from Technology & Learning
10 TIPS for Internet Tips
It isn't always easy to find the balance between protecting students from Internet dangers and distractions and reaping its benefits—but it's certainly on every district's tech priority list.
Sharnell Jackson, chief e-learning officer for the 415,000-student Chicago Public Schools, and Miguel Guhlin, director of instructional technology services for the 55,000-student San Antonio Independent School District in Texas, give their suggestions on how to achieve this.
1. Get technological safeguards in place.
First make sure to have adequate Web encryption. Chicago standardized its wireless access points using Cisco Aironet 1200. Adequate filtering is built into the system, Jackson says. Filter content at local and core routers. Chicago use Virex 7 software for Macs and Trend MicroOfficeScan 7.3 for PCs. Set up online request forms for opening and blocking sites.
2. Put together a cyberspace safety curriculum for parents.
San Antonio is working on a series of lessons and presentations that teachers and staff can deliver to parents. The 10–20 minute video clips will be available to parents in a variety of ways—on the Internet, on CDs, and in face-to-face meetings, Guhlin says.
3. Take advantage of already available Internet-safety education programs.
Chicago uses iSAFE for teacher, student, and parent Internet awareness and safety education. The nonprofit foundation, which is endorsed by Congress, is designed to protect children from dangerous, inappropriate, and unlawful online activities. According to the organization's Web site, Internet safety is tied more to community awareness than software filters. Its programs include K–12 curriculum and outreach to schools, parents, and law enforcement. The most powerful parts of the program, Jackson says, are iSAFE videos, which show what can happen when students let their guard down and start communicating with people they don't know. Right now, iSAFE is not required in all Chicago schools, but Jackson thinks it should be.
4. Have an acceptable-use policy for all employees as well as students.
Chicago's Internet use policy is written into the discipline code. Consequences for violations are spelled out. The code states that students who download "non-educational" sites, for example, can have their network privileges suspended for five to 10 days. Inappropriate sites include, but aren't limited to, pornography and games.
For repeated violations of the district's computer use policy, students can have privileges suspended for up to a semester. They're also subject to other standard disciplinary consequences, including parent-teacher conferences, detention, and suspension.
5. Put an "early-warning system" into effect.
It's public information when a student or employee accesses an inappropriate site in Chicago—a siren, similar to a natural disaster warning, sounds. The noise, audible to everyone nearby, keeps going until the site is shut down. And while students can disable the siren, an administrator also receives e-mail notification whenever inappropriate site access happens.
Along with the siren and the e-mail, a notice announcing that an inappropriate site has been accessed appears on the user's screen. Inappropriate sites include pornographic and social networking sites, such as MySpace, and YouTube, Jackson says.
6. Encourage teachers to become a part of the virtual world.
According to Guhlin, Internet safety revolves around "how to be 'digital citizens' and get along in the virtual world we have all created." Districts need to help teachers get over their fear of the unknown. San Antonio, for example, successfully introduced teachers to blogging by holding teacher workshops and setting up a Web site (www.itls.saisd.net/scribe), where students and teachers can share their work.
7. Use the Internet inside a "walled garden."
San Antonio has blogs, wikis, podcasting, and image-gallery access for its students and teachers. However, those Internet tools are on school servers. Instead of teachers using a site like blogspot.com, where the next blog is just a click away, San Antonio installed b2evolution, a free blogging platform that they can use.
8. A picture is worth a thousand words. Include an image library in your "walled garden."
As with blogs, make sure you have some say over the content. For example, instead of Flickr, which provides easy access to inappropriate images, San Antonio uses Gallery, a free open-source image library that allows the district more control.
9. Create a repository for information about what works.
San Antonio has it all in one place. Districts can learn about how to set up their own safe cyberspace communities at http://mguhlin.wikispaces.com/.
10. When it comes to social-networking sites like MySpace, educators should encourage the critical element: parental involvement.
Ultimately, tech-savvy students can find ways to get around any filters at home or school. But Jackson says parents don't have to make it easy for them. They don't, for example, have to let their children have computers in their rooms. Remember who's in charge, she warns. Neither parents nor schools should let children set up the administrative rights or parental controls on computers.
Saving Time and Money in Michigan
Peter J. Young talks about professional development, parent communication, funding, and partnerships.
Profile: Peter J. Young, Director of Technology, Rockford Public Schools in Michigan
District Stats: 8,000 students, 16 buildings.
Innovation: Efficient Data Integration.
Example: Integrating the district's eFunds database (through which parents place lunch money into their children's accounts) with the district's food services database so that parents can know exactly what their children have been eating.
