How schools can combine academic success, admin effectiveness and efficient technology without breaking the bank

:Years ago, to get rid of “data” all a teacher needed to do was erase the blackboard. Now, as most schools depend on multi-user computer labs, provide a multitude of devices, and maintain highly integrated technology networks, the need to preserve a relative homogenous environment not only supports effective teaching platforms, but is critical in maintaining a compliant and secure landscape.

In many ways, educational institutions are like large corporations which support many employees, partners, vendors, and clients. Students, teachers, administrators, even parents require access to certain assets, use a variety of devices and, therefore, create a degree of chaos if not properly managed.

The most blatant source for breach and other problematic issues is in computer labs. A single device is typically used by multiple people throughout a single day. Despite stated log in/out protocols and usage restrictions, the ability to make unauthorized changes that might affect the entire network is heightened. Multiply this exponentially by the number of devices in a single lab and a number of labs across campus or campuses. That’s a lot of fingerprints at the crime scene, Sherlock!

However, many campus IT professionals are finding that maintaining a “working state for each classroom and lab is an effective way to battle against user carelessness, intentional damage, and lingering static entries. This “working state” is a controlled and uncorrupted alpha version of the ideal image. By simply rebooting a machine, any changes made during the session are reverted back to the ideal state.

For the past several years, a large central Florida state college (four campuses and 30,000 enrolled students in Central Florida) has applied this strategy to the majority of its controlled devices. After surviving a prolific virus, the college’s IT staff recognized that the labs which promoted the ideal state imaging were self-healed after a single reboot—as if the problem never existed. The other devices (that did not have the Persystent protection) across the campuses required a very time-consuming and invasive reimaging process. The cost was in the tens of thousands.

More than a layer of security, the “working state” also wipes the slate clean after every class. Several of the college’s Computer Science courses are hands-on.  Course curriculum requires students to install or manipulate applications, adjust registry settings, and re-engineer portions of operating systems. Once class is dismissed, another class arrives for a similar lesson. If the system cannot be returned to a “working state,” each subsequent class is building on the work of previous and creating a Gordian Knot of code and chaos. The same strategy that keeps the device free from intrusion is also responsible for maintaining the ideal state on which to build curriculum. A simple reboot gets the device ready for the next class. And, when it comes time to update, upgrade or patch certain applications, the same time-saving process applies.

Schools are not only centers of learning, but also employ large and diverse staffs. In fact, many universities and school districts are the largest employers in their counties and regions. In this respect, their IT environment must perform like that of a corporation. Each role; from the cafeteria manager ordering more French fries, to financial aid officers running credit checks; to professors accessing a content portal for submitted homework; require different applications and access points. Therefore a variety of images need to be maintained towards the goal of administrative efficacy as well as state and federal compliance. The overarching issue here is not the continuous maintenance of an image, but the cost-effective way it needs to be propagated.

If an organization the size of the central Florida college can expect to experience more than 100,000 issues per year, the annual projected costs would be north of half-a-million dollars in technology and personnel expenses.  Yet, by applying an automatic, self-healing reboot to an ideal state such time-consuming issues like troubleshooting, break/fix application, updates/upgrades and migration can be greatly mitigated. This is not implying technology and administrative problems disappear, but the savings towards their remediation is noteworthy and immediately impactful.

For instance, educational institutions are open to abuse as any corporation; sometimes even more so. With so many access points, and devices, managing the landscape is like trying to herd cats. Beyond the administrative issues, there are those who, for one reason or another, engage in what we’ll call “mischief.”  Again the aforementioned Florida school serves as our example. Last year, they experienced an internal breach. Someone hacked the local administrative passwords on several devices in their campus library and changed it. This went on for weeks as the culprits moved from machine to machine. Obviously this made it impossible for anyone to use the affected device and a precarious crack in the security of the network. When discovered, it required a technician to be dispatched and apply a restored image with the original configuration.  By applying the automated configuration, the damage was extremely limited and the personnel cost moved almost to zero.

In terms of refreshing configuration, laptops, tablets and desktops are not the only uniquely educational devices that require monitoring. Many professors are using audience response systems like iClicker to interact with large auditorium classes. These items are like mini-handheld computers that use the password encoded network to connect and respond to a professor’s presentation. With potentially hundreds of devices in the hands of students requiring direct access, the issues with passwords, privileges, settings and other technical issues are compounded.

Most education institutions are cash-strapped or, at the very least, conservatively cost-conscious. It is the successful schools that find and incorporate improved ways to meld academic success, administrative effectiveness and an efficient technology backbone; all without breaking the bank. The easiest way to accomplish this lofty goal is to reduce the instances that potentially impact productivity, drain budgets, and force reassessment of IT priorities. The self-healing properties of automated configuration management allow such instances to be reduced by more than 75%. If that is truly the case (and it is!), there are more resources and more time to devote to higher value tasks.

The issues facing the college in our example are the same that vex Harvard, USC, Palomar Community College and John F. Kennedy High School.  Technology with all of its peaks and pitfalls is increasingly integrated into managing, applying and interacting with curriculum. Keeping this space optimally operational is not a best practice, it is Job One.

 Addressing configuration management in such a way is like boats in a lake after a rain. The water causes everything to rise in equal measure.  An automated backend reduces help desk calls, satisfies administrative compliance through the demonstration of certain controls, extends the lifecycle of the hardware and software, and facilitates student learning.

Though each school may have unique applications and approaches, the need to maintain a continuous ideal state is a common way to fulfill the promise of ensuring the curriculum relies on the teacher, not the technology.

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