Good strategic planning that sees IT decisions as a core part of supporting students achieve the desired learning outcomes, will always produce the best results. However, even if your planning is still in development, there are still a number of things that schools can feel confident about spending some time and money on that will still support and enhance learning experiences.
While I have tried to keep jargon to a minimum, there are a number of technical terms in the body of this post, for which I thought about creating a glossary. Instead, I will simply encourage you to search the web for further explanation if needed, as there is no shortage of definitions out there. Where possible, I have added links for your convenience.
1. Managed wireless networks
In the good old days many schools got away with having a collection of stand-alone wireless access points and these were sufficient for connecting a few wireless devices to the network. Of course if you wanted to change something like the network name or the password then you needed to log onto each access point individually which was a bit of a nuisance.
Having a managed wireless network means that you can control your wireless access points from a single administrative interface. This allows you to do things like change passwords centrally, create new service set identifiers (SSID’s), and get some statistics about how your network is being used. The admin interface also allows you to get statistics showing things like, which devices are using the most data, where the heaviest concentrations of wireless users/devices are, and will alert you if any of the access points are unplugged.
Before you rush out to buy your managed wireless network, if you have not yet got your Ministry of Education subsidised School Network Upgrade Project (SNUP), then you might want to wait, as you will now be offered managed wireless as part of that process. It is hard to compete with anything that has been subsidised by 68–80% (depending on whether you are a state integrated or state school). If you were going to have to fund it yourself, then it would be worth getting 2-3 quotes. I believe the MoE currently provides Ruckus, Aerohive, Aruba, and Fortinet wireless equipment when they upgrade school networks, and so quotes for a couple of those brands would be a sensible place to start. But I also think you should get a price for Unifi gear, as it is pretty good value for money, in my opinion.
No matter what gear you end up using, you need to discuss your needs with the installer to ensure you get both the coverage (ie where you can pick up a signal), and density (ie how many devices you expect to have in one place) that you expect. Remember though, that you can add additional access points later, as your students’ needs will almost certainly increase over time.
2. Migrating services to the cloud
There are a number of cloud services that most schools should now be running offsite, the most obvious being mail. By migrating to one of the free offsite mail servers, you no longer need to pay for a local technician to configure or maintain mail on your own server, you also don’t need to do updates, backups, or think about remote access. Microsoft and Google both have solid cloud mail options that are free for schools to use.
Of course, mail is just one of a number of services that schools are moving into the cloud. Other popular ones are file storage such as Dropbox, Student Management Systems (SMS), Learning Management Systems (LMS), library and finance packages. The only caveat to put on some of these is that they can be frustrating to use if you do not have a fast enough Internet connection.
You probably still need a server to do things like hold your directory of users, allocate network addresses to devices and some local DNS. But, when your current server needs replacing, it should almost certainly be a lot cheaper than your last one. That’s because it will not need to have as many services configured on it, meaning lower setup costs, and because it is running less stuff, then your hardware costs and backup requirements should also be lower.
3. Buying mobile devices rather than desktops
I am not sounding the death knell of desktop computers. Indeed, for processor-intensive tasks, and when you need a lot of screen space to work with, they are unbeatable. Rather, I am saying that mobile devices are a nicer fit in the classroom — and often beyond the classroom. Also, it is more natural to have the device be a part of the learning, wherever it is happening. Of course, a mobile device could be a laptop or tablet-style device. Schools are spoilt for choice in terms of mobile devices.
The pros and cons of all the available mobile devices is beyond the scope of this post, but what I would like to say is that I love two things about tablets. One is that their shape is “vanilla”, so it’s easy to repurpose them in ways that would be difficult on a laptop. For instance, they can easily be used as a video camera, musical instrument, or GPS. The second is that when a group shares a tablet it seems more equitable, for a simple tilt or touch means that each participant can contribute far more easily than when one person is sitting with the keyboard and screen facing them on a laptop.
4. Saying yes to SNUP
I still occasionally come across a school that has turned down SNUP in the belief that the network they currently have is all right, or that they could achieve the same result for less money by doing it themselves.
To be fair, if a school has paid for their own network upgrade in the last 2-3 years because they could not wait for SNUP, then they may have a point. But any existing network that is more than 5 years old could probably benefit from at least new switches, wireless gear, and additional power outlets. The idea that the total cost for a school to purchase all of the switches, data cabling, power outlets, and wireless equipment that they would be offered under a SNUP for the same price as their SNUP contribution alone seems most unlikely. If that is the advice a school has been given, then they should get a second opinion.
