Mar 26 2021

Streamlining One-to-One Computing Deployments in the Era of Remote Learning

Through data-driven cost-benefit analyses, more districts find time is better spent helping educators and students thrive with technology, not unpacking and setting up devices.

At North Canton City Schools in Ohio, supporting a one-to-one deployment of devices to students represents a daunting physical task that can overwhelm the district’s small tech team as it’s left to the time-consuming work of unboxing, configuring and preparing as many as 1,500 devices.

“I’ve been in a situation where we had to deploy 1,000 devices in the middle school, and I’ve had my own children come in and help and teachers volunteering to help us,” says Technology Director Kim Nidy. “You have to open 1,000 boxes, take the computer out of the sleeve, take out the charger. It might take a whole evening just to do that unboxing, and the space required to do that work is not always readily available in a school.”

To overcome this burden, Nidy sought outside help to make the pandemic-inspired rush to deploy one-to-one devices more manageable and scalable. CDW•G offers a last-mile integration service that does the front-end work of unboxing devices and getting them ready for deployment to students, and Nidy successfully lobbied for that help.

Without this support, “we would be taking machines out of boxes, putting stickers on them,” says Nidy. “If we are doing that instead of answering the phone and solving people’s problems, that is a customer service issue for us. We want to be an effective and efficient tech department, and we need to deliver good customer service.”

Education experts say it makes sense for schools to explore third-party help as they seek to build out and maintain their device inventories in response to the pandemic for the foreseeable future.

“For school districts evaluating whether to go in-house or to use an external service, a lot will depend on the financial and human resources they have available,” says Steve Langford, board chair for the Consortium for School Networking.

“If your IT shop is thinly staffed, using external partners can be a great way to extend that, especially if hiring is constrained or you cannot staff up permanently,” says Langford. “Outside services can allow flexibility in how you use your funding and free your existing staff to focus on other work.”

More Hands Lighten the Workload for IT Departments

Outsourcing the initial steps of a one-to-one deployment — which involve unboxing and basic device setup — can significantly reduce the time and effort IT teams need to spend on a rollout. The manual labor alone represents a significant savings.

“Somebody has to physically take all those devices out of boxes. For a small team, the time savings around that is well worth the additional cost per device that we pay for it,” says Nidy.

Even better, the last-mile service handles all this heavy lifting offsite. That’s good news for schools, where space to do this work may be at a premium, Nidy says.

Nidy
Somebody has to physically take all those devices out of boxes. For a small team, the time savings around that is well worth the additional cost per device that we pay for it.”

Kim Nidy Technology Director, North Canton City Schools

For Langford, who also serves as CIO for the Beaverton (Ore.) School District, such help has proved invaluable. The first time his district went one-to-one in the 2015-16 school year, it had no outside support. “The IT shop had to absorb all the logistical planning, and there was some risk to that in terms of staff capacity,” he says.

In a subsequent 2019-20 deployment, he went with third-party support.

“It took all the logistical work and moved it outside of IT,” he says. “Rather than us having to enroll the devices and get them configured for student use, they came ready to use. It drastically reduced the amount of time IT staff had to spend on all phases of the deployment, which freed us to put those people and resources to work in other areas.”

Making Dollars and Sense of Outsourcing

In addition to freeing up IT teams to address higher-level tasks, outside support has proved to be a financial boon for some districts.

Nidy weighed the long-term budgetary impact of hiring staff to take on a job versus using outside assistance to support her one-to-one deployment. “Sometimes, it makes more sense to pay to outsource this part of the work, and then it is not an ongoing cost,” she says. “It’s a one-time expense that we can leverage just to move us forward.”

North Canton supports its one-to-one initiative through a permanent improvement levy that generates $1.5 million a year, some of which goes to support buildings and instructional resources, and some of which is devoted to devices.

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“Once we found out that the service existed, we factored that into the cost of the device, which was already being supported by that levy,” says Nidy. To get the service built into the budget, she presented a cost-benefit analysis to a district-level cabinet that included the superintendent, assistant superintendent, business director and treasurer. This ensures third-party support is now included as part of the Chromebook cost structure every year.

For schools considering third-party help for one-to-one deployments and support, Langford says it’s important to take a big-picture view of the financial impacts.

“Sometimes in education, we don’t quantify the cost in terms of human resources for our projects. We’ll talk about how much the device costs, but we don’t look at how much staff time it takes to get that device out of the box, to get it enrolled and get it in the hands of the student,” says Langford. “You have to look at it holistically, to consider all these possible costs that could explode when you bring in these new devices.”

Allow IT Teams to Focus on User Support

At Pleasanton (Calif.) Unified School District, Senior Director of Procurement and Technology Amy Nichols uses centralized configuration to manage applications on her Chromebooks to speed the setup process. She uses Google’s Chromebook White Glove Service, which allows a third party to configure and enroll devices, through CDW•G. The service enables her team to define configurations through the Google console, and the rest of the setup is left to CDW•G.

“The devices are removed from their individual packaging, the computer is opened and turned on, and a short key combination initiates the device,” says Nichols. “The outside providers log in, we provide them with an administrative account, and that pulls over many of the settings that we have set up in our console.”

This becomes especially relevant at a time when IT teams are stretched thin. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the Pleasanton Unified School District has processed more than 6,000 trouble tickets. The pressure is intense, she says, and outside support in the form of white-glove service has been key to coping.

“It helped us to move the less technical work off the shoulders of our staff,” says Nichols. “Whenever you are unboxing thousands of devices, you end up with a mountain of cardboard. Just having another company to deal with all that trash disposal takes the pressure of our custodial staff, and it frees our tech folks to focus on supporting the students who are using the devices.”

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Photography by Roger Mastroianni