In my last post I explained a bit of the situation I am in now….today, I want to share with you a bit of the vision going forward.
First off, you must know that I am biased towards lowering the hardware overhead in-house. I am not a control freak, so having a four-server-Exchange farm to administer is not something that gets me excited. Playing with new toys for the sake of playing with them is not something I engage in often (if there is classroom promise, I’ll give it a shot, of course). What I look for when planning for the future is implementing solutions that will keep the budget numbers within control, be the easiest for end-users to utilize, and most importantly, make sense in the classroom. If it will cost more to manage, upgrade, and maintain for the next three years than it did when purchased I usually shy away from it – whatever it is.
For nearly a decade I have been relying on cloud services for infrastructure builds as I have moved from school to school and project to project. The number one tool I’ve leveraged to build successful classroom integration initiatives in the past is GoogleApps. GoogleApps creates so many opportunities in the classroom for collaboration that are too many to mention in one post. Being that it is free is not such a bad thing to brag about either, and it also lowers the IT personnel overhead since it means fewer servers to manage onsite. Another partner I’ve relied on for many many years in various forms – website, media archiving, cloud storage, virtualized servers – is Amazon. Amazon’s EC2, S3, and Storage Gateways should be core tools in any network. DNS services, mail relays, databases, and so many other tools round its offerings to the most powerful tool-set any network admin can depend on.
At Vistamar School, where I now server as IT Dir., these are the core services that are either already implemented, underway, or soon to be implemented:
- GoogleApps for communication and collaboration.
- Amazon for cloud based file server storage volumes (using a Storage Gateway virtual appliance).
- Meraki – cloud based wireless network management along with robust access points for onsite deployment.
- OpenDNS – cloud based Internet filtering and security solution using two redundant virtual appliances.
- Win 2008 R2 Server for file, print, AD, backup AD, Exchange, ERP, and Terminal Server.
- VMWare VSphere on-site virtualized environment.
- Veeam Backup Solution.
Withing the next three years we will undertake a hybrid deployment of a BYOD/1:1 initiative. Up to this point the school has not embarked in any of the two most popular models when it comes to technology use in education – BYOD or 1:1. This is because most upperclassmen already bring a device with them to school. It seems redundant to impose on them a given model or type of computer and the related cost given that they’ve already spent money on a device. Having our own “cloud” gives us flexibility with end-users because it comes down to what is more comfortable for them to use to access it – all they need is a reliable Internet connection and up-to-date browser. On the other hand, the school supports a good percentage of our families with a moderated tuition program, and this creates an area of opportunity when tailoring this type of program for the future. I want to steer clear of creating a one-size-fits-all type of program that would force families that are already receiving financial assistance to pay for a device for their child(ren).
As we already have our own “cloud”, it makes sense for us to continue to use that service to give access to those students who do not have the same version of MS Office outside of school. Since GoogleDrive is the default file storage service for students it means they can connect using a $200-$300 Chromebook. The school can help finance this for those families who receive help within the moderated tuition program. For those families who wish to pay a bit more they can opt to enter the BYOD scenario. This hardware phase would begin in the 2015-2016 academic year.
The other part of this plan is the one that comes first; faculty professional development.
A shift in practice is no easy undertaking. Embarking on this type of initiative means the life inside the classroom must change. Asking faculty to think differently of something they have been doing, well, for the past however-many-years is not something I am prepared to do on my own. The School’s Head of School and Assistant Head of School must be the first to board the bus. Otherwise I don’t even want to pull away from the stop.
The remainder of this year I will spend talking about this plan with the School’s Leadership Team. Luckily I belong to it so bringing it up is not going to be difficult. Another thing to do this year is to flesh out what next year is going to look like as far as PD for faculty. A curriculum needs to be built around PD such that faculty are taken down this road in a very solid step-by-step manner. One or many consultants need to be brought in such that they have a different perspective on what a classroom that is infused with student-held devices looks like. Certainly not everything needs to change, but a shift in the way teaching is done will come. I was also thinking of pulling out a full department once or twice during the year such that we have all players in one room working at what that transformation looks like. The school can bring in a team of subs for a day or day for a department as long as ample time is given to prep for that day.
Going down the road of a 1:1 or BYOD initiative is not cheap. I am certain, however, that three-to-four years down the road we are going to wonder how it was that we worked for so long any other way.
This is for all the techies out there…
A quick update on my new job thus far.
In July of 2013 I started working as the tech dir in at Vistamar School, a small independent high school in Southern California. The school has 260 students, 40+ faculty and about 20 staff. There are 21 classrooms, a gym, and the usual science labs, open spaces and offices. On the IT front, there is a computer lab with 18 Win PC’s, and a mix of Windows PC’s, iMacs, MacBooks and newly-added Chromebooks floating about throughout campus. Wifi is available all over. All classrooms, office and shared spaces have IP phones installed.
What’s unorthodox about the tech setup here is that there is an onsite cloud - a full-out VDI. For such a small school, it is not the norm. What pushed this approach forward was that it was see as the only way the school could “level the playing field” by giving equal – online – access to the same version of MS Office to students and faculty. Students who do not have an up-to-date computer at home do not have to worry about updating to the same version of Excel when their science teacher requests work be done using version-specific features. The system also provides students with a universal way of signing into their cloud desktops and accessing their files anywhere, any time. Lastly, it was seen as the way to rely less on desktops and more on less-expensive thin clients in the future.
