducing likelihood and frequency of emergencies through preventative action, and a commitment to reasonable timeframes for major projects goes a long way to ensuring that disruptions to these processes do not derail them completely.
Third Challenge: High-performing staff were too busy
I’m guessing that just about everybody who is reading this who has worked in a complex organization can identify with this issue. Essentially, staff members who are most effective at getting work done are more likely to get more assigned, since those assigning the work know that it’s likely to be completed in a high-quality and timely manner. Unfortunately, this leads to a vicious cycle, where the more work an employee completes, the more exposure they get for completing that work and the greater the likelihood that their workload will continue to increase in the future.
This was absolutely the case in our department in the past, and continues to be an issue we monitor and adjust for today. Five years ago, it was not uncommon in our department for two staff members with the same job title and formal responsibilities to have up to a threefold discrepancy in number of tickets assigned or resolved. While it’s tempting to blame this type of situation on the employees in our comparison, we really turned our attention towards the processes we had in place to appropriately assign tickets, promote cross-training, and balance responsibilities. We now have safeguards – far from perfect ones, it’s worth noting – that are described later in this article, which exist to prevent this type of issue from becoming a problem in the future.
Empowering End Users
Information technology departments in many organizations have earned a reputation as “the department of ‘no'”, where most people expect a response in the negative when requesting, for example, a new feature, greater control or self-sufficiency, or streamlined processes. The IT-centric approach that leads to this reputation – where standardization or optimization of the IT operation takes precedence over the needs of individuals or departments within the organization – has clear and valid roots, but can come at a cost.
Within the ICCSD Office of Technology & Innovation, we have worked to establish a culture that prioritizes the educational mission of the institution, even when serving that educational mission most effectively results in increased complexity, implementation of practices that are suboptimal from an IT lens, or increased costs. These compromises, though, must be balanced with critical IT needs, of course, including network and user security, supportability, and our capacity to continue to provide a high level of service.
In implementing this balance, we’ve discovered that many of our efforts to empower our end users have had the effect of not only providing a better experience for our end users, but also reducing support burdens. Many of the policies and practices described below ultimately result in fewer support requests being lodged initially, providing our end users with faster resolutions to issues that they face while allowing our IT staff to focus their attention in other directions.
Student Technician Program
With the implementation of our 1:1 Chromebook program at the high school level in 2017, I felt strongly that we should take the opportunity to implement a student technician program, where students would have the opportunity to learn about hardware repair, IT support practices, and client service. While I knew what such a program could look like, having created and coordinated a student technician program in a previous district, I also visited several area districts with strong programs in place to get a sense of how the programs could be beneficial to students while staying manageable for support staff.
Initially, we had no goal of actually reducing the support burden on our staff. Our high school-assigned technicians would work with students who signed up for the student technician program, providing instruction as it related to hardware repairs, problem diagnosis and troubleshooting, classroom technology support, and so forth, developing the students’ skills while effectively pulling our technicians away from the repair and support work that they would otherwise be doing. Viewing this as a net zero or negative in terms of support request processing, though, was something that I considered well worth it if it meant that we were providing experiences to students who may find that this is something that they wanted to explore further in college or as a career.
Thanks to our amazing high school-assigned technicians – Tyler Meade at West, Ellen Land at City, and Kurtis Watts at Liberty – along with a strong group of dedicated and capable students and support from our high school teacher librarians, this program has become not only a great experience for our student technicians, but a true asset in terms of our ability to support the use of technology in our schools. Our student technicians are able to process well over a thousand device repairs per year, while also handling loaner device distribution and collection, and classroom technology support requests in the high schools. In fact, we’ve reached the point where during busy times of year for hardware repair – at the start of the year, for example – we’re able to ship damaged devices from our junior highs to our high schools for student technicians to repair those as well, reducing the number of repairs that need to come back to our administrative offices.
Many of our students enjoy the program so much that they sign up for it year after year, which is not only something that gives me a great deal of appreciation for the impact our staff are having on these students’ academic and career experiences, but also provides our department with student technicians who are not only driven and capable, but also highly-experienced. We recently expanded our student technician program to include a variety of technical certification options, along with funding available for students to take the certification exams at no cost. We want to ensure that even though we have been able to depend upon the work being done by students in this program, we’re also providing them the best possible opportunity to gain both experience and qualifications in the IT field.
End-User Ticket Creation
In 2016, we utilized a support ticket system that was technically accessible to staff members across the district, but in effect limited ticket submissions to a small group of staff in each building or department. As such, most tickets that we received were being submitted secondhand, which was viewed by many in our department as an asset, since there were generally only a couple of people in each of our schools who submitted tickets, and thus there were only a couple of people who we needed to work through with follow-up questions, to pick up or drop off equipment, or who would be checking in with us about repair status. Further, there was a belief that this smaller group of people would be more familiar with IT practices, resulting in more efficient support conversations and less redundancy of issues.