5. Moving to fibre if current connection speeds are causing issues
Fibre is stonkingly fast compared with the ADSL connection that most schools have been using for the last 5–10 years. By having a connection that has both fast upload and download speeds it is likely that the school will see better value for money from its Internet connected devices, because users be able to get things done more easily.
For many schools swapping to fibre it will mean a higher monthly Internet cost. But over time, some of those costs could be recouped by checking if fibre allows you to reduce spending on other areas, such as moving to cloud-based services and swapping to VoIP phones.
The other thing to remember is that N4L aim to have all schools connected by the end of 2016, so, while your costs might be higher for a while, at some stage over the next two-and-a-half years they will drop to nil. So, do not sign a long-term contract for fibre from another provider.
6. Saying yes to N4L
In the long run I think there will be lots of good reasons to say yes to the N4L, but right now, the fact that it is free should be reason enough. And bundled with your free Internet connection, your school will also be given a managed router/firewall which the N4L will maintain for you free of charge. Other benefits include uncapped data, and a fast, filtered connection to the Internet. If one needed any more inducement, then remember that it is still in its infancy, and that over time N4L will provide even more cool stuff (like IPv6, identity management and the Pond).
7. Using collaborative online documents
Working in online office suites such as Google Apps or Microsoft 365 allows a richness and collaboration for learners previously not possible in device-bound documents. Not only does it make it simple for groups of students to work on a single document, but it also allows teachers, parents, other students, and mentors to easily share ideas, give feedback, and to co-construct learning. Additionally, it is all saved, backed up, and constantly upgraded by the ether-elves at no cost to the school or the user.
If Google Apps is your online collaboration tool of choice then Hapara Teacher Dashboard should almost certainly be considered as well. It is a great tool that lets you create order from what would otherwise be a bewildering and constantly growing collection of documents. Google has recently announced that they will have a product called Classroom that will be available from September (ready for the start of the school year in the Northern Hemisphere) that looks like it will mimic at least some of the functionality of Hapara at no cost. In the meantime Hapara is available right now, and you might as well use it for 2014 at least.
8. Recognising that Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) is coming
Like it or not, devices are getting cheaper, the Internet is becoming more central to everything we do, and students and parents will expect to be connected to it if and when needed as and when it enhances their learning. Schools should be thinking about how they will fit student-owned devices into their infrastructure. Professional development opportunities should be taken to expose staff to ways that schools can cater for and benefit from connected students and teachers.
9. Digital citizenship
We would be fools to still think that a child will access only the school’s Internet network. Nor can we simply put filters and firewalls in place to keep our children safe. We need to enhance the technical barriers by embedding the concepts of digital citizenship and cybersafety throughout the classroom and wider school environment to help our young people make good choices online, choices that will allow them to be safe, empowered, caring, and responsible when they are learning and socialising online.
Schools should embed the concepts of digital citizenship and cybersafety into all elements of their teaching rather than seeing it as something that can be covered by running a module. Ideally, any digital citizenship programme would be an extension of the school’s existing values structure. Orewa College refer to their values system as Maanaki Orewa, and it is an excellent example.
Likewise, cybersafety is something that needs to be constantly addressed as part of everyday learning, and Netsafe have some excellent material for schools to follow.
10. Single sign on and identity management
When Single Sign On (SSO) and identity management are properly implemented, it will be seriously cool. Imagine this, … a new student arrives at your school and is enrolled in your SMS, later that day the identity management provider scrapes the new information from your SMS, which gives them the student name, age, classes they are enrolled in, and any other relevant details. That information is then used to create accounts on Google Apps/Office 365, the school LMS, eTV, as well as the school’s network directory. The next day, that child walks into class and can log into the school computers, can log their personal device onto the school wireless, and has access to all the classes they are enrolled in on the school Moodle site. When their period-two teacher takes them to the library, they are already on the system, and can take out a book at the same time as the rest of the class.
Of course, that all happened with only one set of data being entered by a single person, so that user now has one username that works everywhere, one password that can be reset centrally, and the system did not rely on your network technician having the time to add them to various services. What’s more, when a different child leaves your school, the following day their account is automatically hibernated.
For all this to work properly, schools will need to start thinking about cleansing their user information. Is there currently a unique way to assign usernames, do only current users have access to systems, or, are there a lot of leavers and ex-staff still on the system? As work is done on various bits of the school infrastructure, some thought should be given to tidying up some of that in readiness for SSO.
The reason I believe that the ten items listed above are areas on which schools can confidently spend money is that they are all things that form the scaffold for computer use in schools. I cannot imagine a plan that would not include all of them. Once your plan is in place you can flesh out that scaffolding with the elements that make it uniquely yours, and move forward confidently to meet your strategic goals.