The launch of this cloud initiative was marred by problems. Connectivity, reliability, ease-of-use, speed, you name it, it was an issue. How this came about is that the then-net-admin saw it as a way to play with a new, albeit expensive, toy without having to pony up the dough himself. His training was fully covered, and once he felt competent enough he promptly made his way out to a higher-paying job. The whole project was actually planned and installed by an outside vendor – anyone who’s ever dealt with a network that was deployed by an outside consultant knows why there are some problems here.
Any ways, One of my main issues with this approach in a school is that there are a lot of graphic-rich applications and audio needs throughout any given school year where VDI is not the best option. Additionally, by going this route a certain specialization – an expensive one – is needed in-house to keep the whole thing humming. An IT team of 1.5 is certainly not enough given other high-maintenance systems such as IP phones, classroom audio/video needs, faculty/student support, network and wifi support, web portal, etc. Faculty professional support, student/family outreach and proactive planning fall by the wayside given the constant putting out of fires.
On the back-end there are two terminal servers and many other virtualized servers. Off-campus users log into through Classlink (RDP via an internal HTML5 gateway) using a web browser in order to gain access. On-campus users log in via a direct RDP session to an assigned server. One terminal server is for faculty/staff, and one for students – no load-balancing is set up. The platform rests on three HP hosts running VMWare VSphere 5.
In theory it reads like a great setup, and a win-win for students and faculty. In practice, however, it’s another story. There are many reasons why it did not worked up to expectations. The hardware is not enough to sustain so many concurrent sessions. Additionally, when launched, there was a 20Mb Internet uplink on campus, making multiple sessions via the online portal dreadfully slow. Something that complicates matters a bit more is that faculty and staff use an Exchange server while students use GoogleApps for collaboration and communication. You can imagine the complexity of setting up and then troubleshooting GPO’s once you get into the nitty-gritty of Active Directory.
The phone system is VoIP, there is a robust Meraki wireless network, and a slew of services to end-users, BUT the network is not VLAN-ed, QoS-ed, or even physically segmented to optimize data throughput on campus. Many challenges to tend to with only one full-time techie/netadmin/do-it-all (myself), and one part techie / part ed-tech integrationist / part tech teacher.
The challenge is the level of specialization needed to host and run your own virtualized server farm. Going this route requires more (wo)man-hour resources and hardware on the server end. Additional resources are required for faculty and other end-user training, along with the time to carry such a program consistently. Organizationally there must be a clear commitment to providing the space and time for this endeavor to get off the ground successfully. It’s a difficult sale given other demands on teachers’ time.
The first thing I did when arriving was to increase Internet bandwidth to 100Mb. Though it is not enough, it makes things a bit better. A few small config changes have been made on the servers, but not nearly enough to get all issues resolved. Because I started in July, when all faculty and lots of staff are on vacation, it was tough to gather enough info to make major changes without getting myself into a jam. I started the academic year with things pretty much the same way they were left off from the previous year. Not being here a couple of months earlier has added 12 months to my timeline of major revamps to the system. I must be careful not to disrupt the day-to-day teaching and learning symphony at play here.
During the 12-13 academic year money was raised to get all faculty laptops for 2013-2014. The Lenovo hybrid Helix was selected before the summer break. Once the machines were purchased it gave me an opportunity to get all faculty on GoogleDrive instead of storing their files on campus servers (all faculty have GoogleApps accounts though they are not using the mail feature yet). This has made the faculty more independent. Trying out Windows 8 on newly launched hardware has not made for the best of times, but I am happy that our faculty are so understanding and patient.
To make things move a bit more efficiently I changed our Internet traffic filter from a Prism box over to OpenDNS. It makes things much simpler, and takes one more thing down a notch on the maintenance front.
These are the major impacting factors that have made an appearance this year:
- Faculty got their own hybrid mobile device – no more dependency on a desktop or virtual session.
- Faculty were moved from network storage to GoogleDrive – mobility with a safety net.
- The wireless network was upgraded to provide more coverage.
- Internet bandwidth was increased five-fold to 100Mb.
- Training was focused on utilizing and maximizing Google Docs, GoogleDrive Sharing and GoogleDrive storage.
- A Chromebook cart was made available for all to share – more GoogleApps opportunities.
Still to come for this year are newer digital projectors in classrooms where the current projector is way old, and Chromecast devices to allow for fluid wireless streaming from the faculty devices.
There are still challenges, and finetuning the virtual server farm is an ongoing chore. However, having faculty mobile is the best thing we’ve done to positively impact on this learning community.
I’ve seen it, and I’m sure you’ve seen it, too. Two people arguing over what will eventually turn out to be nothing of importance. Which car goes faster, who really won the game, what color goes best with those shoes, etc, etc… I’ve been in those very silly arguments myself. And I ask myself “why?”.
One thing that helps me pull back from those situations is to project myself into the future. I put myself a few months down the road, or maybe even a couple of years older. And I think to myself, “what will the older me make of this situation?”. That visualization is enough to give me pause for reflection. If the argument bares any impact on my future self, I pursue to establish my position – though not by arguing but by making my point. If the argument will eventually seem silly and cause me to laugh about getting into it in the first place, then I know it is nonsense. Most of the time I end up pulling back from whatever possible argument or situation I am about to get into.
If it does not matter two months or two years down the road who has the best point to make, then it is not worth arguing about now. There is only so much time and energy in one’s life, and I’d rather invest mine in loving, in smiling, and enjoying it plenty and full.