In effect, however, this created issues with fidelity of problem reporting, timeliness of bi-directional communication, confusion about repair status, and a feeling of disconnectedness from IT services on the part of those we were supporting. Even with the best effort and intentions, a problem that is documented and reported secondhand is more likely to contain inaccuracies or omissions than a problem reported by the person experiencing it. Further, use of an intermediary for communications necessarily delays the communication; if person A contacts person B, who then contacts person C, who then responds to person B, who then responds to person A, logic would dictate that the chain of communication is likely to take about twice as long – with four messages instead of two – than if person A contacted person C directly. Finally, to most staff, IT services are nameless and faceless if they rarely or never actually interact with the individuals providing IT support. We work with our staff to be responsive, respectful, professional, and engaging; those traits are less important if they’re never rarely interacting with the end users they’re supporting.
In order to address these challenges, we made a move in 2017 to a support ticketing system that was easier to use in that it involved much less time and complexity to create a ticket than our previous platform. We shared instructions for access to and use of the new platform with all staff multiple times, and consistently reinforced the message that staff members should enter their own support requests, rather than having somebody else in their building do so. Even so, breaking old habits is hard, and we continued to see tickets funneled through a few individuals for the first couple of years after implementing the new platform. In order to make the new approach even more accessible, we added a Google sign-in option, further streamlined the data that we collected as part of our ticket submission process (getting rid of computer tag numbers for categories where it wasn’t needed, for instance), and continued to advertise this as both a service we provide and an expectation for staff. Additionally, we added live chat support in 2020, at which point staff members could reach our help desk via the support request system, email, phone, or chat.
The end result of this change has been that our ticket volumes have increased, but our first response times, resolution times, and the rate at which we resolve tickets after a single response have all dramatically improved. Every user who submits a ticket receives a Qualtrics survey (with anonymous response as an option) following the ticket being closed, and – as is detailed further down in the article – our satisfaction rates are consistently in the 95-100% range. Most importantly, our staff and students receive service that is both more timely and more effective, allowing them to overcome technology challenges and devote their attention to teaching and learning.
Delegated Password Reset Capabilities
The school year has just started, and it seems like everybody has forgotten their password over the summer, or passwords were reset and nobody can figure out what their new password is. I’m guessing this scenario sounds familiar to many readers who work in school IT; historically, our help desk was bombarded with hundreds of requests for password resets during the first week of the school year, limiting time that could be devoted to other issues and presenting a barrier – until the password was reset and the new password communicated – to students and staff who were unable to log into their accounts.
In 2019, we decided to take this recurring issue on, and the cornerstone of our approach was user empowerment. While password resets had always been processed exclusively by IT staff, we determined that delegating password reset capabilities to specific staff groups would not only result in better service to the end user who is unable to log in, but it would also reduce demand on our centralized help desk and improve security. The first two aforementioned results are probably self-explanatory – if passwords can be reset by staff within the buildings, service will be quicker and the request never reaches district IT – but the third result may be surprising to some.
Our implementation – some details withheld for security reasons – allows us to assign password reset capabilities to specific user groups, and to limit their capabilities to being able to reset passwords for only specific groups (i.e., students within their building). While delegating resets takes some level of control out of the hands of IT staff, it also resolves an issue that we’ve long had as it relates to confirmation of identity. While we have procedures in place to confirm the identity of somebody requesting a password reset, staff within the schools are in a far better position to verify that the request is itself legitimate, and that the new credentials are being shared with the correct individual. The reset delegation itself is accomplished with implementation of a secure platform that not only allows for delegation of reset rights to specific staff groups, but also logs detailed information about password resets to ensure that if questions arise about a password being reset, we have access to detailed information that shows when and by whom the password was reset.
Beyond delegation of password resets to staff members, we’ve also implemented an option for staff and students to opt in to a service that allows them to reset their own password, even in a case where they’ve forgotten their current password. While I can’t go into detail about that platform for security reasons, we know that this capability eliminates at least several hundred tickets per year that would otherwise go to building or IT staff, and dramatically improves our students’ and staff members’ ability to gain access to their resources and utilize our technology platforms without barriers.
Local Admin Rights for Staff
Our department is one where questioning and debate is encouraged, with the idea that even though we will eventually settle on a single policy or practice direction, healthy debate will increase the likelihood of that ultimate direction being well-considered and thoroughly understood by our staff. The previous example of delegated password reset capabilities, for example, was not implemented without internal controversy, and our approach and the associated policies and communications were certainly informed by those discussions. Whereas delegated passwords may have been internally-controversial, though, the debate doesn’t hold a candle to the decision to provide our staff members with local administrative rights on their district-assigned devices.
Anybody who has worked in IT knows that there is often a tug-of-war between end users who want to be able to use their devices without restrictions, and system administrators who would strongly prefer that they don’t. Our environment was no exception, and for years, our staff needed to rely on self-service tools or IT staff intervention to install software, fonts (a major issue if you’re supporting elementary school staff), change system settings, or install a printer, for example. As a result, our client services team predictably dealt with thousands of requests per year that related to these basic tasks, which most users were perfectly capable of executing on their own but lacked the permissions to do so.
Whereas this approach probably made sense in, say, 2007, when viruses were rampant and automated virus and malware mitigation was limited at best, the current computing environment relies much more heavily on cloud services that never have a permanent presence on a physical device, and security threats that are tied much more closely to personnel training deficiencies and lack of awareness than they are to physical or logical security on a system itself.
