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  • Andrew T Schwab 10:00 am on July 13, 2014 Permalink | Reply  

    Reflection on Google Apps for Education After District Migration #4 

    I’ve written about this topic before but having just completed my 4th District migration to Google Apps for Education (GAFE) I thought I would revisit the topic again. I firmly believe that Google Apps for Education is the platform best suited to build a collaborative learning environment for 21st Century classrooms. Now I know that’s a lot of buzz words but seriously, the ability to have multiple students (and teachers) working in real time on the same document across multiple platforms is truly transformative. It is so transformative that I don’t understand how an institution of education can claim to be teaching 21st Century college and career reediness without it. I know, more buzz words.

    As for this latest migration, it’s gone fairly smoothly. As in the past, the sticking points tend to not be with use in the classroom. It is generally the office staff, the business users, that have the more difficult time transitioning and require more help with the change. Power users of Outlook especially, find the move to the web based UI difficult. I’m finding that to be the case once again.

    And this is understandable. Features go missing. Simple things like the ability to right click a file and attach it to email in Windows go missing. The send to email menu option doesn’t do what it used to do. Scheduling the sending of email requires third party plugins and more steps than before. Sorting by username, defining how the time field is displayed and even sorting email by date are all little features that Outlook users take for granted that are sadly missing in Gmail. Work arounds or alternate steps need to be taught. This all affects productivity during the initial weeks and months of any migration. However, having everyone on the same messaging platform is important because it opens up the possibilities of hangouts, chat and doc sharing without barriers to domains or clients.

    But I’ve noticed some annoyances with this latest migration and mostly they stem from the integration of Google+ into the GAFE environment. The plusification of GAFE as I like to call it. Some users have figured out how to setup G+ profiles and have gone so far as to change their profile names (me included). This name change affects how they are displayed in the Global Directory and admins have no control over it. People that know me, know that I am not a big fan of control, but for users with multiple G+ accounts (personal and work) they are tending to put additional information in their Work G+ profile names to distinguish them from their personal G+ profiles. This is causing mild havoc with sending emails, since the altered G+ profile name shows up in the auto complete. We need some control over this. The ability to make GAFE G+ plus accounts private to the domain would be much appreciated too. G+ integration is half baked, and yes I know we all asked for it for GAFE but really, it needs some work.

    Another annoying thing with G+ in GAFE is that some users have setup G+ profiles and others have not. For those that have, G+ has taken over their Chat feature set. As if chat wasn’t complicated enough, with it’s integration with “Other Contacts”, now users with G+ profiles are being prompted to put people into circles and contacts don’t show up in the “hangouts” window until they do.

    Yes, I could turn off G+ on the domain. But then we would lose the hangout feature and hangouts is just too good to do that. Why Google couldn’t keep hangouts and chat features separate, at least for GAFE users, until they had a better way to integrate them, I don’t know. But there is nothing quite so fun as doing a training for staff and finding some with chat and some with hangouts and getting sucked into a conversation about circles.

    Personal groups is another area that causes issues. This time around it’s the same annoying thing with local groups not showing up on iOS mobile devices. In case Google isn’t aware, teachers make local groups for their classroom parents and use them throughout the year to communicate with. One would think local groups would sync to a user’s mobile device, since local contacts do. But sadly no. The alternative is to enable and show teachers how to use domain groups, which are a completely different animal. It would be nice if local contacts groups just synced.

    These little annoyances could lead to a “death by a thousand cuts” situation. Thankfully, the power of GAFE in the classroom and the flexibility of multi device support and cloud based storage for users continues to outweigh these issues. Google has been a leader in online collaborative spaces for many years but other people are trying to catch up and little things like these do start to add up over time.

    And then there is the fact that with every release and every iteration GAFE is getting a little bit more complicated. This is the nature of all software. Features equal reasons to keep paying. But I remember one of the main things I liked so much about GAFE circa 2007 was how simple it was compared to Microsoft Office.  Granted, Docs doesn’t crash anymore when 24 kids try to edit a document at the same time and sheets keeps getting more and more excel like but overall I’m starting to miss how easy GAFE was to use. With every UI iteration or G+ integration, GAFE seems to lose some of that easy use. And sadly, the little annoyances aren’t being fixed.

    Of course, my perspective may be a bit different. I’ve switched back and forth between Outlook and Gmail three times in the last three years and each time I’ve noticed the little things more and more. So, reflecting back on all of my migrations, is Google Apps for Education still the best messaging platform for schools and would I migrate a 5th time given the opportunity? Unequivocally the answer is yes. For all the annoyances and the continuous upgrades and UI changes, running a hosted platform with 21str Century collaboration and user control at it’s core function is key to building 21st Century learning environments and I would not trade that for all the column sort features in the world.

    At least until the next Docs comes along.

     

     

     

     
    • John Puglisi 12:48 pm on July 13, 2014 Permalink | Reply

      Nice article. I have been through it now twice and I concur with similar experiences. I think the key outcomes rest in the easy migration to collaborative work and documents and the fact that people leave behind a sense of being in technical silos of procedure and move to frames that are about working together and figuring things out when they arrive.. This has been my observation for offices, classrooms, teachers and students.

