The Big Picture: Hardware. What do we have? What’s next?

Apple PL According to our annual customer survey data, one area where I can get better is “big picture” communication.  So, this seems like the right time of year to reflect on and review some of the details of our macro plan for technology hardware here at Prairie.  This is a rather long post, so I’m only going to discuss hardware.  I won’t touch on software tools, subscriptions, digital content, and information flows.  Most of this information has been shared in other posts over the last few months.  My goal here is to aggregate this information in one spot. The first part will be a bit of philosophy — sorry — but understanding the “why” hopefully gives a clearer lens into the method to my madness.  I’ll then go into the “what”, which is probably a little more interesting.

Not to seem trite, but my thinking about any long-range, overarching plans for digital tools starts with our district mission and vision: Success for All!  “To ensure quality learning today for tomorrow.”  These two statements are elegantly operationalized in our district Strategic Plan which has at its core personalization of learning.  The two biggest drivers in my thinking on a strategic level are personalization/customization and equity.  And, since we don’t have unlimited resources, these two filters guide my thinking about how to make choices that will have the most positive impact on equity and personalization.

Right now (and for the past few years), my thinking is we make the largest impact on personalization and equity by providing as many devices to as many kids as possible.  While at the same time, creating an environment where access to cloud-based resources are efficient (fast), reliable, and predictable.  The result of this is an investment network infrastructure.  

I’ve previously posted about our student device plan.  This plan was created and approved by a study committee of teachers, principals, district office admins, as well as school board members in the spring of 2015.  Below is a quick status check of what’s happening at each grade span:

PK-1st —  One device (an iPad) for every two students.  Devices refreshed once every five years by grade level.  Status=met

2nd-4th — One device (Chromebook) for every two students.  Devices refreshed once every five years by grade level.  Status=in progress.  This summer (2017) will be start buying Chromebooks for 2nd grade.  Over the last two years we have redeployed retired MacBooks and Chromebooks to elementary buildings.   We have given about 60 devices to each building each year, so we are rather close to our overall ratio goal without the new purchases.  In two years, we may even be ahead of this target.

5th-9th — One to one device (Chromebook) to student ratio.  Status=met.  In our original plan, we did not include 5th grade, but we’ve modified it to include these students.  The 5th-grade devices do not go home with kids.  Fifth-grade devices will be refreshed once every 4 years.  Student take home devices will stay with students until retired at the end of 9th grade.

10th-12th — One to one device (MacBook) to student ratio.  Twenty-five percent of the fleet is updated each year.  Status=met.

When we started the 1:1 deployment back in 2012, we committed to program evaluations every three years.  So, I will be convening the same study committee that made the current plan this spring (2017) to look at any changes we might want or need to make for the fall of 2018.  I’m sure a few of the things we’ll talk about and investigate will be the feasibility of a “bring your own device” (BYOD) system.  I”m sure we’ll also look at device types that are currently deployed and evaluate if these are still the right mix.

From an infrastructure standpoint, we’ve been busy as well.  But, because it’s often less interesting to most people, I probably don’t share as much as I should.  The big, guiding principles here are that we want all instructional spaces (ie… classrooms) to provide reliable, and reasonably fast access for two devices per person (2:1 ratio).  We also do our best to do this with large meeting spaces as well, but in our largest venues this is difficult to bring to scale.  For this to work, we must deploy wired network gear (the true plumbing), wireless gear, data center gear (the stuff that connects all the building, etc..), and an overall connection to the internet. Here’s how we stand, building by building.

District data center:

  • Core switch:  Refreshed in summer of 2015.  The core switch is the one piece of hardware on our network that all traffic goes through.  A bottleneck here slows everyone down, everywhere.  With the recent update, our metrics show we have a lot of room to expand/grow.  This piece of hardware should continue to scale with use for several more years.
  • Overall Network Connection:  We purchase a 500 MBPS (megabit per second) pipe from Windstream.  During our production days, we currently run between 70%-90% utilization.  We have done some things to shape/improve this — see the note on Securly below — but, given that utilization, we will likely need to look at expanding service here within the next 12 months.
  • Route/Firewalls:  These units were purchased in 2012.  Metrics show all devices with room to expand use.  So, these devices are not creating a bottleneck.  However, they may need to be replaced due to age within the next year or two.
  • Content Filter:  We updated to Securly during the summer of 2016.  Our old filter, iBoss, was providing a significant bottleneck — particularly to devices that used off-site filtering.  Securly also lets us more reliably restrict streaming media for students which has had a very positive impact on overall internet availability — ie… we are using less bandwidth.  