As such, ICCSD made the move in July of 2019 to grant local administrative rights – with some limits that I won’t detail here – to our staff members. We communicated this change, along with examples of what users could now do on their own. While we initially still received support requests for software installations and some of the other tasks I listed above, those requests started to wane through the 2019-2020 school year, and fell off a cliff when we reached the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and users were in a position where they, at least temporarily, had to be more self-sufficient out of necessity.
As a result, we receive far fewer tickets for basic tasks that users can now accomplish on their own, and more of our time can be devoted to support requests that require IT staff involvement. In terms of the concerns that were shared when we were debating this internally, we still see very low incidence of virus infections – not appreciably higher than we saw before providing staff with admin rights – and our most consistent vulnerabilities are browser redirects that wouldn’t have been prevented by restricted local rights to begin with. Most importantly, our staff are able to install and update software that they need and effectively take ownership of their district-issued devices in a way that supports their use of technology while limiting the time that they need to spend waiting for IT staff to resolve an issue that is impacting their ability to engage in the important work that ICCSD teachers and staff do on a daily basis in our schools.
Provisioning, Rostering, and Single Sign-On
We began to tackle this problem in 2017 with the implementation of a platform called UMRA, which allowed us to automate basic account creation tasks. With UMRA in place, we were also able to automate exports from our student information system and imports into certain curricular platforms, knowing that the import would succeed since the account used for authenticating the user had already been created within Active Directory or Google.
We stepped up our game further in the fall of 2019 with the implementation of ClassLink, OneSync, and Clever, which together fully automate creation of student and staff accounts based upon data in our student information and human resources platforms. Further, these platforms allow ICCSD to automate assignment of instructional resources and materials based upon specific students’ and staff members’ course enrollments, grade level, school enrollments, and other criteria.
While there is certainly a support burden associated with implementation of these services – troubleshooting instances where a student isn’t assigned a digital resource that they should be, for example – the transition to an automated approach saves hundreds of hours of staff time during the course of the year. Perhaps more importantly, manual account provisioning and rostering, almost by nature, is heavily skewed towards the beginning of the school year, with smaller spikes at the beginning of the second and third trimesters. As these are the times that are busiest for our department across the board, reduction in support burden during these time periods is particularly valuable.
Staff Device Options
When I started out in the district in 2016, we had a suboptimal situation where we had very little standardization across our staff computer deployment (we supported over a dozen models of staff device), but staff members had almost no say in the device that they were assigned. This is a very common situation across K-12 IT, where it’s often difficult to standardize deployments to a single model, and in order to reduce complexity there is no option for multiple platforms or form factors (beyond laptop/desktop). The end result is that IT and instructional technology end up supporting a wide variety of models with different parts, features, functionality, and recurring issues.
Right away, I began to develop a plan for how we could address this challenge, and our first iteration was implemented in spring of 2017 as a single-generation staff device upgrade. All staff members received new computers at that point – we borrowed against future SAVE revenues to fund the purchase – and for the first time, staff were given some choice in terms of selecting between a traditional laptop form factor, a convertible laptop/tablet form factor, and a desktop (all Windows). Roughly 60% of staff selected the convertible form factor, with 40% choosing a traditional form factor, reflecting the different preferences and priorities of our staff, and ultimately providing technologies that better facilitate staff effectiveness.
We expanded the staff choice program dramatically in 2021, offering staff members a platform choice between Windows, Mac, and Chrome OS while upgrading all staff devices. The model was grounded in our successful form factor choice option offered in 2017, and tested with a multi-platform pilot in 2020. The impetus for this platform choice was substantial research and precedent showing multiple benefits from offering employees a choice of computing platforms. Further, this program was made possible by our move to a single generation deployment for staff computers, which means that even with the choice being afforded to staff, we are in a position to support no more than four models of staff device at a time.
In our case, we focused on the employee satisfaction benefit, knowing that there would also be secondary benefits in terms of recruitment, retention, and productivity. What we didn’t entirely anticipate was the reduction of per-user support demand realized with the implementation of platform choice. While it may seem counterintuitive to expect a reduction of user support requests by moving to multiple platforms, the logic goes something like this.
- Employees using their preferred platform are likely to be more comfortable with it, leading to fewer problems to begin with. A longtime Mac user, for example, may have no idea how to reset a wifi adapter on a Windows device, but almost certainly knows how to do it on a Mac.
- Employees using their preferred platform are more likely to attempt to work through challenges on their own. If I prefer to use Macs and my district assigns me a Windows device, I’m more likely to say something along the lines of, “well, Windows is just terrible” when encountering a problem, rather than trying some basic troubleshooting on my own. If my district has assigned me a Mac, I’m much more likely to have a) the knowledge and b) the desire to attempt to resolve the program on my own, before contacting IT.
Beyond these factors, we’ve also seen a far lower rate of hardware issues with our staff-issued MacBooks, and virtually no device-related support requests from our Chrome OS users. By providing more options to our staff, we’ve simultaneously improved staff resources and satisfaction while reducing support burdens on our department, with essentially no additional cost to the district.