      JP

  • Andrew T Schwab 2:02 pm on July 12, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    Thoughts on Being a Google Certified Teacher (GCT) 

    I was recently sent a survey that prompted me to think about what the GCT program has meant to me and what it means to still be a GCT after having attended the Google Teacher Academy in Seattle WA back in 2011. I thought I would share the comments I submitted with the world (because that’s what blogs are for, right!). You will see from my comments that I have some concerns about where Google may be planning to take the GCT program in the future.

    The best thing about the GCT community to me was and continues to be the organic nature of the collaboration and evangelism. Trying to box that in, or assign requirements or metrics to being a GCT may be counter productive. The GET program already has that. In my experience GCTs use Google Apps and advocate for it because it works and instructionally it’s the best collaboration platform out there. What GCTs need is advanced heads up on UI changes, a direct line for feedback to developers and more support in the area of data privacy and protection when dealing with IT departments and community members.

    GCT to me has been great because it is a low key type of advocacy without a ton of demands on my time. GCTs for the most part are all full time something else’s, and loading requirements on folks for a label or badge, which is what other edtech evangelist programs tend to do, would make it much less appealing to me.

    Honestly, the GCT community has existed and thrived without much help from Google and I hope whatever changes come down the line don’t get in the way of that grass roots spirit of collaboration.

    Suffice it to say, I hope whatever changes are coming are not the beginning of the plusification of the GCT community or an attempt to qualify, quantify and metricise our collaboration and advocacy. I continue to support and assist districts that are going google because I believe in the product and the platform’s potential to positively impact teaching and learning. Not because I have a badge that labels me as a GCT. I’m guessing most of my colleagues have a similar feeling.

    All good things must come to an end. In this case, I hope the end is very far away.

     
  • Andrew T Schwab 10:52 am on May 26, 2014 Permalink | Reply  

    The Chromebook’s Achilles’ Heel 

    Chromebook Achilles Heal (1)

    Chromebooks are all the rage in education circles these days. I suspect it’s because of their low cost and minimal support requirements. Even traditional Windows and Apple shops are finding it hard to say no to them when faced with rapid demand for student mobile devices and a test friendly platform. Now that Asus and HP have announced Chromeboxes, I foresee a lot of obsolete labs being converted over to ChromeOS.

    Minecraft is also taking the education world by storm. MinecraftEDU offers a simple, teacher friendly entry into the realm of online collaborative gaming. With Minecraft camps popping up all over, K12 IT folks had best be taking note because, guess what, Chromebooks won’t run Minecraft. That’s right, the low cost solution to K12 student devices and online testing that’s in favor at the moment won’t run one of the most interactive and engaging collaborative environments to come along for education, ever. Don’t believe that Minecraft is for learning? Watch this interview with John Miller and find out why you’re missing the boat. Minecraft ties into the bigger maker movement and education’s renewed focus on STEM and STEAM. And kids like playing it.

    From all accounts, it doesn’t seem like MinecraftEDU, with it’s Java based, 3D Graphics environment will be coming to chromebooks anytime soon, so that leaves few options. We can go back to running Windows clients, with all the overhead associated with that choice. We can pay the Apple hardware premium to run OS X, and run Minecraft in a few select locations (those old labs). Or we can choose the middle path and run Ubermix to get the best of all worlds. Ease of deployment and support, fast boot times, no virus worries, Java and Flash included, the Chrome Browser and thousands of free education apps baked right in. Guess which one I’m leaning towards? Assuming I can convince people #ubermix is awesome that is.

     

    Arrow PNG file source: http://www.clker.com/cliparts/s/r/c/B/m/h/arrow-hi.png

     
    • Kristen Walker 4:22 pm on June 2, 2014 Permalink | Reply

      Great read and very timely for me. I helped host the CUERockStar Express in Santa Barbara this weekend and sat in Chris Scott’s Minecraft presentation. I also held a little Ubermix install fest using a Dell Laptop during the lunch. I am going to try installing Ubermix on all the old hardware I can get my hands on (Mac and PC) and see how it goes. I think this is a great option, especially now that SBAC is going to be making a lot of demands for more hardware on school sites and most schools have old hardware coming out of their ears that could be re-purposed with the help of an Ubermix install.

    • Lindsay 7:43 am on July 10, 2014 Permalink | Reply

      Very interesting article. I am looking at using Minecraft in my classroom for learning and engagement. These are great resources for justification of use and implementation. The school district I work in is very big on chrome books. They bought chrome book labs for whole school use when the computer labs are not available. It is interesting to see what advantages and disadvantages these computers have. My computer labs have PC’s so it is possible to implement Minecraft in my teaching. However, the problem will be the red tape and IT resistance to installing and using something new such as Ubermix. You did peak my interest and give me some great resources to look into.

    • Microsoft Hosted Exchange Dubai 12:09 am on July 11, 2014 Permalink | Reply

      Thanks for the post and I really was looking for an article on this. Thanks again.

