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
- District and Departmental Overview
- ICCSD Technology & Innovation Timeline
- Key Challenges
- Empowering End Users
- Establishing Effective Standards (Current Article)
- Right-Sizing Responsibility (Coming Soon)
- Responding to Data (Coming Soon)
- Establishing a Culture of Communication (Coming Soon)
- Looking to the Future (Coming Soon)
Establishing Effective Standards
Part One of this series discussed our 1:1 Chromebook program and our staff device deployment in the context of empowering our end users to make choices and best leverage the technologies available to them. Here, I’ll elaborate upon decisions that we’ve made as it relates to equipment life cycle and standardization, with a focus on improving the efficiency of our IT operations and reducing barriers to use of instructional technology.
Initial 1:1 Implementation
ICCSD launched its first 1:1 device program in 2017, when we issued Chromebooks to all students in grades 9-12. Prior to my arrival in the district, this was intended to be a phased in deployment, where 9th graders would receive devices each year, until all high school students had been issued devices by the 2020-2021 school year. Given the non-grade-specific nature of most high school course enrollments, however, this approach seemed problematic in that it would be four years before teachers would be able to rely upon students coming to class with devices, in most cases, since many high school classes contain students from multiple, or even all, grade levels.
Instead, we opted for a full implementation of roughly 4,500 student devices during that first year, and following a successful rollout in 2017, implemented 1:1 Chromebooks with 7th and 8th graders in 2018. At the time, we used a three-year device life cycle, meaning that students would receive new devices in 7th and 10th grades, ideally, and then graduating seniors’ devices would be retired. Our replacement cycle for Chromebooks allocated to K-6 classrooms was building-based, with roughly 1/3 of schools receiving new devices in a given year.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, we immediately shifted to a K-12 1:1 model. Classroom-assigned and cart-assigned devices were pulled from elementary schools and allocated to students, supplemented by a small purchase of additional devices required to get us to a full 1:1 deployment by the start of the 2020-2021 school year. In order to make this happen within budget during uncertain times, we extended the life of Chromebooks initially purchased in 2017, meaning that our 1:1 deployment in 2020 consisted of four different Chromebook models, which – due to the haphazard nature of our deployment to elementary students – were not consistently-implemented by grade level.
Students who needed replacement Chromebooks would frequently receive a different model than the one they had, and only the Chromebooks purchased in 2020 supported touch, which we targeted for deployment at lower elementary grade levels. The Technology & Innovation department had to source and stock parts for each model, and the complexity of maintaining adequate parts stock resulted in somewhat regular instances where we would run out of a particular part for a particular device model.
Single-Generation Device Refresh
In the fall of 2020, we began internal discussions within our department to determine how to address bringing greater standardization to our 1:1 and staff device deployments, along with the question of how to budget for replacement of roughly 70% of our Chromebooks that were due to be retired, a number inflated by the fact that we had kept our initial Chromebook generation – including 4,500 1:1 Chromebooks and another 3,000 elementary classroom and cart-assigned devices – in service for an extra year due to COVID.
After much discussion, we determined that the district would see substantial benefits in terms of supportability, parts management, training, and feature availability by replacing our entire Chromebook fleet at once. Further, our staff devices were due to be replaced on their four-year life cycle during the summer of 2021 as well, and as such we devised a plan to replace 100% of client devices (laptops, desktops, Chromebooks) at the same time.
The purchase was funded primarily through ESSER funds, and offset by resale of existing technology following a public bid process. The large purchase volume, which included devices for roughly 15,000 students and 2,000 staff members, drove down our per-unit costs and allowed the district to negotiate substantial support, training, and deployments services that would be provided at no additional cost.
The deployment team consisted primarily of temporary staff, with coordination of their work handled by our client services team. With our device orders placed in early 2021, we were able to complete student device swaps and deploy to a sizable majority of staff members before summer, avoiding a disruptive deployment cycle at the start of the 2021-2022 school year.
Our experience since the deployment is that the single-generation model – which we hope to maintain over the four-year life cycle through purchase of an industry-standard loaner pool – has been that the student and staff member experience is substantially improved by consistent and current hardware, end user and hardware support are substantially simplified, parts and warranty management are streamlined, and overall support demands and costs have been reduced.
