Raising the Bar for Technology Services in Schools

I’m in the middle of a nightmare scenario with our current wireless access point provider at the moment. Our 8-month old Aerohive AP230 access points randomly freeze up after 30 days and stop passing traffic until we reboot them. It’s a particularly insidious bug that has disrupted classrooms and consumed a significant amount of my team’s time, first in troubleshooting and convincing Aerohive there was a problem with the AP230s and mitigating the effects on our teachers and students. We’ve resorted to manually rebooting all of our 235 AP230s weekly as a preventative measure to get through online testing. Unfortunately, it turns out Aerohive doesn’t have a reliable way to schedule an AP reboot.

All of this got me thinking, with the move to online state assessments, good enough isn’t good enough anymore. I came from the private sector where I was responsible for IT in a 24x7x365 production facility. In that high stakes environment, if things didn’t work at 3am on a Saturday, millions of dollars ran down the drain. I spent a few 3ams troubleshooting failures and many more hours designing potential failure points out of our systems. Then I went to work for a school district. Nobody called or emailed on weekends and when the Internet stopped working I was the only one that noticed. It was night and day.

Not so anymore. Now the first people to notice technology problems are classroom teachers. When the wireless is down in a classroom, we know right away because the teacher calls us immediately. If the Internet is slow at a school site, we get three or four calls or emails in rapid succession. In fact, we have become so dependent on the Internet for our day to day operations, both in our offices and our classrooms, it’s starting to feel a lot more like that 24x7x365 environment.

I’m having to dust off some old ways of thinking that I wouldn’t have applied to K12 just a few years ago. Like just how redundant is our Internet connection and where are the major points of failure in our network and what is the backup plan if we get a bad batch of Access Points? The new one that I’m thinking about now is, if all of our stuff is in the cloud, what does a day without access to our stuff cost us? These are scary questions to ask in a school district, because right now, the truth of the matter is very few of our systems are redundant. Our network is built on point to point fiber connecting single core switches running through one firewall out to our County Office of Education. The County Office has some redundancy and they are looking at ways to provide more, but that doesn’t do much to address the LAN side of the equation.

All of our email and increasingly our documents are in the cloud. Student learning is happening in the cloud. Teacher resources are in the cloud. K12 IT Departments are going to have to evolve to take on the new demands of providing services in 21st Century learning organizations. As much as I would like to think we can offload complexity to the cloud with services like JIVE, Meraki, Securly and hosted solutions from our County Office of Ed, each of those represents a significant relationship and requires a high degree of trust.

We are highly exposed and incredibly reliant on our service providers and vendors like never before. My experience with JIVE last year was a pre-cursor to our current crisis. We rely on these outside vendors to provide the best possible quality products, services and support with at least some understanding of what it means in a classroom environment, what it means to teacher confidence and student learning, when their technology doesn’t work. I don’t know that the education sector technology providers are necessarily used to school districts demanding industry class uptime or support. I don’t think we complained all that loudly if things didn’t work in the past. Well, those days are surely over. Online assessments are here and the cloud is the operating system for our organizations.

Time to put on the big boy pants.