  • Andrew T Schwab 9:30 am on May 19, 2014 Permalink | Reply  

    School WiFi Is Hard 

    Eleven years ago, school networking was all about putting hardwired data drops into classrooms. That was then, this is now. Hardwired cabling is still important, but today, a school without wireless (or WiFi) is seriously living in the dark ages. The rapid explosion of mobile internet devices has pushed wifi to center stage of the education conversation. Not having WiFi is like not having power, it’s a necessity not a luxury.

    But wifi is more complicated than running cables to a spot on the wall. There are a billion (ok, maybe a few less) variables that come into play when trying to send high speed data over the air. The wifi in schools uses unlicensed radio waves (spectrum) to send data and that means there can be interference from all kinds of sources. Ever walked onto an elementary school campus and tried to connect to a wifi network? Chances are you’ll see a few dozen networks to choose from, most of which are coming from the houses surrounding the school. All those networks are in competition for the same limited radio space.

    The walls in the buildings matter too. Depending on when a school was built, the walls could be cinder block, concrete or stick framed. Each presents potential signal loss for wifi. Wifi vendors will say their Access Points (APs) perform better than others when faced with these different materials, but if you plan for an AP per classroom, that doesn’t matter so much. Schools trying to cover multiple classrooms with a single AP may want to pay closer attention to those features.

    Additionally, school network folks tend to over think wireless network security making connecting to the network a multi-step process with many points of failure. With the move to cloud based and hosted services, the vast majority of users on a school campus should only need Internet access. Most of the educational programs available today come as hosted services and any district that still hosts it’s own exchange server is just plain silly.

    Wifi as easy as Starbucks.

    People have crazy expectations when it comes to wifi. These expectations are built on their experience connecting to networks outside of school. Starbucks makes wifi access easy, but how? Well, Starbucks supports maybe three dozen people connected simultaneously per store at any given time. They have a confined space with known wireless properties. They have no network security because all they are doing is putting people directly onto the Internet. They have enough bandwidth for their users (and probably throttle to protect everyone’s experience). They let anyone who comes into their stores onto the network.

    So what can schools learn from Starbucks?

    • Treat each classroom like a Starbucks store. Have one AP per classroom. At least.
    • Provide Internet Access to everyone.
    • Lose the complex logins and certificates. Authenticate users to your private network if you must, or better yet, make your private network unnecessary for instructional needs.
    • Set limits on bandwidth to protect everyone’s experience.

    Wireless Vendors

    Which one should I buy? This is a question I hear often. The answer for me comes down to three main criteria. First, the wifi system must be easy to manage. I put this first because wireless network demands continue to grow in schools. Most schools don’t have the luxury of employing dedicated wireless network engineering staff. If I can’t figure out how to add an SSID, set it as a guest network with splash screen authentication, set a bandwidth limit and push it out to a school campus in less than 10 minutes, the system is just too complicated.

    Second, the system has to do what I need it to do. It just has to work. This may seem like a “no duh” statement, but I’ve been in situations where, for whatever reason, the wireless system just couldn’t meet the needs, at least not without complex configuration or added licenses and that’s a recipe for disaster. If the system requires constant tweaking or firmware updates to get things right, or it’s so complex and bogged down with features you’ll never use, then it’s a support time suck and it’s a problem. Wireless systems fall along a spectrum. Beware the overly complex wireless systems that require outside vendors to install, configure and make work day to day as well as the too simple, Small Business type solutions that can’t scale.

    Finally, the system must be affordable. Affordability is important because chances are you’ll be replacing (or upgrading) your wireless system every three to five years. Crazy, I know but the technology changes fast, and keeping up with faster and denser device environments is a must. So affordable Access Points, licenses and preferably no on premise controllers to replace is critical to being able to keep up.

    What Wireless Solution Should I Buy?

    Let me answer that one with some lessons learned. When going 1:1 iPads at Le Grand Union High School District back in 2011, I knew Wifi was going to be important (right?). Having recently upgraded to a controller based, managed HP wifi solution from a stand alone Cisco solution (we had campus wide Wifi back in 2004!) I new I was not going to be able to do what we needed to do with our then two year old HP system. Luckily I visited a school that had Ruckus, was supporting 1:1 on a daily basis and was super happy with it. So, I ripped out our nearly new HP APs and controller and replaced them with Ruckus gear. Easy to manage, easy to setup isolated guest SSIDs, easy to configure APs and APs that rocked when it came to supporting high numbers of active clients. It was the best decision I ever made and the Ruckus APs served us well, despite the fact that we didn’t have enough of them.

