Editor’s note: Cisco is a client of the author.
One of my favorite kinds of briefings is when a vendor brings in customers who talk about how they did the impossible. While these do promote a vendor’s wares, they also provide a wealth of knowledge about what worked, what didn’t, and what folks would do differently. Given that we are likely to have a regular recurrence of pandemics n the years ahead, knowing what worked could be useful if we want to improve IT in the future.
Cisco had one of these events focused on lessons learned at the Canutillo Independent School District in Texas and at the St. Vrain Valley School District in Colorado. Here’s some of what school officials found out as they tried to keep classes up and running during the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year.
The school/student disconnect
This lack of understanding between school officials and students in Texas was fascinating; they initially didn’t understand how distressed some students were. Oscar Rico, the executive director of technology for the school district, described house lots with one meter, a hose to get water from, and multiple mobile homes using the same resource. Parents didn’t know anything about technology, there was no broadband, and many families were unable to pay rent. In many cases, the PC sent out by the school was the most expensive system in the home, and parents were scared they might break it, so they avoided learning how to use it. Even simple things like logging in were beyond them.
It wasn’t just students. Some of the teachers lived on farms that lacked adequate connectivity as well, making teaching far more complex.
Apple hardware wasn’t a panacea
It’s believed that Apple hardware can be used with zero-touch support, but that was not the case. Instead, the Texas school fielded up to 80 calls a day from among some 6,000 users — calls it was not set up to support. One takeaway: next time focus on early training for school personnel so everyone can pitch in on support calls as needed.
Vendor issues and hardware shortages
There wasn’t much love for OEMs except for Cisco. According to Rico, most vendors laughed at what the school wanted to do and said it was trying to be an ISP. They saw the effort as a lousy investment, especially after the state seized the $30 million provided by the US Government, forcing school officials to get funding from the community with a bond issue. What made Cisco different? It came in willing to help. Officials discovered Cisco’s expertise to be invaluable and, were they do to this again, said they would rely more on the company’s advice to avoid mistakes made by decision-makers who didn’t understand what they were doing.
Among those mistakes: not pushing for more hardware sooner. Shortages were an ongoing issue as the unnamed hardware services vendor that provisioned the PCs couldn’t handle the load. That led to delays in equipping everyone as needed. The obvious lesson: make sure a vendor can handle the provisioning load needed for success.
Wi-Fi, mesh networks and distributed phone systems
In Colorado, one school had a unique problem: its students were spread over 411 square miles, many in areas not even covered by cellular towers. So officials set up regional outdoor Wi-Fi access points to provide those students with broadband access. And they did it in just 10 days.
That led to a different issue: the number of WebEx meetings quickly jumped from a few a day to thousands. In preparation for the next crisis, school officials are putting in place a large-scale wireless mesh network to reach all students while keeping network loading manageable.
With everyone suddenly working from home, telephone systems had to be switched so that inbound calls could go to receptionists working from home and then be forwarded to the homes of whomever the callers were trying to reach. This helped streamline the communications between parents and students and school officials.
Sometimes, solutions don’t need to rely solely on technology. Students wanted in-person instruction and were feeling depressed and isolated, so Colorado officials set up occasional outdoor classes when the weather permitted. This allowed for needed facetime with students and was far safer than in-class sessions.
As a side note, according to Michelle Bourgeois, the CTO for the St. Vrain Valley School District, many teachers elected to keep working from home because they were more effective. That mirrors much of what has happened in the business world as employees who got used to remote working last year are eager to continue doing it this year and next.
Not surprisingly Colorado school officials were concerned about cybersecurity, fearing that a successful attack could have derailed the entire effort. As a result, they wound up using the Cisco Umbrella security software, which had little IT admin overhead and proved successful during the remote schooling pivot. The system covered both the network and PCs in the home.
After hearing how these two school officials had maneuvered last year to keep schools up and running — one who had his state funding yank and the other who had students spread out over hundreds of miles — I was sorry the presentation wasn’t public. Both deserved a standing ovation for the fantastic work they did.
As for the lessons learned, they generally apply to companies as well as school districts: pre-train staffers to deal with the new remote environment, picking vendors with experience, focus on solveing the problem rather than selling stuff, understand the issues facing students, and craft an equally unique solution. Anticipate shortages, choose service providers that can appropriately scale, prioritize security, and find a way to give students face -to-face time safely.
If everyone begins planning for the next pandemic now and learns these lessons, we’ll have a far easier time shifting to home learning (and work from home) next time. And,rest assured.