Editor’s Note: Cisco is a customer of the author.
One of my favorite types of briefings is when a supplier brings in customers who tell about how they did the impossible. While these promote a vendor’s merchandise, they also provide a wealth of knowledge about what worked, what didn’t and what people would do differently. Since we will likely have a regular recurrence of pandemics in the years to come, knowing what worked could be useful if we want to improve IT in the future.
Cisco hosted one of these lessons learned events in the Canutillo Independent School District in Texas and in the St. Vrain Valley School District in Colorado. Here are some of what school officials discovered as they tried to keep classes going during the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year.
School / student disconnection
This lack of understanding between school officials and students in Texas was fascinating; initially they did not understand how distressed some of the students were. Oscar Rico, the school district’s executive director of technology, described lots of houses with a meter, a hose to get water, and several mobile homes using the same resource. Parents knew nothing about the technology, there was no broadband, and many families were unable to pay their rent. In many cases, the PC sent in from school was the most expensive system in the house, and parents were afraid of breaking it, so they avoided learning how to use it. Even simple things like connection were beyond them.
It wasn’t just students. Some teachers lived on farms which also lacked adequate connectivity, which made teaching much more complex.
Apple hardware was not a panacea
It is believed that Apple hardware can be used with contactless support, but it was not. Instead, the Texas school answered up to 80 calls per day among some 6,000 users – calls it was not configured to handle. One point to remember: Next time, focus on training school staff early so that everyone can participate in help calls as needed.
Supplier issues and equipment shortages
There wasn’t a lot of love for OEMs other than Cisco. According to Rico, most of the salespeople laughed at what the school wanted to do and said they were trying to be an ISP. They saw the effort as a lousy investment, especially after the state seized the $ 30 million provided by the U.S. government, forcing school officials to secure community funding with a bond issue. What makes Cisco different? He came ready to help. Officials found Cisco’s expertise to be invaluable and, if they did it again, said they would rely more on company advice to avoid mistakes made by decision makers who didn’t understand what was needed. ‘They did.
Among these mistakes: not asking for more material sooner. Shortages were an ongoing problem, as the unnamed hardware service provider that provisioned the PCs could not handle the load. This resulted in delays in equipping everyone as needed. The obvious lesson: Make sure a vendor can handle the provisioning load needed to be successful.
Wi-Fi, mesh networks and distributed telephone systems
In Colorado, one school had a unique problem: Its students were spread over 411 square miles, many in areas not even covered by cell towers. The authorities have therefore set up regional outdoor Wi-Fi access points to provide these students with high-speed access. And they did it in just 10 days.
This led to a different problem: The number of WebEx meetings quickly grew from a few per day to thousands. In anticipation of the next crisis, school officials are setting up a large-scale wireless mesh network to reach all students while keeping the network load manageable.
With everyone suddenly working from home, phone systems had to be switched so that incoming calls could be routed to receptionists working from home and then redirected to the homes of those the callers were trying to reach. This has made it possible to streamline communications between parents and students and school officials.
Sometimes solutions don’t need to be based on technology alone. Students wanted in-person instruction and felt depressed and isolated, so Colorado officials held occasional outdoor classes when the weather permitted. This allowed for face-to-face time with the students and was much safer than the classroom sessions.
By the way, according to Michelle Bourgeois, Technical Director of the St. Vrain Valley School District, many teachers chose to continue working from home because they were more efficient. This reflects a lot of what has happened in the business world, as employees who got used to remote working last year are eager to continue doing so this year and into the next year.
Unsurprisingly, Colorado school officials were concerned about cybersecurity, fearing that a successful attack could derail the entire effort. As a result, they ended up using Cisco Umbrella security software, which had little IT administrative overhead and proved effective during the distance education pivot. The system covered both the network and the home computers.
After hearing how these two school officials maneuvered last year to keep the schools operational – one which had its public funding and the other which had students spread over hundreds of miles – I regretted that the presentation is not public. Both deserved a standing ovation for the fantastic job they have done.
As for the lessons learned, these generally apply to businesses as well as school districts: pre-train staff to deal with the new remote environment, choose experienced suppliers, focus on solving the problem rather than selling, understand the problems facing students, and craft an equally unique solution. Anticipate shortages, choose service providers who can scale appropriately, prioritize security, and find a way to safely give students face-to-face time.
If everyone starts planning for the next pandemic now and learns these lessons, it will be a lot easier for us to move on to learning from home (and working from home) next time around. And, rest assured.
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