    Fast forward to my last district where I once again knew Wifi was going to be important and our controller based Cisco solution with 1 AP per 3-4 classrooms just wasn’t going to cut it, so I went looking for wireless. I wasn’t looking hard though, because I knew Ruckus would do what we needed and more. However, I heard rumblings of another solution, Meraki, which promised even easier to manage APs (how could that be?) and integrated Mobile Device Management (MDM). I resisted because I knew we’d only be able to get to an AP density of one AP for every 2-3 classrooms (it was a budget thing) and I was leery of AP performance with Meraki. Well, after seeing the Meraki UI, network visibility tools and integrated MDM, I really wanted to like it but I was still concerned about AP performance.  A fellow district did extensive head to head real world classroom testing and found in classroom performance between Meraki and Ruckus to be similar. So I jumped in with Meraki. The cloud based controller made it one of the easiest district wide deployments ever. The classroom testing results were replicated in daily use with excellent active client density support and ease of management. The one place Meraki fell down a bit was in their AP coverage. One AP per 2-3 classrooms was not enough.

    Now I find myself in an Aerohive district. When I got here, the system didn’t work. We brought in Aerohive engineers to try and make it work. But still, it had problems. Ready to ditch it completely, I talked to a district that had it and was happy and had to scratch my head at that one. So I took a chance, upgraded several of our 3 year old APs to the current gen (same model in use at the other district) and most of our issues disappeared. Where Merkaki is on the borderline of being too simple and Ruckus, while simple to manage, still requires a controller, Aerohive is an interesting hybrid. Not bound by a controller but with more enterprise options than either Ruckus or Meraki, it’s almost too complicated. It requires admin classes to really manage well, which means it’s more like Cisco than I would like. But I’m told a GUI for dummies is coming (just what I need) and the new APs seem to be on par with my experience with Meraki. Prices will vary, but in my experience, Aerohive is more expensive than either Meraki or Ruckus making it not as affordable as I would like.

    What Would I Buy Now?

    The honest answer is, I don’t know. I don’t think it would be Aerohive. The complexity and cost don’t make it a great option for small school IT departments. I really miss the UI, ease of use, and visibility of Meraki, as well as the integrated (and free!) MDM features. But in limited AP deployments, I find myself wishing for Ruckus APs. And what I want most of all is tight integration with Google Apps accounts and seamless passthrough of user credentials to my Web Filter. Maintaining different SSIDs, subnets and VLANs is a pain. I’d rather just capture a user’s Google Apps login one time and be done with it.

    If only Google would buy Aerohive or Ruckus and Securly and integrate them all into GAFE, I’d be a happy camper.

    A note on cabling. At my last district, in order to double the number of APs per classroom without having the time or budget to pull new cable to every AP location, we opted to back pull existing classroom network drops. This proved to be fast, less expensive and ultimately a better use of existing classroom cable. For those schools that modernized and put 12 drops in each classroom, it might make sense. My current district modernized and put dual channel raceway in, but skimped on the number of drops per classroom (1 per faceplate, 1!) so back pulling is a bit more tricky, but still fast and easy.

    How are you making wifi easy for your schools?

     
    • Jody 7:20 am on May 20, 2014 Permalink | Reply

      Great article! Exchange server?? What exactly do you mean by this…
      Additionally, school network folks tend to over think wireless network security making connecting to the network a multi-step process with many points of failure. With the move to cloud based and hosted services, the vast majority of users on a school campus should only need Internet access. Most of the educational programs available today come as hosted services and any district that still hosts it’s own exchange server is just plain silly.
      I work at an elementary school.
      Thanks,
      ~Jody

  • Andrew T Schwab 12:08 pm on May 3, 2014 Permalink | Reply  

    There Are No Ads (And There Is No Spoon) 

    There has been a lot written lately about Google “mining” student data in the free for education Google Apps suite of online tools. I’ve watched the conversation evolve from a desperate attempt by Microsoft to remain relevant to seeing passionate educators accused of bringing the Google “stranger” into their classrooms for money.

    I must admit that as a Google Certified Teacher and user of Google Apps For Education (GAFE) since 2007, I have found this all very disturbing. Having witnessed the power of Google Apps to transform learning with realtime and asynchronous collaboration, in a platform neutral, device agnostic suite of online tools, and all for Free, well, needless to say I’ve been a huge fan and advocate for many years. And for most of those years, my response to the inevitable questions about student data and privacy relied on the Google Apps For Education Agreement (does anyone have a link to it?), which clearly stated our Data was our own and that we could disable Ads in GAFE domains, as well as what Google Apps for Education people said that Google did and didn’t do with our data.

    Google isn’t supposed to be Evil, right? and with California school budgets free falling just as demand for more technology in the classrooms started to accelerate, Free alternatives to Microsoft’s Office and Outlook products were hard to pass up, especially when the possibilities for learning were taken into account. It’s really not surprising to find more and more district going Google. In fact, I would wager that the primary reason a district hasn’t gone Google at this point is an IT department firmly entrenched in the Microsoft way and looking for any reason to keep running big iron in their data centers. But I digress.

    When this article came out, which is admittedly written by a Microsoft funded think tank, it was surprising for the one truth it does include, that Google was (was) running GAFE data through it’s “data mining” Ad scanning algorithms even if a district had Ads turned off in their Domain. Many people jumped on this, saying Google was tracking students and building profiles to use for serving them Ads, perhaps at some future date, when they grow up and get real Gmail accounts.