Prairie High School:   Most wired and wireless gear deployed in 2012.  Significant updates each year to add wireless radios to remove weak spots.  This building is set up with both wired and wireless connections to meet our targeted goal of support for 2 devices to 1 person ratio in nearly all spaces.  Large venues like the concert hall are problematic.  PHS will be getting a full network overhaul with the bond issue renovations that are just starting this spring.  I anticipate the updates will be done before the 2018 school year.

Prairie Point:   Wired gear deployed in 2008.  Wireless was updated in 2012 and again in 2015.   This building is set up with both wired and wireless connections to meet our targeted goal of support for 2 devices to 1 person ratio in nearly all spaces.   Large venues like the gym are problematic.

Prairie Creek:  Wired gear and wireless gear updated in 2015.  This building is set up with both wired and wireless connections to meet our targeted goal of support for 2 devices to 1 person ratio in nearly all spaces. Large venues like the gym are problematic.

Prairie Crest:  Wired and wireless gear partially updated in 2015, but a number of older wired and wireless devices still in use.  Each classroom has at least one wireless device capable of supporting at least a 1:1 student/device ratio per space.  Full network overhaul will be done during bond issue building renovation in the next three years.  This includes full cable plant, wired network, and wireless network replacement.

Prairie Heights:  Wired and wireless gear partially updated in 2015, but a number of older wired and wireless devices still in use.  Each classroom has at least one wireless device capable of supporting at least a 1:1 student/device ratio per space.  Full network overhaul will be done during bond issue building renovation in the next three years.  This includes full cable plant, wired network, and wireless network replacement.

Prairie Hill:   Wired gear and wireless gear updated in 2014.  This building is set up with both wired and wireless connections to meet our targeted goal of support for 2 devices to 1 person ratio in nearly all spaces.  Large venues like the gym are problematic.

Prairie Ridge:  Wired gear and wireless gear updated in 2016.  This building is set up with both wired and wireless connections to meet our targeted goal of support for 2 devices to 1 person ratio in nearly all spaces.  Large venues like the gym are problematic.

Prairie View:  Wired and wireless gear partially updated in 2015, but a number of older wired and wireless devices still in use.  Each classroom has at least one wireless device capable of supporting at least a 1:1 student/device ratio per space.  Full network overhaul will be done during bond issue building renovation in the next three years.  This includes full cable plant, wired network, and wireless network replacement.

Prairie Edge and Prairie Delta:  Wired network gear was updated in 2015.  Wireless infrastructure was updated in 2016.  Currently, we rate each instructional space at 1:1 ratio ready.  If we see device numbers spike, we will look to add more wireless capacity in 2017.

Staff Devices:

We currently update 25% of staff fleet each year based upon staff seniority.  Last year’s update list is posted here.  We’ll post the updated list for next year in April.  Once we finish cycling out the 2012 vintage computers in the summer of 2018 — I still have one and will until the summer of 2018 — we will modify our approach and switch to computer age rather than staff member seniority when determining update eligibility.  However, we needed a place to start when we switched from purchasing all staff computers in a single year to refreshing 25% a year.  

Classroom Technology:

It’s my goal to have a functional projector and document camera in all primary instructional spaces.  To be fully transparent, my approach to this has been rather ad-hoc and is not formalized like our staff and student device plans.  The reason for this is that with our various renovation projects across the districts and newer buildings it’s been manageable to deploy and update this equipment on a building by building, case by case basis.  And, while these devices are very important, in terms the district vision, they are lower priority items for resource allocation.  

That being said, if we make strides in our design efforts regarding personalization in the future, this might have some really interesting ripples on how we all think about learning spaces.  There are a lot of “ifs”, but if we are able to create and implement truly personalized learning for kids in all grades as designed in our Strategic Plan, then it probably doesn’t matter as much what device the kids are using.  So, something like a bring your own device (BYOD) plan makes sense.  And, if that were to happen, we would have a lot of additional resources available (money would have previously spent on MacBooks and Chromebooks) to reinvent what a learning space looks like.  I could envision rooms with collaboration spaces, multiple displays (both projection and flat panel), etc…  But, right now, our steps to get there at scale are iterative — ie… we need to design the personalized learning using our current tools before we can get to this next step down the road.  

To anyone who has slogged through all of this, hopefully, you now have a little better understanding of where we are at and where we are going with digital tools and gear.  As always, don’t hesitate to drop me a note, give a call, or leave a comment here if you have questions.

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