An IT director reveals the thinking behind his district's efforts to build a technology infrastructure from scratch.
In 2005, after several years of population growth, the leaders of Trussville, Ala., decided the city needed its own independent school system. The residents of Trussville supported this effort so that the community could have local control of the city's four schools and provide additional educational opportunities to area students. So early that summer, Trussville City Schools (TCS) separated from the Jefferson County School System.
At the time, our newly created district had an outdated technology infrastructure, no wireless campuses, limited Internet bandwidth and outdated computer workstations. All of the schools, each serving more than 1,000 students, were operating at capacity, with limited classroom space and computer labs. We wanted to be up and running by August, in time for the start of the 2005-2006 school year; that gave us fewer than 60 days to develop and install an entire technology infrastructure.
The Necessary Ingredients
We decided when designing our network infrastructure to focus on the end user. Our superintendent, Dr. Suzanne Freeman, and the directors of curriculum, technology and finance shared their experiences working in other school systems and then used that information to identify TCS' immediate needs and future goals. The infrastructure design we developed as a result of these collaborations fulfilled those ideas.
Fortunately, city leaders had the foresight to invest heavily in the new school system, providing the means to cover our substantial startup expenses. Because our startup staff was small, we designed the network around a central administration model. Technicians perform their functions remotely and have no physical presence in our schools. Through this central office design, we can push the majority of software and security updates to school users from a single source rather than through repeated visits by IT staff to each site.
In retrospect, the development approach we followed worked very well. Here are some best practices to consider if your administrative team is ever challenged, as ours was, to build a brand-new IT infrastructure.
Standardizing hardware throughout the district decreases the time it takes for staff to attain proficiency, resulting in a more positive user experience. And it dramatically reduces the IT department's labor hours for maintenance and repairs. By reloading each machine with a fresh copy of its operating system, we can resolve most problems that creep up during such transitions. Because our technicians are familiar with the nuances of the few computer and printer models we support, they can repair most problems quickly.
To preserve uniformity, ensure that computers that are donated by outside parties are compatible with district-owned machines. Core networking equipment should have consistent makes and model numbers.
A strong, workable security model is crucial. Finding a balance between restrictions and usefulness is key. Computers that have been locked down too tightly are inflexible for many teaching styles (and, therefore, are not feasible).
On the other hand, giving end users full administrative permissions could result in unreliable hardware, software licensing violations, malicious code, spyware and viruses. A single virus infecting a network can lead to catastrophic system failure that could cost a district thousands of labor hours. Use a whitelisting application to prevent users from installing software on district-owned devices without permission.
Our district's central database monitors any attempt to install software. To date, this policy has helped us avoid licensing violations and intrusions of malicious code, spyware and viruses. Although this protocol can be inconvenient for staff members who lack the permissions to alter their computers, they generally understand that it results in more reliable devices.
Lose the Wires
From the beginning, we wanted an infrastructure that could support a one-to-one computing program and allow students to bring any type of computing device into any system building and have it work. So we put in place a network access control appliance that separates system machines from students and guests, blocking access to the private side of the network that contains financial records and teachers' files. Students can surf the Internet and submit homework through any teacher's web page.
We also use Internet filtering software, in compliance with the Children's Internet Protection Act. Filtering to the most secure available policy on the public side of the network regulates all end users, including students and guests. Our teachers comply with this regulation and work within their curriculum to make this policy a success.
Giving teachers, staff and students e-mail accounts and web pages greatly facilitates communication. Every classroom in the school system has a telephone with voicemail that goes directly to e-mail.
For our website, we developed a standardized template so that every school, teacher, staff and student page presents information in the same way. This greatly improves navigation for parents and visitors, allowing them to quickly and easily locate contact information for faculty and staff, as well as lunch menus, calendars, and information about district or school activities.
We also implemented a student information system that helps teachers quickly and easily obtain students' e-mail addresses. To ensure their safety and privacy, we assign students e-mail addresses consisting of simple letter and number combinations, and we don't make those addresses available publicly.
Anytime, Anywhere Access
TCS teachers can access the network after hours through our virtual private network. Each teacher's web page functions as a learning management system, through which anyone can upload content at any time. All students have their own digital portfolio so they, too, have access to their work at any time.
Skype and webcams allow our teachers and students to routinely collaborate with experts around the globe and give our homebound students the means to keep up with their classes. Many of our teachers have altered their teaching style as a result, assigning multimedia content and lectures for students to view in the evening and dedicating classroom time to projects and other collaborative activities.
Prioritize Service and Development
We re-evaluate our practices regularly, modifying processes and infrastructure when needed to support students' and teachers' needs. Surveys, focus groups, chat nights, and school and system design teams constantly measure performance.
For example, each school has technology team leaders who serve as first responders when problems arise. They work with teachers onsite to resolve as many issues as possible and forward to the district IT department anything they can't handle. Team leaders also collaborate daily with our district technology integration specialist to infuse technology throughout the curriculum. We even created a Students Willing to Assist Technology program through which tech-savvy students help teachers resolve simple technical issues and even deliver workshops on the latest technology trends.
In addition to routine professional development and support, TCS produces a seven-hour conference for students and staff that spotlights current technology initiatives. Our next Trussville Education Technology Conference, to be held in January 2012, will focus on distance education.
Members of the TCS leadership team – including Dr. Freeman, our principals and our directors – work hard to model effective uses of technology and encourage everyone to do the same. Collaboration at all levels has proved vital to achieving success and learning from failure.
Photo: Atomic Imagery/Getty Images
More Practices to Ponder
Supporting aging hardware is an especially daunting task when staffing is limited. Broken equipment not only leads to downtime, it also degrades staff support for technology initiatives.
Consider a three-year refresh cycle for all equipment, and cover all new purchased hardware for a three-year period. That way, you can refresh a third of your inventory every year. Doing so delivers the following benefits:
- All equipment will meet the minimum hardware specifications to run the newest software and peripherals on the market.
- Staff won't have to spend lengthy downtime repairing older machines. The equipment will be serviced in a timely fashion by the vendor charged with maintaining the warranty.
- In lean economic times, third-party vendors will sell refurbished leased equipment that's still covered by a three-year warranty.
Consider hiring an outside firm to audit the security of your network. Trussville City Schools typically spends about one-tenth the cost of a full-time security expert to produce an annual security analysis report. Some years, it proved we had a secure network; in others, it alerted us to weaknesses we didn't know existed.
70% of Trussville City Schools staff update their individual web pages on a weekly basis; 85% update them on a monthly basis.