    Knowing how systems work, more likely Google was doing this because that’s how the backend was setup and because they had originally given schools the option to turn Ads on for their GAFE domains (and presumably share in the revenue). If you remember the early days of GAFE, Google had a hard time breaking out GAFE features from regular gmail features. This was also around the time that California School Districts were talking about selling ad space on the sides of busses and on their web sites to try and offset declining revenue from the state.

    Still, the above article caused me to re-evaluate Google’s stance on student data and my belief in GAFE as the most relevant 21st Century learning platform for education. As a CUE Board member and a district technology leader, I’ve been in discussions about what this revelation means for schools and districts. For several weeks, I wondered why, if Google wasn’t serving Ads to GAFE domains, they simply didn’t stop running GAFE data through Ad scanning. That would seem to be the right thing to do and honestly it would be more in line with what the education community was initially led to believe was happening on the backend anyway.

    Well this week, Google did just that. In a blog post they announced that they have:

    …permanently removed all ads scanning in Gmail for Apps for Education, which means Google cannot collect or use student data in Apps for Education services for advertising purposes.

    Noads

    Image Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1a/Noads.png

    All I can say is it’s about time. Forget that these accounts don’t stay with students after they leave the district. Forget that these accounts are for educational uses and that the district owns the data. Forget that parental consent for students to use GAFE accounts is generally required by Law. Forget that scanning for Ads has only one purpose, to serve Ads that you might actually want to see and click on (Why did I get an ad for math homework help? Talk about a teachable moment!). Google, for all it’s miss steps in handling the situation, in the end, did the right thing. Can the same be said for the limitless number of iPad apps out there, currently enjoying a wild west of data collection and in use in schools across the country? But I’ll save that for another post. On to the Spoon!

    Spoon boy: Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead… only try to realize the truth.

    Neo: What truth?

    Spoon boy: There is no spoon.

    Neo: There is no spoon?

    Spoon boy: Then you’ll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.

    From: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0133093/quotes

    Ad scanning in GAFE  is no more, but data mining is all around us. The world is becoming ever more connected and our lives are becoming ever more integrated with online services. We must teach our students how to bend and not to break, to realize the truth about the online world, their data and their responsibility in this new reality. Laws will never keep up with technology, the age of privacy is past, there is no spoon.

    Don’t believe me? Just ask your ISP what they know about you.

     
    • Anonymous 12:17 pm on May 3, 2014 Permalink | Reply

      Insight into the murky world of data mining and its ubiquity – read Dragnet Nation. GAFE is the least of our worries!

  • Andrew T Schwab 9:30 am on April 14, 2014 Permalink | Reply  

    Your Structured Cable Matters More Than You Know 

    Warning! Boring technical post follows. Read at your own risk.

    I recently contracted with two low voltage (ie. data cabling) contractors to do some cable plant improvements at my school district. I had two goals. First, I wanted to beef up our wireless for the upcoming SBAC testing and rather than pull new cable, I opted to back-pull an existing data drop and have it re-terminated in the ceiling for an Access Point. Lets be real here, wired workstations are on the way out and one data cable connected to a wireless Access Point can support 30+ wireless clients versus one wired desktop (mini-switches not withstanding). Back pulling is faster and cheaper than pulling new cable, especially if your existing pathways are full.

    Pro Tip #1 – When building new construction (or modernizing existing), make sure you spec big enough conduit and straight pathways for future data cabling growth. Nothing sucks more than opening a ceiling tile on a newer building and finding the 2″ conduit packed full of cable and realizing there are a dozen 45 degree turns in a run down a straight wing of classrooms.

    My second goal was focused on outfitting two Project Lead The Way (PLTW) classrooms with dual overhead projectors and AppleTVs. Each classroom had two interactive Eno Boards (before my time so I will skip my IWB rant) and the teachers and students were trying to use them with projectors on carts. You can imagine the shadow puppet possibilities.

    A big constraint on this project was time. I wanted to accomplish all this during our spring break. The PLTW classroom project was the trickiest, having to coordinate with Electrical work and Audio/Video installation. The Access Point back pulls were less time critical. For reasons beyond this post, I decided to use two cabling contractors. Contractor#1 I had worked with before and I new to provide quality work. I had them do the PLTW classrooms. Contractor#2 I had not worked with before but they came recommended by our Wireless Access Point manufacturer, so I decided to give them a try and had them back pull and install the APs.

    Pro Tip #2 – The quality of your cabling depends greatly on the onsite project Lead. It doesn’t matter how good a prior reference is, if the project Lead is different from the reference, your experience could be like a box of chocolates.

    I’m not new to structured cabling. I learned how to make and test cat5e cables in college (yes, college) and I’ve designed and managed the complete rewiring of several campuses over the years. I’ve also upgraded cable plants in some seriously old buildings so I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly of cabling. In every instance I’m looking for several things that point to quality cabling installation. I know, most people don’t think of cabling as being “installed”. They just see jacks and think they can plug in and go. Not quite.