Q. Please describe some of your district's recent initiatives.
A. One big thing we are looking at is a lot more automation to integrate disparate systems. For example, consider the handheld student response systems (such as Qwizdom), which supply instant feedback from our students. These systems allow us to export the data to a CSV file, but beyond that there is no automated process to take that information and feed it into a database. We want to be able to take that data and develop an application that can automatically incorporate it into our student information system. If it is an assessment, for example, we may want to put that information directly into our data warehouse. I think that is one of those areas where some companies are lacking. My point is we need to take it a step further and have those applications integrate into existing systems so that as an educator I do not need to re-key information into a data warehouse or into a student information system for grades. I should be able to integrate that data at the push of a button.
Q. How are you streamlining systems?
A. Professional Development.
We are looking at our existing systems and seeing where they currently require human intervention; we want to automate those processes. We are doing this through Web services. To the end-user it is a Web interface, but on the backend we're using SQL databases to tie that information together. A user logs into the application, which takes the credentials from our Novel directory or from our SIS or data warehouse application. Therefore, there is a single sign-on process that will allow pertinent information to be accessed. For example, for staff development, we built a "shopping cart" that allows educators to pick and choose the types of courses they would like to have training in. Their available choice of workshops is to a large part dependent on who the teacher is and what grade level he or she teaches. Based upon that, we set a number of different business rules within the application to offer a specific choice of courses to each teacher. We are able to offer that information to staff automatically and instantaneously by pulling information out of our existing database of teacher information, as well as our Novel network.
We as a district could have used the traditional method of creating a brochure, printing it, then having it couriered to our schools, but we estimate we saved 1,300 man-hours by automating the process. As well, a number of the components of this application can be applied to the other applications we are in the process of building to help tie our systems together.
We are starting to explore deals with workflow. We look at what we do from an operational standpoint regarding how we handle forms. There are a lot of efficiencies to be gained by using technology to process forms, and once a form is processed electronically, [we can] take it to that next step and automate it—for example, integrating it into our financials. It's that kind of seemingly small component, which is actually a big component, that saves several steps and valuable time.
Q. How will parents and community benefit?
A. Our student information system, Skyward, has a family access application that permits parents to look at their children's grades, as well as demographics, scheduling, and the results of assessments. In addition, parents can deposit money for their children into lunch accounts through eFunds. Every student has an account through eFunds; when they purchase lunch that information is recorded. Eventually we want to link that data to our food service database, and be able to tell parents not only how much funding is left in their children's accounts, but also what the children have been eating. In general, we want to look at tie-ins, and give more information to the community by bringing disparate systems together.
Overall, what we want is to be data driven, and in real-time. We want access to information that is pertinent, data that people can use. Pulling together disparate systems helps to do this.
Q. How do you fund your efforts?
A. We are gearing up for a technology bond, and as part of that we are piloting some of the new technologies in our classrooms. There have been some recent articles about the intelligent classroom and what it looks like—wireless, mobility within the classroom, projectors, sound systems, document cameras, interactive whiteboards, tablet workstations. Another big component is mobile labs, bringing the lab to the classroom or somewhere else within or outside the building. We're doing that at our elementary level. We are looking for between 10 and 15 million dollars in technology. Our community, school board, and administration have been unbelievably supportive.
Q. How will you implement these intelligent classrooms?
A. Implementation will be K—12 inclusive. We are utilizing Citrix Thin Client, not just for remote access, but also to access applications internally in lab settings. We feel this will mean lower longterm administrative costs to the district, and we can continue to extend the life of our legacy equipment—as opposed to having traditional workstations that somebody essentially has to touch. Potentially we can take those workstations we have today in a lab setting and move them into classrooms as centers and then use the Citrix technology for that purpose.
Q. What role do vendors play in your district's efforts?
A. I always try to build relationships and partner with vendors, in order to see where technology is heading in the future. We need to think ahead in terms of our bond use: Where do we want to be in a number of years? To do so, I build relationships with vendors, go to briefings, and meet with their high-level people. This helps me to see the trends in technology. For example, Cisco shapes the way we communicate in the world. It is useful to see where they are going, and extrapolate that to education. Our school district has been a pioneer with VoIP, which we've been using for seven years; in addition, we do all of our video distribution over our Ethernet network. These are because we partnered with 3Com to get started. We are looking to take the next leap forward, so we can build upon and leverage our investment.
Seven years ago those technologies were bleeding edge; we are still interested in maintaining an innovative position. We are all about building relationships with people, and with key vendors in the market. If I can get a heads up on where they are investing, where they see technology developing, those are the types of paths that help me figure out where we need to focus some of our attention.