We’ve been able to introduce some key Chromebook features that not all of our previous student devices had, including a convertible form factor, touchscreen capability with support for active digitizer input, and a rear-facing camera. On the staff device side, our single-generation device refresh allowed us to implement a staff device option – where staff members can choose between Windows, Mac, or Chrome OS devices, detailed in Part One of this series – with limited support overhead, since we’re still supporting substantially fewer staff and lab device models than we were prior to the single-generation refresh.
Ultimately, the single-generation device implementation has allowed us to offer more consistent, higher-quality technology to our students and staff, while giving staff members a choice in the platform that they use, without negatively impacting our support infrastructure.
Classroom Technology Suite Implementation
In addition to our 1:1 program and staff device upgrades, we also launched a process to upgrade our classroom technology to a standard suite in 2017. The new suite – selected to balance functionality, supportability, and cost – includes:
- Epson ultra-short-throw interactive projectors
- 8’x5′ whiteboards
- Lumens Ladibug document camera
- Actiontec Screenbeam wireless video
- Cetacea Astronaut speaker with voice amplification / pendant mic
- 2x HDMI and 1x USB at the wall, in-wall cabling to projector location
This standard allowed us to address basic classroom technology needs while also adding features that improve usability and supportability. Our implementation of 8’x5′ whiteboards, for example, is a departure from the standard 4′ vertical whiteboards used in most K-12 schools, and allows us to increase the area of the projected image by about 40% over what you’d find in a typical classroom with a wall-mounted projector.
Our implementation of Actiontec Screenbeam devices (formerly 960 Pro devices, now 1000 Edu devices) allows ICCSD to support wireless video on Windows, Mac, and Chrome (1000 Edu only for Chrome support), along with USB passthrough so interactivity works without any physical connection to the computer. While we regularly assess the state of wireless video options in the market, we’ve continually determined that the Actiontec product meets our needs most effectively. That said, we have instances where a teacher would prefer to use an HDMI connection, or is forced to due to a technical or performance problem with the wireless option. Our incorporation of 2 HDMI ports at the wall allows that switch to be made by the teacher with no intervention from IT.
In addition to new features, the completion of our classroom standard implementation has streamlined support and training. When a teacher moves from room to room or building to building within the district, there is no transition in terms of the classroom technologies available to them. Further, our training and resource development can be largely district-wide (with variations for grade level and target audience), with no need to develop building-specific or otherwise-targeted materials.
Deviations from the Standards
Whether in the case of our devices, classroom technology, or supported software and services, there are times when exceptions must be made. We’ve built in flexibility in areas where its appropriate and supportable, such as our staff device platform option, and have developed policies and procedures for handling exceptions in other areas where they arise. In terms of classroom technology, for example, we’re often faced with the question of whether our standard suite is appropriate for a specific space, either due to size or utilization.
When dealing with smaller learning spaces – spaces that may be utilized with individuals or small groups of students, for example – we’ve implemented a policy that modifies the standard suite in rooms under 400 square feet. In these smaller spaces – which are generally office-sized and substantially below the 400 square foot threshold – we switch to a standard that includes a wall-mounted LED display (TV), document camera, and we generally drop the interactivity, wireless video, and audio components of our standard suite. That said, we still consider utilization, and work through our Office of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment to identify when exceptions need to be made. In those cases, we defer to the academic mission of our district and allow Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment to make the final decision about any modifications, and IT implements those in order to meet the needs of our students and teachers.
Similarly, we prioritize our students’ and staff members’ role-specific needs when considering deployment of alternative devices, assistive technologies, additional software and service needs, or the need to access devices or services outside of typical access windows, such as before an official start to employment for a teacher who will engage in training before their contract officially begins. In each case, we evaluate the request and either approve and execute it, or seek input from relevant departments in order to determine the most appropriate course of action.
In a large organization, management of exceptions can be a challenging task. In order to mitigate related issues, we always utilize our standard inventory and identity management procedures for any implementations that deviate from our standard, and maintain specific documentation of these instances within our Confluence information repository.