    Quick signs of a good install for your cable plant:

    • Labels. If the port labels don’t match the wall plate labels, your installer wasn’t paying attention to detail.
    • Proper wall and ceiling penetrations. You should see sleeves (conduit) and preferably you should see some open space in the conduit. Full conduit is a possible sign that the last few cables pulled through it were pulled a bit too hard.
    • Cable bundles are secured and the cables are straight and well dressed. I once saw a brand new install with easily a hundred cables bundled and zip tied together and not a straight cable in the bunch. It looked like someone had tried to tie wrap spaghetti. Your cable runs should look like one big cable, all running parallel to one another. Not spaghetti.
    • Support. Cable runs need to be properly supported. You should see J-hooks, cable trays or conduit supporting your cable as it is run through the buildings.
    • No sharp bends. You should see nice curved radius corners.
    • No zip ties digging into cables.
    • No unsupported cables hanging in the back of the IDF cabinets. Unsupported cables can work lose from the jack and cause issues down the road. Gravity!

    Why does all this matter. Cat5/6 is what they call UTP or Unshielded Twisted Pair. Each cable is made up of 4 pairs. The twist of the pairs in the cable is what prevents signal cross talk and ensures the rated speed and performance of the cable. When you pull on the cable or step on it or bend it, you mess with the twists in the pairs and this can lead to performance issues. Installers have to follow specific guidelines during installation to ensure they don’t damage the cable’s integrity while they are pulling, wrapping and bending the cable through the building. It’s also why quality installers will test every cable they run with a high end tester to ensure it meets performance specs when they are done. So, next time you step on a network patch cable, think about the twists you’re damaging in the process.

    Pro Tip #3 – Write cable testing into your RFP and have them provide a report on all cable testing. You’ll want it for the warranty.

    Back to my tale of two cable installers. Contractor#1 took their time and did things right. They tested every cable and ask when they had questions, suggesting solutions that met my needs and did not necessarily make things easier for them. The lead on the project was very detail oriented and customer focused. They ran into obstacles but never blamed my existing cabling or pathways (although they could have) and got the job done with little supervision from me or my team required. I am confident that when I plug in a device to the ports they ran, they will work (or my device is bad).

    Contractor#2 started off on a Sunday with minimal supervision. By the end of Monday it became clear that we had been sent the C team. Questions were not being asked and the solutions chosen were easy for the installers but did not solve our issues. Some of the issues that came up:

    • Back pulling the shortest cable in the room to avoid having to pop the raceway off and un tape the cable.
    • Mounting APs vertically on the wall instead of horizontally on the surface so they wouldn’t have to get into the soffits.
    • Running cable next to fluorescent light fixtures (never, ever run your cable anywhere near fluorescent lights and always cross power at 90 degrees. Never run parallel to power. Even twists in the pairs can’t protect against that kind of interference)
    • No consistency in AP orientation from site to site.
    • APs not being mounted on T-Bar in drop ceiling rooms because of “weight concerns”.
    • Repeatedly being told our current cable infrastructure was crap, which it may well be but we walked the job, they shouldn’t be using that as an excuse for doing crap work.
    • It went on and on.

    Pro Tip #4 – Be as specific as possible in what you want and how you want things done and then check in on a new lead often to make sure they are doing what you want. Problems caught early can be fixed early and ensure they don’t continue to be repeated. If they won’t listen to you or give you BS reasons why they can’t do it, escalate immediately.

    After some high level intervention and a second crew being dispatched, contractor#2′s lead appeared to be back on tack but I had to dedicate time and resources for oversight every day because I no longer trusted him to do the work the right way. Worse, the schedule was thrown off due to backtracking to sites to fix prior work and my team was distracted from their primary goal of upgrading four sites to VoIP (busy week).

    I spent some time with contractor#2′s Lead on Saturday watching him work. I discovered that the only cable testing he had been doing was plugging in an un-configured Access Point to an un-configured switch. So we know the power pair works but who knows about the data pairs. I guess we’ll see when we go to turn up the APs. I also found out that they had not been redressing the back pulled cables in the IDFs. (we had them terminate the back pulled cables into new patch panels, eliminating potential finger pointing at our old panels when it comes time to light them up). This is something that isn’t visible unless you are looking for it and it left the cables under strain (remember gravity!).

    Bottom line is I now have to task one of my people with checking everything contractor#2 touched so we can generate a punch list for them to come back and fix. I suspect it will be extensive. With contractor#1, I’ll do a spot check here and there but I’m confident we’re good to go. Of course on the first job that Lead did for me I checked everything, but now that I know he does good work, I don’t need to be as concerned.

    Pro Tip #5 – Walk your campuses and look at the cable. You should know pretty quick what condition it is in and where you can expect issues. Address them before you buy new equipment or deploy new network services like VoIP or you will wish you had.

    Why does all this matter? Well, I’ve walked into many situations where cabling is an after thought. Where it is obvious the lowest bidder or Joe Bob and his cousin have wired a school. In those situations, I know there can’t be reliable network service without constant firefighting by the IT department, which is always a losing battle. I’ve seen districts buy brand new networking equipment and plug it into total crap cable plants and expect performance, reliability and stability to improve. Ain’t going to happen. Your cable plant, structured cable, the wires in the wall, are THE MOST IMPORTANT THING in your network. Cable is the foundation upon which all else it built. Don’t skimp on the cable or the contractors and most importantly know what good cable looks like.