Jeffrey Branzburg is a contributing editor and columnist for T&L.
Vendor SLA Tips
When a district can hammer out the right service-level agreement with a vendor, the payoff is worth the trouble.
Robert Scidmore, director of technology for the 12,000-student Eau Claire Area School District in Wisconsin, and Patrick Simon, chief technology officer for the 22,000-student Hayward Unified School District in California, have put together SLAs that work for them. The two tech administrators offer 10 strategies for success.
1. Make sure key people are at the table during SLA development.
Districts don't want to have only IT people in on the discussion, Scidmore says. At the very least, management-level end-users need to be there so they can collaborate with IT to inform them of exactly what they need.
Take the case of Eau Claire's financial processes. The district uses Bitech products for its accounting system. While the IT department focuses on servers, patches, operating systems, and hardware, the end-users are accountants, payroll, and personnel. They're not that interested in how everything works, Scidmore says. They want to know it's operational—that they can do the payroll run on a given day.
2. Clearly understand what service level to expect, and then understand the cost and practicality issues.
In the case of a server crash, a district might want the vendor onsite within five minutes. That would mean the vendor would need someone there 24/7, which doesn't make sense, Scidmore says.
Together a district and vendor can come up with practical solutions that don't break the bank. Eau Claire has 3,500 HP standardized computers for staff and students. In order to meet the district's uptime requirements, HP provided spare computers, so that a computer can be replaced immediately when necessary.
3. Define the terms.
Hayward has a contract with Xerox for 80 multi-function devices that states what happens if equipment fails or doesn't perform up to expectation and spells out preventive maintenance.
But districts and vendors can define terms differently, Simon pointed out.
Take the example of downtime. With the Xerox equipment, it's the number of coverage hours in any calendar month that a machine can't make copies or print—not due to district misuse, but from equipment failure.
4. Have a well-organized trouble-ticket and call-escalation system.
The SLA must include a way to measure performance.
In Hayward's case, if the Xerox equipment malfunctions and downtime results, there's an online trouble-ticket system that identifies the machine location and time of the problem. A notification is sent to Level 1 for internal maintenance. If a district tech person can't fix it, it goes to Level 2, where a higher-level employee reviews the problem.
The next step is Level 3, which means that a Xerox employee tries to deal with the problem. Level 4 is equipment removal and replacement within an expected timeframe. It's all laid out step-by-step in Hayward's SLA, Simon says.
5. Define performance criteria.
It's critical to know a vendor's average tech-service response time, for example. For the Xerox multifunction device, it's clearly stated as four hours, Simon says.
6. Identify the contact people for the service or vendor.
In dealing with any vendor—whether it's a telecom company, engineering firm, or computer dealer—a district needs to have key people that they contact routinely. They don't want to call an 800 number and talk to who ever answers the phone, as Scidmore says.
Eau Claire works with Berbee for its network electronics. District tech staff knows their account rep and have his office number, cell phone number, and e-mail. If the district needs to talk to other people in the company, the account rep makes sure they know who to contact or has that person contact them.
"It's a model that's somewhat old-fashioned, but you actually have a person that you know," Scidmore says. And when things go south—like when Eau Claire once had to return unsatisfactory elementary curriculum software—it means one person is ultimately responsible.
7. Establish consequences for not meeting the SLA conditions.
It can save money.
Eau Claire did a curriculum-management system adoption a couple of years ago and set deadlines through out the proposed year-and-a-half implementation plan. Then the software vendor got behind schedule.
There were significant costs to the district in teacher training and tech-staff time, Scidmore says. But the agreement specified that the vendor would bear the cost—and they wrote the district checks when deadlines weren't met.
According to Scidmore, the district finally took a complete refund, scrapping the entire effort. The vendor couldn't argue, and the SLA prevented the district from losing money.
8. Do staff development on both teams so that everyone understands the process.
Every Friday, Hayward allots up to four hours of time training for its entire IT staff, says Simon. A Xerox technician, who has access to the district's internal trouble-ticket system, also attends.
9. Review performance reports in regularly scheduled meetings.
Simon and the district's purchasing director met every two weeks with the Xerox customer service manager and tech-support team manager the first six months of the project. Now they meet once a month. In the meetings, they review all reports on machine performance, matching it against the SLA criteria.
10. Hedge your bets. Spell out that products can be returned for any reason.
Eau Claire does just that on its purchase orders for almost every piece of software it buys. Most software companies are reputable and deliver what they promise—but this protects districts from the ones that don't, Scidmore says.