When Calgary Catholic School District was pushed to close its doors in March due to the novel coronavirus, students, faculty and other school staff had to quickly adjust to the new reality thrust upon them: navigating remote learning.
“We had no time to plan — our local government here announced that schools were closing on Sunday afternoon for Monday,” says John Schutte, IT director for the Canadian school district. “It was a surprise, a crisis emergency mode.”
While the district had been a strong proponent of using technology in the classroom, it still had numerous hurdles to overcome to continue teaching and learning online.
IT teams had to teach staff how to use videoconferencing tools and walk them through online learning platforms, such as Google Classroom. They also had to figure out how to distribute nearly 5,000 Chromebooks for students to use at home. “Prior to COVID-19, it was fairly low usage on all of those tools,” Schutte says.
But there was also the challenge of how IT staff could efficiently and effectively guide users through those technologies.
CCSD wasn’t alone in that. As many schools worldwide shifted to an online environment for remote learning, IT teams were put to the test. Calls and emails about technical issues came in left and right, and help desk requests seemed to be never-ending.
In Santa Fe (N.M.) Public Schools, for instance, the district’s help desk processed more than 1,400 calls in mid-March when online instruction began — around 10 times more than the number of calls they had two months earlier, Education Week reports. Some district IT teams even had to handle questions unrelated to technology, about food distribution and other student services.
Urgency was also crucial to delivering assistance. “They need help in the next four minutes, not in the next four days,” Schutte says. “So, our end goal was, how do we support that immediate solution?”
MORE ON EDTECH: Discover what questions administrators are asking about remote learning.
Key Considerations for IT Staff Pivoting to Remote Support
Before they shifted to remote learning, Schutte says his team already prioritized efficiency. “That way, we can really focus all of our resources on the classrooms and teachers,” he says.
CCSD started using ServiceNow, a cloud-based IT management platform, as a ticketing tool two years ago to stay on top of help desk requests and streamline workflow. But they also saw the benefit of having a single place where faculty and staff could get their tech questions answered.
So, they soon created a self-service portal powered by ServiceNow called “ASK,” which stands for action, service and knowledge. It became a one-stop shop for teachers and other school staff who were requesting information not only related to IT, but to human resources and facilities services as well. It features a knowledge base of articles that users can easily find using a search bar.
Schutte says having that portal in place was what enabled his team and other departments to quickly move to a remote work environment in a more seamless, organized way. And with the plethora of information coming in about the pandemic, it also helped them keep staff informed about government and health services.
“When people are under stress, they aren’t necessarily following the same process and protocols they normally would,” says Andrea Urquhart, HR director at CCSD. “So, we wanted to draw out those things we felt would be most necessary for them to start their journey on to online learning.”
Watch how district administrators can help facilitate remote learning.
Having a self-service portal also empowered IT staff to focus on bigger remote learning issues — like training teachers — rather than dealing with administrative tasks such as resetting passwords.
“What that means is, I don’t have an army of help desk people answering the same questions over and over again. It’s all online, it’s easily accessible, people are able to find these answers themselves,” Schutte says. “So now, my help desk people are running professional development sessions on Microsoft Teams or Google Meet, or on setting up our learning management system. We’re not doing busy work — we’re doing higher-value work for our staff.”
Ken Galvin, senior product manager at Quest Software, expressed a similar sentiment, saying that IT leaders should encourage as much self-service as possible. “Most people prefer it anyway. But also, right now, you have to save your IT staff resources for the heavy stuff, not the repetitive stuff that can be looked up,” he says.
Adopting a service desk application, especially one that is fully integrated with inventory and software asset management systems, is particularly helpful because it lets IT staff automate many tasks, he says. “People can go to knowledge bases, download their own software — but only the software they’re supposed to have — off of the portal,” Galvin says.
Being able to monitor school-owned devices and software remotely is also crucial to ensuring cybersecurity during e-learning. “People thought they had a nice perimeter around their IT environment, but that’s shot. That’s gone,” he says.
Galvin says questions such as, “What kind of software is our staff downloading?” and “Are they using their work computer or personal devices to access student information?” can easily keep IT leaders up at night.
To help ease those concerns, Galvin also suggests having a desktop authority and privilege manager, which allows IT staff to give any user time-automated, temporary administrator privileges on devices.
Systems management appliances such as Quest’s KACE also enable staff to scan their entire network, identify all connected devices and do a granular inventory remotely. They can also automate software patch management to ensure applications are always up to date.
The Impact of Remote Learning on IT Teams
Galvin advises that districts should take this time to get ready for the fall, especially because many schools are considering taking a blended learning approach.
That includes building knowledge bases and reimaging devices, which is even more important today because IT departments need to ensure teachers and other school staff are equipped with the proper software. Also, while having an automated approach was considered nice to have for some school districts, it’s now a must-have moving forward, he says.
Also, even though IT teams are working through an emergency today, it has helped inform how schools will be implementing technology in the near future, Urquhart says.
“What this crisis has brought forward is that there’s so much potential to be creative and innovative and still meet the needs of individuals,” she says. “That is super exciting, and I think that having a platform like ServiceNow allows us to free up our employees to really delve into the technology and what it looks like for their students.”
Schutte adds that they’re looking forward to the ability to merge Microsoft Teams with ServiceNow, which will allow them to have multiple communication channels and implement a virtual agent so that teachers and other school staff can get their questions immediately answered.
“We’ve had floods, we’ve had fires, we’ve had all sorts of natural disasters,” he says. “But now, we could probably shut down 20 or 30 of our schools and move to this new model of delivery very, very quickly.”