    Got any cable horror stories? Id’ love to hear them.

     

     
    • Urko Masse 6:34 pm on April 14, 2014 Permalink | Reply

      Great post!
      Lots of small tips to build a checklist for any cabling work that you may need to get done in the future.
      Thanks!

  • Andrew T Schwab 8:30 am on April 7, 2014 Permalink | Reply  

    Why 1:1 Isn’t Optional 

    Recently I had the pleasure of listening to a 3rd grade teacher who implemented 1:1 in November talk about how her class and her student’s have been transformed by student access to technology and the Internet in just a few months time. Awesome.

    http://rebootedpodcast.com/2014/04/06/episode-40-11-is-awesome/

     
  • Andrew T Schwab 9:00 am on March 8, 2014 Permalink | Reply  

    A Proven EdTech Recipe For K12 Success 

    Building a sound computing environment that provides “enterprise class” services for schools on a California budget isn’t rocket science. It involves making smart choices and focusing on what’s important.

    IMG_0730

    1. Plant some cable. It’s the foundation for everything. Crap cable equals a crap network.
    2. Wifi like starbucks. Instant on and connected to the web. Buy the features you need, and honestly, you don’t need that many. Less is more in school wifi (except when it comes to APs in the classroom). You need easy guest access, preferably with all IP/DHCP/Nat services handled by the wireless system and you definitely need per SSID bandwidth throttling. It should be super easy to enable these features and everything should just work. Meraki was the easiest wifi I have ever setup and it had the best management UI, period. Ruckus had the best APs I’ve ever used. I wish they would marry and have a kid. Beyond that, I’ve been less than impressed with any other wireless solution on the market.
    3. Go Google. Google Apps for Education. It’s a no brainer and the only reason not to do it is because your IT Department loves Microsoft (or hates Google) and thinks Office365 is a viable alternative for teaching and learning (um, nope).
    4. Web Filter less. Less is more. CIPA does not require that we filter twitter or YouTube. So why get fancy with expensive solutions. Go simple. Untangle worked for me for many years both as a web filter and a firewall. I even ran the free version for a few years. That’s right. Free.
    5. BIG Baby Iron. Virtualize and reduce those big noisy expensive servers. Go Open Source if practical, Hyper-V if not and VMWare with VCenter as a last resort (It’s expensive). I’m still trying for a Zero Server Server Room design but keep getting stuck with Active Directory (AD) servers everywhere.
    6. Store it somewhere cheap. Cloud is preferable but those virtual servers still need on premise storage. Local is easy. Nimble Storage is easy too, and fast. And big. And did I say easy to setup? I don’t usually design for a SAN but when I do, I use Nimble. A FreeNAS box works too. Especially as a cheap iSCSI backup target.
    7. MacBooks for teachers. Because. No, really. Because. Teachers are highly educated creative professionals. They can (and should) manage their own updates and applications and because MacBooks just work even when everyone is a local admin.
    8. iPads too. Yes. For teachers. With a tablet stand. And a mounted projector or big LED TV. And an AppleTV. Hardwired to the network. Because it works and it’s magical. Special training not required (in most cases).
    9. Chromebooks for kids (or ubermix if you can pull it off). Because. Because again they just work (sense a theme yet?). They can be supported at scale and they get kids connected.
    10. iPads too. Yep. iPads. Because they’re iPads. Have you seen all the apps? Just don’t go iPad crazy. They’re still harder to support than a chromebook.
    11. BYOD. For everyone. Why not? Build the network and they will come. (Don’t forget to get more bandwidth and really big subnets before you open things up to the world).
    12. Ditch the NAC. Access trumps security and control is an illusion. We’re schools, not banks. Complexity is not our friend. Inform, train and trust users and they will do what is right the majority of the time. Help the ones that don’t.

    This way lies reliable, scalable access for learning. Don’t buy the biggest or the best at the expense of kids. Not when every dollar spent on “enterprise class” is a dollar less to spend on devices for kids. And reliable access doesn’t require “enterprise class” just “enterprise enough”. Unless you’re LAUSD or SFUSD. Then you’re pretty much out of luck. No matter your environment, focus on what’s important and make smart choices. Everyone will thank you for it.

    IMG_0582

    Photo credit: @johnschuster

    Oh yeah. I almost forgot PD. Don’t forget PD. Lots of PD. Just in time PD. Individualized PD. PLN PD. Training Days PD. All kinds of PD. Lots and lots of PD. Don’t forget PD.

    What else did I forget?

     
    • Bob Henderson 4:05 pm on March 8, 2014 Permalink | Reply

      I’d throw in a few options in there:

      4. Untangle works great, been using for 5 years now. Just convince people to stop trying to filter 1:1′s offsite and maybe teach students how to act instead..

      5. I’m a fan of Refurb Iron. Every server I have in deployment was 3+ years old before I even touched it, and obtained for at least 1/3 of the cost of new. Proxmox works great, currently running 4 clusters at various sites.

      6. Never had luck with Freenas, but am a huge fan of OmniOS+Napp-IT. ZFS is a game changer, and performance comparable to that Nimble box is in the ball park with the right setup.

      9. Unless your state decides that the mandatory testing software only runs on Windows/Mac, and won’t support it in an RDP session…

    • Brian Bridges 8:06 am on March 14, 2014 Permalink | Reply

      Brilliant!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Mr. Caplan 2:26 pm on April 21, 2014 Permalink | Reply

      Big fan of this article and its philosophy. There are different kinds of ‘easy’ and to create a good one usually takes a lot of hard work!

    • Brian Turner 12:50 pm on May 5, 2014 Permalink | Reply

      In addition to PD, i would add support. Tech integrators if possible to support the efforts in the classroom. Help desk personnel or students to help students and teachers. PD for your help desk personnel. PD for your network and server admins.

  • Andrew T Schwab 3:42 pm on January 26, 2014 Permalink | Reply  

    I Have A Playdate #playdate14 

    Define:Playdate

    On February 15th 2014, I’m going on a play date. No, my Mom didn’t set it up for me. It’s better than that. I got together with some fellow awesome educators and organized it. This is my first time organizing an event, so luckily the other folks on the organizing team have experience with this kind of thing and we’re on track for a fun day of play (just three weeks away!).

    This play date is for educators. Educators that want to play with edTech tools to be precise. It’s a time to get together and figure out how to use cool tools (to PLAY!) with cool people that want to learn too. Playdate sprang from the minds of these awesome educators just last year and they are at it again this year with Playdate Chicago.

    We’re hosting ours closer to home. If you want to learn more about what a playdate is, check out Karl’s blog post and Hangout. If you want a day of No presenters. No agendas. Just playing, sign up for Playdate San Jose today!

    Hope to see you there.

     
  • Andrew T Schwab 10:39 am on January 26, 2014 Permalink | Reply  

    VDI: The Old Frontier 

    This is the final part of the VDI Saga I’ve been writing about on and off for the past several months. To catch you up, two years ago, I inherited a 1000 seat VDI infrastructure build in 2009 that wasn’t performing. The situation was a result of a trifecta of poor design, old (and slow) technology and VDI Sprawl. My solution was simple, pair down the active VDI desktops to a number the existing infrastructure could handle, leaving only student classroom and lab computers on the old system and then phase out VDI completely over time in favor of mobile devices for students.

    In the last installment, I explained how we moved all our student VDI desktops onto a Nimble storage array which allowed us to limp along through the end of the school year. Over summer we made several changes. We setup a VMWare 5.1 instance using the appliance based VCenter server and migrated all district servers not associated with running View into the 5.1 stack. At the same time, we also moved these servers onto the Nimble Array. We doubled the amount of CPU and RAM in the View Database server. We increased C drive space on teacher desktops by 2GB (from 8GB to 10GB) and doubled the persistent D drive to 4GB, buying us some time until we could migrate them off the system and on to MacBooks. Then, with all student Virtual Desktops and district servers running on the Nimble, we fired the system back up.

    Separating out the servers from the view desktops eliminated the problem of the View slow downs affecting the production servers. The Nimble took the load of both Servers and student VDI desktops well, although we were seeing CPU utilization on the array spike at 120%. However, we did not experience any negative performance that we could detect. Teacher desktops continued to run out of space and the old SAN continued to exhibit slow downs but overall the system was much more stable than it ever had been. With Windows XP running out of time, our Blade servers criminally low on memory and the Nimble array maxed to CPU capacity, getting Teachers off of the system was the next logical step to phasing out VDI. In December, that happened with the epic handout of 350 MacBook Pros to certificated staff throughout the district.

    Looking forward, as more Chromebooks and iPads come on line, phasing out student Virtual Desktops will continue. Eventually all the backend VDI hardware, now going on five years old, will be shutdown and the legacy of VDI will be over. At least that was my plan. The new Director might have a different vision.

    For me, I look at VDI as a cost neutral (at best) solution to a standardized office computing platform problem. For bank tellers where security and conformity are critical, it makes sense. For learning environments, particularly schools, not so much. VDI has a lot of moving parts on the back end. Unlike Bank IT departments, School district IT departments are generally understaffed. As a result, skills tend to be a mile wide and an inch deep. The many specialized skills (Database, SAN, Networking, VDI software stack) required to keep VDI humming along are usually in short supply. On top of that, fixed computers with one sized fits all desktops are not conducive to 21st Century Learning. Computers in classrooms need to be mobile, they need to follow the kids and they need to be adaptable, able to run what they need when they need it. VDI is a business solution to the student access problem. 1:1 mobile devices are an education solution to that same problem.

    Locked down, one size fits all environments conspire to restrict users. Open platforms encourage users to experiment and learn. In education, we should be building open platforms for our classrooms and empowering users to make their learning experience with technology their own. But the IT part of me things a nice simple VDI in a box solution (with a nice fast Nimble Array) for the Office staff might actually be a good thing. What do you think?

     
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